TIME Innovation

Raph Koster on Facebook-Oculus: You’re Just Another Avatar in Someone Else’s MMO

A gamer uses an Oculus virtual reality headset at the Eurogamer Expo 2013 in London.
A gamer uses an Oculus virtual reality headset at the Eurogamer Expo 2013 in London, September 26, 2013. Leon Neal—AFP/Getty Images

The Facebook-Oculus deal, for all the good it might do, requires that we all start paying much closer attention to ownership and control of virtual spaces.

Former Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies lead Raph Koster has the most insightful and incisive piece I’ve yet seen on the Facebook/Oculus VR deal. Instead of worrying about Mark Zuckerberg’s gaming cred or the integrity of Oculus’ Kickstarter or whether Google should have swooped in first or what $2 billion means relative to anyone else’s VR war chest, Koster zooms out to offer a perceptive overview of the underlying currents defining near and future computing trends, and the problematic artifacts that accompany those trends.

In Koster’s view, computing’s near-future is essentially “wearable” versus “annotated.” You’re either plugging stuff into your person to augment (or simulate) your reality, or carrying stuff around that places interpretive brackets around it. The difference between the two notions is academic, of course, and Koster says both camps — currently shaped by competing commercial visions that have as much to do with molding consumer interest as tapping it — can’t escape the black hole tug that’ll eventually draw them together.

About this, Koster says:

One is the mouth, the other the ears. One is the poke, the other the skin. And then we’re in a cyberpunk dream of ads that float next to us as we walk, getting between us and the other people, our every movement mined for Big Data.

What does it mean when companies as vast as Facebook or Google or Apple have this level of access to and control over the way we interface with anything, conventional notions of reality or otherwise? It means…well, trouble, because it’s already causing trouble via the pre-VR, pre-”presence” social network-driven personal desire assimilation engines that live in our cars, houses, workspaces and pockets.

I’m not a libertarian privacy-at-all-costs wingnut committed to a wildly idealistic impossibility. I see the philosophical cracks in some of these very old, culturally bound presumptions about what privacy ought to be, as if humans were self-sustaining islands in some mythic state of equilibrium capable of inhabiting this planet without imposition of any sort on another (ultimate privacy is, in fact, another way of describing a form of sociopathy). Mark Zuckerberg isn’t wrong when he’s said that privacy as we know it (or ideally expect it) has to change, and that that’s symptomatic of a technology-fueled (which is to say fundamentally us-driven) paradigm shift.

But the most important question in this barrier-cracking worldview, where we inject all that we are into someone’s calculating server farm, is this: Who has ultimate ownership of that technology?

In an ideal world, virtual reality would probably be open source, broadly distributed, and all this looming virtual turf would be owned (or data-mined, or suffused with overt or subliminal ads) by no one. But suggest as much and you’re basically ringing a bell for arguments about the so-called risk-takers and venture capitalists and entrepreneurial geniuses necessary to make all that looming virtu-topia possible, because true or no, that narrative’s drawn from as old and deeply embedded a cultural playbook as exists.

That question’s at the crux of the issue Koster’s getting at when he says the Facebook/Oculus deal isn’t about rendering (that is, geeky cool visual stuff) so much as it is about “placeness.” It’s about ownership, specifically ownership of cloud-space.

Virtual reality in that sense is going to be as boundless as a processor farm’s prowess and a design team’s imagination. It’s perhaps most poignantly the vision Tad Williams shares in his Otherland series, but it’s also there in Neal Stephenson and William Gibson and Bruce Sterling and all the countless others, in particular post-1980s-VR artists and thinkers, who’ve grappled with the question in one form or another. It’s a vision of the future in which extremely powerful, functionally opaque institutions compete for our attention in unfathomably vast virtual emporiums that, yes, may well start with something as innocuous-sounding as mountain climbing and concert-going (say in Facebook’s case). But how quickly does that move on to wish fulfillment (which is where it risks becoming narcotic), where it’s simultaneously mining our hopes, dreams, desires and eventually every measurable detail of our lives?

“It’s about who owns the servers,” says Koster. “The servers that store your metrics. The servers that shout the ads. The servers that transmit your chat. The servers that geofence your every movement.”

And then:

It’s time to wake up to the fact that you’re just another avatar in someone else’s MMO. Worse. From where they stand, all-powerful Big Data analysts that they are, you look an awful lot like a bot.

Paranoia about what companies are doing with your data today may be overstated, in that I’m pretty sure no one cares what I say on the phone or send through email in the here-and-now. But healthy paranoia, if such a thing exists, involves educated hypothesizing (that is, extrapolating based on historical precedent). There’s certainly precedent for virtual reality, since the latter’s still going to be constrained by our imaginations. In this 21st century pre-singularity moment, we’re still as human as we’ve ever been. The problems we’ll have to deal with when we strap things on our faces and start to reify what we’re already capable of doing when we close our eyes and dream are going to be the same problems we’ve been dealing with for millennia, however amplified or fetishized or distorted.

Grappling with something as far flung (and yet simultaneously present) as global warming isn’t about solving those problems today, it’s about considering a tomorrow many of us won’t see. It’s about understanding the scale involved with addressing those problems, about thinking longterm instead of excusing inaction based on human ephemeralness. The kinds of things Koster worries about won’t happen overnight, but gradually — so gradually that the shifts can be imperceptible. The dystopian futures that seem so reprehensible in the best speculative fiction don’t arrive like fleets of hostile aliens, galvanizing us to action, and Koster’s future in which we’re an avatar in someone else’s MMO is already partly here. In a 2007 interview about his book Spook Country, William Gibson said “it’s hard to write science fiction anymore when reality is so unbelievable.”

I’m excited about Oculus VR’s tech. I can’t wait for my devkit to arrive this summer. But as Koster puts it, “I’m a lot more worried about whose EULA is going to govern my life.”

Me too.

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