The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What a creepy photo of Mark Zuckerberg says about our dystopian tech future

In the photo, Mark Zuckerberg is half-smiling, dazed, as if he can’t quite fathom the spectacle he has achieved. He’s striding past his peons, heel-toe down the carpeted center aisle, as they swivel and grimace, oblivious to his presence, in their own virtual realities.

[What to expect from virtual reality in 2016]

Later, when the assembled journalists take the headsets off — they’re Samsung Gear VR headsets, for the record, and this is the Mobile World Congress in Spain — they’ll be amazed to realize that Zuckerberg is there; they’ll rush him for quotes and photos onstage. Much later, people on the network that Zuckerberg invented will start passing this photo around. It looks like “1984,” they say, or that 1984 Apple ad; it reminds them of “The Matrix,” in which humans grow in amniotic pods and experience the “world” via a plug in their heads.

Zuckerberg has said that, in his vision for the future, these virtual experiences will be fundamentally social. But the photo suggests something quite different: Hundreds of people share a physical space, but no perception, no experience, no phenomenological anchor. The communality of a conference (literally from conferre, “to bring together”) is thrown over for a series of hyper-individualized bubbles. And you’re reminded, from Zuckerberg’s awkward semi-smile, that the man who owns the bubbles also owns what’s in them. That controlling virtual reality, in other words, is only a step from controlling reality itself.

Then again, Zuckerberg arguably does that already. There’s just nothing particularly photogenic about the News Feed and its constant, imperceptible updates.

“In the age of advanced technology,” wrote the media theorist Neil Postman, “spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face.”

Liked that? Try these: