When cyberpunk authors like Philip K Dick and William Gibson envisioned the future that capitalism would produce, the result was often a grimy dystopia of coin-operated access to a world of vast possibilities produced by rapidly emerging technologies. Rather than opening up new vistas of human possibility, each technological advancement was an opportunity for commodification and co-opting by exploitative powers.
While the coin-op part didn’t pan out, it’s remarkable how these authors accurately predicted the rise of paywalls and microtransactions that dominate our digital world. Maybe these are simply the costs of advancement, or even a valuable way for content producers to get compensation for their work, but there’s also a sense of cultural impoverishment, that we can’t possibly create new, virtual worlds without filling them with another layer of consumerism.
The most recent installment of capitalism imitating art comes from Oculus, a VR gaming platform created by Palmer Luckey that Facebook acquired in 2017. On June 16, Facebook announced Oculus will begin allowing for the inclusion of advertisements in virtual games. The stated goal is to provide developers with a range of revenue options in order to encourage use of the platform. At present it doesn’t appear that users will be able to opt out of the advertising entirely, though they can opt out of specific ads in much the same way as on Facebook. Facebook will, of course, track those choices, along with the other data they gather to sell.
The practice was set to begin in Resolution Games’ title Blaston, but due to an overwhelmingly negative response, Resolution nixed the ads, saying they may still test the idea in free games, but not in paid ones like Blaston.
None of this is surprising; the question is whether the idea is good or bad. Facebook’s model for Oculus involves trying to gain market dominance over virtual reality tech by selling the platform at a loss, knowing it can recoup the money through advertising as competitors die off. Again, not surprising, but it undercuts the idea that capitalism is really spurring rather than destroying innovation in this area. No doubt Facebook will do their best not to make the ads so intrusive that they turn users off entirely, but the evidence from social media suggests humans will accept a lot of passive consumerism, sponsored content, and unobtrusive data collection in their media if it means the actual price tag for products is lower.
Is that a bad thing though? Should we just let folks have their ad-riddled VR like we’ve let them have their ad-riddled social media? There’s not an easy answer here.
Odds are good we probably will allow this pattern to continue, and if the past is a good indicator, the pennies that make it to developers will pale in comparison to the money Facebook will pull in if they can successfully sell advertisers on another world of micro targeted ads. Maybe the model will allow some indie developers to make some unique and original content that is only slightly marred by the ads, but it seems more likely it will simply be another way for content mills to sufficiently monetize a wave of low quality experiences, like microtransactions did for games like Candy Crush. But hey, Candy Crush is one of the most popular addictive substances of all time, so who are we to judge?
Setting aside concerns about addictive consumer business models, what’s really captured here is the depressing essence of cyberpunk, that you can invent a glorious new future and someone will immediately slap a price tag and some trashy ads all over it. The virtual could provide a genuine respite from having our attention constantly commodified, but that will likely only ever be an option for individuals wealthy enough to afford ad-free versions, if such a thing is even offered.
Some might argue that without this revenue, there is no VR, but I find that doubtful. Resources for innovation aren’t the issue — the issue is that those resources are currently tied to a demand for business models that reliably extract extreme amounts of profit. There are a range of alternative models that would be more likely to spur genuine innovation, but those that benefit from the current model are well-positioned to prevent substantial change in favor of marginal concessions.
No doubt humans will adjust to mostly tune out ads in the virtual world, as we have in the digital world and print media before it. Not perfectly, but enough that we don’t tend to feel consciously inundated, despite likely experiencing more targeted ads than ever before. It’s just unfortunate that this is our world, both real and virtual. We could be riding a Pegasus across an alien landscape, and we’ll still have to pause and click the tiny “x” that allows us to hide an ad for the thing we already bought 20 minutes ago, just to have it be replaced by something we bought two days ago.
Maybe that’s not a big deal, and we should just suck it up as the price of getting to ride a Pegasus, but I think it’s fair to wonder if we could do better, and to feel a bit sad for us if we can’t.
Aaron Rabinowitz is an ethicist and the Philosopher in Residence for Rutgers Honors College. This essay was written by invitation.
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