Facebook’s plans to augment reality are as dystopian as they are smart

Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story feels more prescient every year. The 2010 dystopian fiction novel imagined a world where holographic, smartphone-like devices called äppäräts project everyone’s personal information all of the time, while a mammoth world-spanning social network called GlobalTeens stratifies society by their looks and net worth.

In Shteyngart’s not-too-distant future, everyone is ranked with ludicrous metrics like Hotness and Fuckability, on credit score-esque scales out of 800. Society is forever on the brink of economic collapse, and yet the tech-obsessed populace worries only about its corporate status and the availability of life extension and cosmetic surgery. The novel, which ended up inadvertently predicting Google Glass and even Occupy Wall Street to some extent, now feels like it keeps telling dark truths about the time we live in, seven years after it was published.

Take, for instance, Facebook’s recent proclamation that the smartphone camera will be the world’s first ubiquitous augmented reality platform. CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained the vision on Tuesday, during his company’s F8 developer conference, in his well-meaning and rehearsed geniality as a way to merge the digital and the physical in new ways. That’s always been the mission at Facebook: to connect people, digitally, in ways they could never do in the physical realm. With AR, which can overlay virtual images onto our everyday surroundings, this blend of the real and non-real is supposed to bring us new ways to share, communicate, and experience the world.

But AR is also a clear path toward the type of dysfunction Shteyngart so eloquently illustrated in his biting satire. We often hear about virtual reality, and not the augmented variety, as the scary technology on the horizon. It’s easy to look at Ready Player One-inspired fears of escapism, where we all dine on Soylent, never leave our homes, and avoid physical contact for extended periods of time. VR and all of its cyberpunk beginnings also have direct throughlines to The Matrix and other popular forms of speculative dystopian fiction. (I mean, who could forget that disturbing photo of Zuckerberg last year, amid a sea of headset-wearing audience members looking like an army of slavish corporate citizens?)


Photo: Facebook

But in fact, it’s AR that provides the vastly more real, immediate, and frightening route to dystopian tropes that VR — as an expensive hardware hobby years away from the mainstream — could never yield. Ubiquitous and free-to-use AR built right into our smartphones is fast approaching. That paves the way for aggressive advertising overlaid over every inch of our line of sight, and the kinds of public ranking systems that split society into the have’s and have not’s. You could imagine a future where every…

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