From metaverse to pyroverse. Caution: this episode contains strong language

Recorded just a week after Facebook’s rebranding announcement, this latest episode of the SmallDataForum podcast is less about “Greeks bearing gifts”, and more about the Greek and other connotations of Meta, the new company brand bringing together all of Facebook’s apps and technologies for the leap into the metaverse – although this wouldn’t be the first time Facebook’s commercial strategy is being likened to a Trojan Horse.

In keeping with the Classic Greek theme, and the various meanings of meta – some of which appeared to have been overlooked by the rebranding strategists, such as the word meaning death in Hebrew – I share my thoughts on Facebook’s After/Underworld cast, with Mark Zuckerberg as Hades, Nick Clegg as Cerberus, and Sheryl Sandberg – well I’m undecided between Hecate and Persephone. Much to the amusement of classicist Sam, whose knowledge of the Odyssey and the Book of the Dead is a lot more profound, than mine.

Mark Zuckerberg as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, courtesy of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Walt Disney, and Ingram Pinn in the Financial Times

For Sam, this is less about mythology, and more about good old crookery: a classic misdirection strategy by “pound shop table magician” Mark Zuckerberg to make Facebook’s manifold legacy problems disappear down the magician’s hat. Kevin Roose at the New York Times calls it Mark Zuckerberg’s Escape Hatch, to rebrand himself as “above-it-all-futurist … a visionary technologist rather than a destroyer of democracy.”

While Neville muses that this must drive business for Meta, the little Neapolitan town in Campania, Sam quotes fellow cranky media world observer Mark Ritson, for whom Zuckerberg’s launch show amounted to not much more than “flaccid future porn”. Over at Mediatel News, Dominic Mills’s take on Facebook’ s Meta rebrand is that it might well be “consignia’d to history”.

As Neville rightly observes, everyone has an opinion, some more informed than others, some civil, some not so much:

@adcontrarian Bob Hoffman as always doesn’t pull punches

On a more serious note, of course this is driven by commercial self-interest.

Sam detects “peripheral envy” re the capabilities of Google and Apple with their hardware dominance and operating system duopoly. What else would Zuckerberg refer to when he announces the “disruption of established interests”?

Unlike so many agitated critics, Wall Street reacted kindly, and for now Frances Haugen  and other whistleblowing revelations seem to have been pushed back to the fringes of the metaverse. In fact, Sir Nick Clegg head of public Meta affairs, that peerless rhetorician and master of the multiple alliteration, declared recently that Facebook/Meta was really mainly about “babies, BBQs and bar mitzvahs.” In some urban parts of the US, that is probably even true. In Myanmar, not so much.

Ever on the sharp edge of tech developments, Neville reveals his secret existence on Second Life: “it’s not a game, it’s a virtual world”, emphasising that it’s “an experiment in virtual living”.

It’s fascinating, but it’s not for me – all a bit too close to Mark’s magic meta forest where koi fish can jump out of the river and fly (paraphrasing Charlie Warzel’s beautifully acerbic Met Averse piece). Sorry Mark, you can’t have them all – but then I was never on Facebook in the first place.

More on the metaverse and AI in our next episode, including Stuart Russell’s 2021 BBC Reith Lecture, and a fascinating take on AI by two Chinese former Google executives in their sci-fi-novel-cum-factual-critique-cum-scientific-forecast, AI 2041.  

Marketoonist Tom Fishburne on the metaverse

Over in the real world of anthropogenic climate change, there’s COP26 and a barrage of pledges, agreements and announcements to discuss – so far so good-ish is the BBC’s cautious verdict.

Of course, we join the long list of critical-sceptical observers: Neville expects little from international intergovernmental events from Davos to COP, and Sam points to a recent Guardian article about Shell and BP paying zero tax on North Sea gas and oil.

And then there was Shell CEO Ben von Beurden explaining in a BBC interview that the cash from the oil and gas business was needed to fund the company’s green energy plans. Perhaps Mark Carney, UN special envoy on finance and head of a coalition of finance group committing $130tn (that’s a number with thirteen zeros…) can help out?

In the meantime, the young activists led by Greta Thunberg can be forgiven for their anger and cynicism.

34 years after the Brundtland Report Our Common Future declared so beautifully that “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, COP26 is led by a former climate-sceptical newspaper columnist whose go-to expert on the climate used to be astrophysicist-meteorologist-climate-and-vaccine-sceptic and brother of Jeremy, Piers Corbyn.

Not such a good look when you’re trying to lead the line to come back from 5:1 down at half-time. Though apparently, we’re already at 5:3 and might yet avoid the fate of the Roman Empire.

“You can shove your climate crisis…”

While the occasionally maskless and awakeless Prime Minister (see our feature image) was challenged by CNN’s Christine Amanpour (and surprisingly answerless, for once), Greta and friends broke out in a jolly footie chant, suggesting that the assembled elites “stick your climate crisis up your arse”.

Which, as Neville rightly observed, might send something of a mixed message. Though I think we all know what they meant.

The SmallDataForum will reconvene for a Christmas Special (if not specials…) in December.

Listen to Episode 51

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