Mark Zuckerberg's $2 billion buyout of Oculus Rift is just the latest step in Big Tech's creepy march from software to sci-fi: Google and Facebook have dumped billions into companies that have nothing to do with their original projects in search or social. Relentlessly, the two companies are pushing toward a dystopian future in which privacy is null and we wear social networks on our faces.
But what do their individual acquisitions add up to? Who's winning? Here's a look at each company's expanded portfolio, to see which one's nightmare vision is more likely to prevail.
Facebook knows you to the extent that you're vain on the internet, which is to say, it knows you very well. Your photos, IMs, college, hometown, real identity, location history, and music-listening habits are all logged. Facebook knows who you're friends with, and knows who they're friends with, and so on—your social and professional logs are mapped and cataloged. And if you're reading a website with a "Like" button on it, Facebook knows where you're browsing, too.
Here's what it's added to that foundation:
Face.com, purchased for $100 million in June 2012
What: an Israeli facial recognition software firm.
Why Facebook PR would say this shouldn't scare you: Facial recognition saves you time after you upload photos by detecting your friends' mugs and helping you tag them.
Why it should scare you: Facebook's experimental DeepFace scanning technology is almost 98 percent accurate. That means the company can, with a near-human degree of accuracy, detect where you've been and who you were with—even in images you'll never be aware of. This information is stored invisibly, indefinitely, and for purposes that are entirely up to Facebook. The social network has never been a destination for anonymity, but facial scanning will make it easier to find you in the crowd than ever before in our history. It's all been enough to make governments around the world demand investigations and reform.
WhatsApp, purchased for $19 billion in February 2014
What: a globally popular mobile messaging app.
Why Facebook PR would say this shouldn't scare you: Facebook is about connecting people, and WhatsApp does a fantastic job of connecting hundreds of millions of people around the world!
Why it should scare you: Facebook is now in possession of a chat network that handles almost as many IMs as the entire global volume of text messaging. It says it has no plans to pore over this unfathomably large word canyon in an attempt to sell more ads. To those who object, it says only: Come on, trust us.
Oculus Rift, purchased for $2 billion in March 2014
What: a company that's developed a virtual reality headset aimed at video gamers.
Why Facebook PR would say this shouldn't scare you: "Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones. The future is coming and we have a chance to build it together. I can't wait to start working with the whole team at Oculus to bring this future to the world, and to unlock new worlds for all of us." - Mark Zuckerberg
Why it should scare you: Facebook just spent a large sum of money in order to create a product that will completely replace reality with Facebook. There's not really much else to say.
You trust Google to hold, keep, and respect almost everything you do on the internet, every day of your life: your web searches, your email inbox, your contacts, your workplace IMs, your browsing history, and, if you use an Android phone, your location. Google offers a set of options to tailor (and potentially purge) how much personal information remains on its servers, but offers no guarantee that anyone will be aware of these controls, or how to use them.
Schaft, Industrial Perception, Redwood Robotics, Meka Robotics, Holomini, Bot & Dolly, Boston Dynamics, purchased for undisclosed prices in 2013
What: Within the span of only a couple months, Google—a software company that makes its money off of search-engine advertising—purchased eight different robot companies. Among the hardware providers is Boston Dynamics, which makes military-grade bots, including one that looks like a huge scary metal nightmare horse.
Why Google PR would say this shouldn't scare you: Google will use the technologies developed by these firms to, uh, well, you know, robots in the home, the internet of things, transportation, dogs.
Why it should scare you: Watch this video.
What: For a little under a decade, Google has been working to build cars that can (and do!) drive to your destination without requiring anyone at the wheel.
Why Google PR would say this shouldn't scare you: What if your email provider could also drive you to work?
Why it should scare you: What if your email provider drove you to work?
What: A face-mounted computer with built-in microphone and camera.
Why Google PR would say this shouldn't scare you: only a luddite has anything to fear.
Why it should scare you: Even if the idea of an always-on face computer doesn't unsettle you (it ought to), there have been enough bad actors in the tech's baby-short life to illustrate how wrong Glass can go. Will you really pay $1,500 to be a foot soldier of Google's advertising surveillance society?
DeepMind, acquired for $400 million in January 2014
Why Google PR would say this shouldn't scare you: DeepMind's industry-leading experts in the field of machine learning will make your phones smarter and more helpful than ever before.
Why it should scare you: Has there ever been a work of speculative fiction in which a giant multinational corporation develops an artificial intelligence and it doesn't go haywire? Society cannot warn itself against this kind of thing any more comprehensively than it already has.
Nest, acquired for $4.2 billion in January 2014
What: A company that makes thermostats that connect to the internet.
Why Google PR would say this shouldn't scare you: You rely on Google for the best smartphone experience on Earth—now we can keep your house warm, intelligently, and also save on your energy bill.
Why it should scare you: The "internet of things" is a euphemism for "everything in my life is communicating wirelessly with an advertising entity." We should think very carefully about whether we want one company to not only control all of our online activity, but literally change the temperature of our bedrooms while we're asleep.
So, who is closer to realizing techno-fascist Hell on Earth?
For now, Facebook is too inept for psychotic global dominion. So far, the Facebook site and apps are so confusingly designed and redesigned, users aren't even really sure how to siphon away their existences anymore. Whenever the company tries to branch out beyond the basics it's mastered since it was a toy for college kids, it falls on its face.
But more importantly, Facebook's history with hardware is demonstrably bad: The one time it tried to build something (a phone), it was completely botched, despite every advantage and all the resources in the world to design a single good object. There's no reason to believe Facebook's attempt to build a virtual reality helmet will be any less prone to ruin. If anything, it's a hell of a lot harder to pull off than a cellphone.
Google, on the other hand, has a record of success with its skunkworks projects. The self-driving car is a prototype, but it does drive by itself. You can buy one of Nest's self-adjusting "smart" thermostats right now. The majority of smartphones sold today run Google software. Google has a history of collaborating with censors, spying on journalists, running afoul of regulators, and being run by nutcases. Add defense-industry robotics and face computers, and you have an all-seeing company with a market cap of $380 billion that's now in the killer robot business for no apparent reason, a company that sees this as an ideal consumer scenario:
You wake up from a Google alarm on your Google phone. The air is Google-cool from your Google thermostat. Your Google car drives you to work at a company that uses Google software. You smile at your sandwich (not made by Google) and take a picture of it, because you're wearing a camera on your face. You look at the sandwich face-photos of your peers, your viewing history logged by Google. An artificial intelligence in your phone queues up a sandwich collage for later. It knows you'll like it. You go home to your wife, which is a giant cargo-hauling military robot, because that's just the fucking way it is now, OKAY?
Facebook's desire to produce virtual reality doesn't seem so bad when Google wants to own reality itself.
Image by Jim Cooke