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Mark Zuckerberg will be the Christopher Columbus of the metaverse

November 5, 2021, 8:01 PM UTC

It is said that when the Roman general Decimus Junius Brutus Callaicus and his army encountered the Rio Lima during their conquest of Portugal, they froze.

The soldiers believed they stood before Lethe, the underworld’s mythic river of forgetting. Only after Brutus forded the waters alone and called his men’s names from the opposite bank did his troops follow, assured their commander’s memory remained intact. 

This ancient tale rings in my head as I write this column, my final dispatch for Data Sheet, from a café along the Tagus River in Lisbon. Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive and founder of Meta (née Facebook), is known to be a Roman history buff. In a 2018 New Yorker profile, the billionaire techie described his longstanding obsession and self-identification with Caesar Augustus, Rome’s first emperor. Zuckerberg even named one of his daughters August.

The similarities are undeniable. Both Zuckerberg and Augustus rose to inestimable power as teenagers; both became world-conquerors; and both—it’s probably safe to wager this in the case of Zuckerberg—would be immortalized in world history. 

Augustus, much like Zuckerberg, was a complicated figure. The emperor, also known as Octavius, warred. He brought neighboring civilizations to heel. His armies subordinated and enslaved, dominated and despoiled. He eliminated rivals and enemies ruthlessly. And his reign kicked off a two-century-long period of relative peace known as the Pax Romana. (Good and evil are not so clear-cut here.)

While Zuckerberg sees in himself a latter-day Augustus, it’s possible that his legacy may fall more in line with another complicated historical figure: Christopher Columbus—a comparison intended to raise all the fraught, retrospective connotations that entails. Zuckerberg is attempting to chart humanity’s path to a brave new world; in this case, the so-called metaverse, rather than the Americas. (Or, as Columbus thought, Asia). Future-forecasters envision the metaverse as a dawning digital shared space in which people live and interact. Zuckerberg has lately staked his claim to it through a major corporate rebrand.

Whereas Augustus brought about some measure of world peace, Columbus spawned centuries of warfare and international vying for power, wealth, and land. Indigenous populations suffered at his hands and at the hands of those who came after him.

At Web Summit, the conference that brought me this week to Portugal—a country that famously declined to sponsor Columbus’s expedition abroad—I watched a live-streamed interview given on stage by Chris Cox, longtime Zuckerberg confidante and Meta’s chief product officer. Nicholas Carlson, editor-in-chief of Insider, raised the specter of Facebook’s role in a genocide in Myanmar to Cox’s blown-up head, broadcasted on a giant screen in Lisbon’s Altice Arena. How could Meta avoid “another horrible situation develop[ing] because this”—the metaverse—”succeeds so far past what you could even plan for?” Carlson asked. 

“Part of what we were trying to do here by starting this conversation now about the metaverse is to have it industry wide. We’re not going to be the ones that build this alone,” the gigantic, virtual bust of Cox replied. The metaverse is “going to be something that emerges probably along the lines of the way the Internet emerged, which is, there’s going to be a set of standards and protocols. There’s going to be early experiences, and it’s going to need to be done out in the open. I think that’s a good thing.”

Columbus didn’t know what he was bringing about either.

Robert Hackett
@rhhackett
robert.hackett@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Coming soon to a strip mall near you: The metaverse. Mark Zuckerberg is officially charting course for the virtual world that is the metaverse. (See essay above.) His and his newly renamed company Meta’s first stop? Unexpectedly: the real world. The company formerly known as Facebook is considering opening physical stores so that it can show off its virtual reality and augmented reality products in a push to mainstream-ify the metaverse, per The New York Times. Documents about the plans talk of a store strategy built to allow consumers a “judgment free journey” that will, if all goes accordingly, make the world “more open and connected,” according to the report. 

