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Listening Essays - Ruben Pater

Ruben Pater
6 min read
10 Feb 2023

For a series Listening Essays, STRP invited artists from her network to reflect on this year's theme (The Art of Listening) and explore new perspectives, raise interesting questions, give personal interpretations or share ideas. Read the next essay by designer, writer and teacher Ruben Pater below.

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Horizon Workroom in Meta

Dreams in Ruins: The Metaverse Sounds Great Until You Have to Work in it

The pandemic radically changed office work. Those who could work from home had to balance exhausting video calls while caring for the sick. While the manufacturing and service industry were suffering, digital platforms emerged as the economic victors. The pandemic has taught companies a valuable lesson; remote work platforms and digital entertainment remain profitable in times of crisis. In what has been called a ‘post-pandemic opportunity’, companies are now heavily investing in virtual reality (VR) platforms. When the next crisis arrives, we may find ourselves working in the metaverse.
The New Normal is Virtual
First, what we call the ‘metaverse’ is actually a series of shared and immersive augmented reality (AR) and VR spaces. Companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google are investing heavily in this ‘embodied internet’, but it is mostly Meta (formerly Facebook), who is pouring a staggering $100 billion into its development. Since billions of users are already connected to Meta’s services (WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram), it may be difficult to resist it completely once it takes off.

New virtual worlds will need to be designed, and it should come as no surprise that the metaverse has grasped the attention of designers. Conferences, projects, events, and courses on design and the metaverse have emerged in recent years. Take LEELA by The Fabricant, a VR fashion collection which won a Dutch Design Award in 2021. The jury called it ‘a new business model for the post-pandemic fashion industry’.[1] The website Your Majesty wrote that LEELA: ‘provides people with new ways to express their ever-changing identities while remaining environmentally conscious.’. [2] False Mirror Eclipse is another project that was nominated. About this immersive world the jury wrote that it: ‘examines cohabitation scenarios in VR’, asking: ‘how would we live if we were not hindered by language barriers, geography and social hierarchy’.[3]
Honey, I am Going to the Infinite Office
Clearly, designers prefer to focus on the creative freedom of the metaverse, and to experiment with fluid identities that aren’t cis-normative and oppressive as in the real world. Unfortunately this won’t be enough for the companies that have invested hundreds of billions. The metaverse will need to be profitable, which is why it is mostly presented as our future office. Meta has Horizon Workrooms and Infinite Office, and the VR version of Microsoft Teams is called Enterprise Metaverse. No experimental avatars are allowed in the virtual office, because companies have made it clear that work avatars are strictly regulated for the sake of corporate decorum. Horizon Workrooms shows childish, cartoonish avatars. Not surprising with Silicon Valley’s obsession with eternal youth. Note that this is an industry where people over 30 have plastic surgery done to stay hireable.[4]

But what would work look like in the metaverse? We might have flexible hours and work from home, but we will be monitored constantly. The VR helmets that we will be wearing do not only measure body movements, but also pupil dilations and facial expressions. One founder of a VR company boasts that it can ‘unlock human emotion’.[5] Meta talks about ‘features that increase your productivity in an immersive office that’s free from distractions’. [6]
So no more zoning out during meetings or checking your social media at work; virtual offices promise higher productivity precisely because of real-time surveillance.
The Metaverse is Material
During the pandemic working from home was mostly available for the wealthier and higher educated workers. The virtual office is great when you live in rural areas or if you have disabilities or impairments, but you still need a high-speed internet connection and a VR headset; currently priced between $400 and $1.799. This means the metaverse will mostly be available for the privileged. In addition, if it were ever built on the intended scale, the metaverse would require 1,000 times the current computing power, and 900 times the minerals and resources.[7] While a wealthy minority will be able to work remotely, the less privileged regions of the world would likely have to serve as mining zones and server farms locations.

We know that AR/VR has many useful applications, and it has done so for decades in healthcare and for simulation software. Let’s learn from what happened with Instagram and Facebook and not work with platforms built by for-profit multinationals. As designers, we should be careful not to become accomplices to capitalisms’ next move to profit from a world in crisis just because we want a piece of it. Instead, we could build on infrastructures that are for everyone, not just the few—by using open-source software and eco-friendly low-bandwidth technologies. Otherwise we might end up having to work in the same virtual office hellscape that we helped to design in the first place.