Real-world politics torpedo Facebook's virtual pioneer
How Palmer Luckey slid from boy-wonder VR entrepreneur to man-child dimwit in a single weekend.
This weekend's rapid fall from grace of virtual reality (VR) pioneer Palmer Luckey shows again how dangerous the cult of personality is when it comes to high technology.
For those of you who had better things to do, here's the story so far. On Friday, The Daily Beast revealed that Luckey has secretly funded an anti-Hillary Clinton 'shitposting' group, Nimble America, with $100,000 of his own money. The group does not aim to enter constructive political debate, but rather to smear the Democratic presidential candidate and actively clutter and thus shut down online discussion that opposes its 'alt right' views.
The VR community and much of the US technology press has reacted with outrage. For its part, Luckey's employer, Facebook, also had no idea what he had done.
In the nascent but potentially transformative VR market, Luckey is a big swinging dude. The 24-year-old is not just the founder and lead innovator behind the Oculus Rift VR headset, he is the public face of VR in general. It is a role he has sought.
Luckey launched Oculus through a high-profile crowdfunding campaign and later sold it to social networking giant Facebook for $2bn, netting, it is reckoned, about $700m personally. Since that 2014 deal, Luckey's position as Mr VR has been carefully nurtured by Facebook via high-profile media interviews, conference appearances and a famous Time front cover. Apart from CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself, Facebook has more marketing capital invested in Luckey than any other employee.
From the beginning, Luckey put himself about aggressively on VR developer boards and in the gaming community. The image he has long promoted is that of the everyman nerd who really did try to launch a new wave of disruptive innovation from his parents' garage.
And now this.
To be fair to Luckey, in conversation and a number of personally-tagged online posts, he has made his Libertarian beliefs clear. Were this controversy over his decision to publicly donate to a candidate who reflects them - well, it wouldn't be a justifiable controversy. Most people might disagree with him, but acknowledge that chucking around thought-crime accusations is not part of civilised political debate.
However, as noted earlier, Nimble America's agenda is not the promotion of its philosophy, but to muzzle opponents. Shitposting, whether from the left or right, is perilously close to delivering an online metastasis of Orwell's Two-minute Hate, a trend that could dangerously spill over from Luckey's beloved virtual to our real world. Moreover, it is at odds with how Luckey has chosen - conciously, actively and consistently - to present himself to the world in support of his business goals. Luckey licensed his identity to Oculus' success.
Given that, let's look at things in a couple of other ways.
Right now, Oculus stands at a critical point in its development. It will roll out its Touch hand controller within a few weeks, completing a full commercial launch of the Rift package in the face of existing and imminent competion from the HTC Vive and the PlayStation VR.
Did it not occur to Luckey that putting the more controversial aspects of his character temporarily in check might therefore be a savvy idea? Apparently not. He thought Nimble America offered a "jolly good time". I wonder if his employers at Facebook, the team that has been sweating to bring the Rift to market and its technology partners feel the same way. Some partners already don't - several game developers this weekend dropped support for the Rift - though in, for now, more a trickle than a flood.
Then, there is a wider Facebook component. As a community, the company and Zuckerberg himself are currently embroiled in yet another awkward spat over the main website's Community Standards.
Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten has bearded Zuckerberg over a bizarre decision to remove the famous 'Napalm Girl' image from its postings because one of the children running away from the attack is naked. In context, as it was used by Aftenposten, the photograph is one of the most powerful and essential anti-war images - indeed, it is also known as 'The Terror of War'.
Aftenposten's argument is partly that Facebook's application of its standards is often arbitrary, ignores context and thereby constrains free speech. As this controversy rumbles on, many others globally are coming to agree.
Amid all that, up pops senior Facebook staffer Luckey offering his perspective on acceptable Community Standards.
What about, say, Facebook's controversial 'real-name policy' that requires you to post with the name by which you are publicly known? Uh-oh. Luckey backed Nimble America anonymously.
Or what about Facebook's position on deleting hate speech directed towards public figures like, say, Hillary Clinton? Or the site's aim to promote reasoned discussion of important issues, including among those of us who hold very different views?
It's a Facebook facepalm. Or, in footballing terms, Luckey has clogged a 'hospital pass' into the path of his own CEO. You know Palmer, the guy who has made you a near-billionaire.
So what next? Well, I genuinely sympathise with Zuckerberg over what Luckey has posted on his doorstep. What should he do? The guy has done the dirty on company principles, drawn down a shedload of opprobrium, yet is also intrinsic to efforts to expand beyond social media. Good luck with that, Mark.
Let's go back to the original thought - marketing based on personalities carries huge risk. Because there's another level here.
'Steve Jobs wasn't a nice guy,' you say. Very true. Silicon Valley is full of executives who have done and continue to do crazy things, bully staff and yes, worse. But, trust me, most are not like that. The best also tend, as also did Jobs, to keep politics at arm's length. Look instead at how well Tim Cook handles things. Heck, what about Mark Zuckerberg himself, last seen pledging an entirely laudable $3bn of his own money towards medical research.
Beyond his support for some grubby political action, Luckey's boy-blunder is partly that he ignored the rules of the game he knew he was playing. Chances are, he will pay dearly for that, and deservedly so - but some sympathy has to go to those wage-slaves who could stand to suffer as a result of his ignorance.
As for Luckey, perhaps he would be happier in a virtual world. Maybe he could develop a headset he can wear 24/7. Best of all, though, would be for him to grow up and understand one of the fundamental tenets of libertarianism: personal responsibility.