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

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Our AR future could be an advertising and social hellscape

Mark Zuckerberg Delivers Keynote Address At Facebook F8 Conference Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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?)

zuckerberg-mwc Photo: Facebook

In fact, I’d argue 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 inch of wall space becomes an AR canvass for corporate messaging, or Tinder releases an AR add-on powered by facial recognition that lets you identify and swipe on strangers you see on the street.

Facebook didn’t shy away from the marketing opportunities AR provides. In fact, it embraced the idea that you could hover your viewfinder over a restaurant and be told its Yelp rating, or find messages your friends leave you in public locales by peering through the camera lens on Facebook’s app. It seems clear that for every consumer benefit AR provides, there will also be a corporate one designed to exploit our attention, extract our wants and needs, and attempt to sell us products.

Right now, AR is restricted to the silly and playful. We have camera masks that give us cat ears and style transfers that turn selfies into impressionist paintings. But it’s not farfetched to see where it might all be headed in the future, in both expected and unexpected directions.

Facebook VP Deborah Liu shows off an AR concept where a Yelp-style review and a suggestion from a friend are overlaid over a real-life scene.
Photo: Facebook

As my colleague Adi Robertson wrote yesterday, even simple tools like AR makeup seem like such obviously useful applications of the tech that it’s hard to imagine it not taking off and becoming the norm, at least for when you’re using Facebook Live or Snapchat. From there you could imagine a world where it’s hard to tell what or who is even real at any given moment, just like a post-Photoshop world calls into question the veracity of static 2D photography. “Just how much will people be able to doctor the photos that appear in their feeds?” writes BuzzFeed’s Nitasha Tiku. “And will the people who see them know they’ve been manipulated?”

Of course, then there’s the ability to augment every object, including another person, with data culled from the internet. We already rate everything these days: the dating apps we use; the contract drivers who take us to work; every meal we eat out; every customer service experience we have. As The Verge’s Josh Dzieza wrote in the fall of 2015, the on-demand economy has turned us into over-sensitive and hypercritical bosses, determining on a whim whether someone’s performance in even the most benign of interactions is worthy of a much-sought-after five-star rating.

Thinking about this and its connections to real AR on the horizon, I’m reminded of “Nosedive.” The unsettling season three premiere episode of Black Mirror showcased a world where every product, service, and life opportunity — where you live, where you work, who your friends are — is dictated by your placement on a 5.0 scale. This number is presented any time someone waves their phone at you. Any sleight, no matter how trivial or imagined, can get you docked a few fractions of a point, the equivalent of a plummet in your credit score, or in Shteyngart's twisted fiction, your Hotness rating.

Photo: Netflix

It was a deeply frightening episode not just because its illustration of society felt so close to reality, but because the hardware and software required did too. “Nosedive” wasn’t imagining a world where we have AR glasses or optical implants. There wasn’t some evil class of corporate elites exploiting consumers for personal gain, or an oppressive government interested in forcing people to conform to a single standard of congenial interaction.

The episode featured just a phone, powered by software that understands what it’s looking at, that nonetheless gets used to reduce people to a face on a screen and a numerical figure. We don’t have to speculate what it would take for this type of tech to arrive in the real world. It’s already here.