“Toxic bro culture.” With an initial public offering already on the horizon, electric-vehicle company Rivian is facing new claims from a former executive that it has a “toxic ‘bro culture’” that enabled issues related to underpriced vehicles and manufacturing quality to go unchecked, according to The Wall Street Journal. Laura Schwab, the executive, has sued Rivian, alleging that she was fired after discussing concerns about gender discrimination with a human resources executive, the report says. 

Elon and Jeff’s space race. In the latest push from the world’s second-richest man to become the universe’s richest men, Jeff Bezos-founded Amazon is ramping up its space battle against Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Its subsidiary, Kuiper Systems, has filed a plan with the Federal Communications Commission to launch an additional 4,538 satellites to grow its total constellation to 7,774 and better compete with SpaceX in the push to provide broadband from space, Bloomberg reports. 

Peloton would like you to get back to biking in your bedroom. It has been a good pandemic for the makers of home workout equipment, like Peloton. Until now. With gyms now widely reopen, the home bike maker reported an ominous forecast for the end of its current fiscal year on Thursday, sending shares into a tailspin. The stock was down more than 34% around midday Friday.

Lime gears up for the public markets. Following a $523 million fundraising, Lime CEO Wayne Ting tells TechCrunch that the shared electric scooter and bike company is preparing to go public in 2022, an announcement that came just ahead of the debut of rival Bird’s stock. The micro mobility company plans to use the funds from its latest raise to expand in markets where it already has a presence, though the exact details of such plans remain unclear. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

"Crypto Coachella." In New York City, the crypto world met the physical one this week. Investors, artists, techies, and the like descended on the Big Apple for NFT.NYC, a conference based around non-fungible tokens. Its third year, the conference generated a record amount of interest with 5,000 turning out, and another 3,000 having signed up for the wait list. And while the day's activities of talking about financial regulation and the opportunity that lies within crypto games were a draw, The New York Times' Kevin Roose, who earlier this year ventured into the NFT world by way of Pudgy Penguins, writes that "it was a coming-out party of sorts for the NFT community." One that comes on the precipice of a new stage of the Internet. 

From the article:

Web3 is part of the futuristic picture that Mark Zuckerberg painted last month, when he announced that Facebook was renaming itself Meta and focusing on creating immersive digital experiences and lifelike virtual reality games. But the vision goes well beyond social media or VR. Many of today’s young crypto entrepreneurs are itching to tear down the entire technological edifice of the modern world and rebuild it, piece by piece, on the blockchain.

If they succeed, your electronic health records will one day be an NFT, which you’ll be able to seamlessly transport between doctors. Songs from your favorite musician? Those will be NFTs, too, perhaps attached to a smart contract that allows you to share in their future royalties. Your kid’s Fortnite skins? NFTs, or something like them, and she’ll be able to transfer them from game to game.

Not much of this vision has arrived yet, but it’s fun to think about. And crypto innovators are salivating over the promise of a new, blank canvas.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

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Warning: Hot gaming consoles and iPhone 13 are in short supply this holiday season by Jonathan Vanian

The chips crunch is easing. Now companies are warning of a new ‘international supply crisis of unprecedented magnitude’ by Christiaan Hetzner

DeepMind spins out new Alphabet company focused on drug discovery by Jeremy Kahn

This week in investing: Why analysts are still bullish on Meta, plus all the IPOs to watch by Jessica Mathews

A.I. won’t break your company’s culture—and it might even boost morale by François Candelon, Michael Chu, and Su Min Ha

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BEFORE YOU GO

SHIB’s real-world use case. We’ve been writing a lot about this formerly tiny cryptocurrency named Shiba Inu coin. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Throughout its incredible ride (both up and down), one question that has prevailed is whether SHIB is ripe for any real-world uptake. So far, not really. But there has been at least one very notable exception emerging as of late: Adoption. That is, of actual Shiba Inu dogs. Too bad the same isn’t happening for dog breeds more commonly found at animal shelters. Has anyone created a PitCoin for pit bulls? Or a Jack Russell Token? If not, they’re right there for the taking.

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