Horizon Workrooms promises a virtual future of teal despair

Only one company can make VR so bad it makes MS Teams look good – Facebook


Opinion You can say a lot about Facebook's insane parasitism of human society. Like the fungus that infects an ant and takes over its nervous system, making it climb to the top of a plant and erupt in an explosion of spores, Facebook has mindlessly evolved to exploit us with maximal efficiency.

There is no moral guiding the act of hyper-categorising people and feeding them to whatever entity wants them most, but it delivers cash. So it will be done. Democracy may falter as a result, pitting families against themselves in a new civil culture war, but the spreadsheet looks good.

Yet Horizon Workrooms, Facebook's new big idea for VR office space, is somehow worse. It encapsulates a paucity of imagination and self-awareness that goes beyond the risible and the banal into the truly horrific.

Facebook's vision is of a PowerPoint deck thrust into your eyeballs forever...

"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever," said Orwell of the dystopian state of 1984. How outdated. Facebook's vision is of a PowerPoint deck thrust into your eyeballs forever, in a simulacrum of an airless room, surrounded by simulacra of those trapped in there with you. Forever.

It is so horrible because it comes at the very moment we had engineered our escape. Virtual reality lets us conjure up any environment we wish and enter it at will – amid Jupiter's diamond rainstorms, or floating in Devonian seas surrounded by a thousand incredible creatures, or in the hushed hallways of the Library of Alexandria.

And while the pandemic has taken so much from us, it has given us a fantastic freedom, the proof that we can do good collaborative work while in the unsupervised liberty of our personal spaces, without it bringing the business world to its knees.

We have invented godlike powers over space, time and perception, and we have earned our escape from the confines of corporate convention. It should be a turning point in society and economics, a jewelled pivot in human experience. And what does Facebook do with this defining moment of new potential? It reinvents the office meeting, the absolute epitome of everything we have paid with blood to leave.

It's not even a nice office. It's a dreadful cookie-cutter lowest-common-denominator office of swivel chairs and blond wood tables, with a big screen at one end and Nothing But Office everywhere you look. At least make it look like the Establishment Gothic of Eldon Tyrell's office in Blade Runner, with massive spaces and automatic blinds to shut out the burning city, and an artificial owl. Would it hurt you to give us an artificial owl, Facebook?

Even the name is a sick, sick joke. Horizon Workrooms. Presumably they'll come in Horizon Workhouses. The one thing you do not get in an office meeting room is horizon. You might get milestones and goals and targets, but horizons? They're for making you wonder what if, asking what's over there, dreaming enough to go and look. Facebook's answer is an airless, corporate, unmitigated office. There is no horizon. There is no escape. There will be no dreams.

And that no escape clause is significant. We have all evolved ways to mitigate the appalling presenteeism of existing video conferencing systems. The careful muting so we can enjoy a few moments of our preferred soundscape or personal noise creation. The camera angle that lets us glance away. The teapot with craft IPA. But strapped into our headsets, with every head-twitch relayed? Our real environment carefully screened out? It is the crating of our intellect, the battery farming of our soul, the office cubicle formed into a perfect seal.

Fortunately, this will not happen. Companies are not going to buy us all headsets just to lock us up, when they can do it quite well enough with Teams. Facebook and Microsoft are never going to work together to give it even the pretence of managed, integrated, deployable IT.

Even the most boosterish of back-to-work management will notice that spending very long in VR makes you queasy, and that it's much harder to do any sort of detailed work in there than in almost any other way.

VR hasn't taken off because, well, it's really not there yet, and it may never be. You can certainly go tobogganing down the glaciers of Pluto, but you can't mark up a document at the same time, Or perhaps you can – but Facebook is never going to think it worth finding out.

What Horizon Workrooms is, then, is a warning. A peek into the horrible inhuman void of Facebook's vision for the future. It is our generation's 1984, except without plot, substance or wit; it is merely the giant billboard stretching a thousand feet into the sky screaming These People Are Not To Be Trusted. That, by far, is the most real thing about it. ®

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