Today I’d like to discuss proprietary enterprise software products. Wait. Come back. It’s not as boring as it sounds. Not entirely, anyway.
Here in the verified-as-human commentariat we like to amaze and terrify you with tales of the digital near-future. A world of driverless cars and human-less cities. Of three-dimensional virtual universes where you can be a unicorn in a Rangoon brothel, or a berserker in a Norse saga. Of artificial intelligence so powerful that it’s going to kill us all.
Some of this may or may not come to pass. But amid all the lurid talk of utopias and apocalypses, we pay insufficient attention to the utter banality of what’s driving us towards this imagined future. Google may have announced Magic Window, its fancypants new video-calling technology, last week alongside a slew of new AI features, but underneath all the hooplah, it’s still just an advertising company trying to flog you stuff you don’t need. The same is true of Facebook, albeit in an even more malevolent form. Amazon is a glorified mail-order service of a sort that our great-grandparents would have recognised.
When Neal Stephenson coined the word ‘metaverse’ in his highly influential 1992 novel Snow Crash, he didn’t mention spam folders, meeting alerts or double authentication
But ever since the big tech era began, the dullest, least inspiring of all these corporations has been Microsoft, which is at heart an office supplies company, run by the sort of people who used to call around to fix your photocopier. It’s no accident that when it needed to devise an animated graphic to represent itself, the result was the late, unlamented Clippy, a paperclip with eyes. Microsoft provides the virtual equivalent of all the paraphernalia – desks, phones, writing materials, meeting rooms, diaries, secretarial assistance, mailrooms, planning charts, budget tracking – that make it possible to carry out what used to quaintly be called white-collar jobs.
Perhaps, like me, you work in an actual office, a drab physical location where, pre-Covid, you would spend 40 hours or so a week. Perhaps, also like me, you used to do a lot of your work in Office, a suite of Microsoft products, chillingly rebranded a few years ago as Office 365 (so much for that 40-hour week). Now it’s called Microsoft 365, and it’s a cloud-based set of interlinked services – mail, messages, calendars, documents, video calling, editing, planning, getting your coffee, making bad jokes, bitching behind your back – that constitute pretty much your entire working environment, and by extension far too much of your actual life. If it’s on your phone as well as your laptop, it’s a more integral part of you than your thumbs.
I feel sorely let down by this sad, shrunken, bureaucratic version of the metaverse. When Neal Stephenson coined that word in his highly influential 1992 novel Snow Crash to describe an anarchic, hallucinatory 21st-century virtual-reality world, he drew on the aesthetics of early multiplayer video games and 1980s cyberpunk to create an admittedly scary but also thrilling landscape. He didn’t mention spam folders, meeting alerts or double authentication.
As an experience, 365 feels less like an escape into fantasy and more like being trapped forever inside a strip-lit office in a 1980s retail park on the outskirts of a city so boring nobody ever bothered to name it. Everything is blue-ish. Everything works, sort of. Everything is a bit annoying. All that’s missing is Ricky Gervais.
It looks as if the boring paperclip guy is well-placed to win this round of the big tech arms race
Right now, Mark Zuckerberg’s own multibillion investment in his version of the metaverse is looking like a busted flush (who would have guessed people hated wearing sweaty headsets for hours at a time?). Apple’s operating system, once the preferred option of the cool kids and the bohemian bourgeoisie, has barely had a single innovative design idea in a decade. Google is in a panic as it scrambles to catch up on AI, while the Microsoft-licensed OpenAI (creator of language generator ChatGPT and image generator Dall-E) leads the way. It looks as if the boring paperclip guy is well-placed to win this round of the big tech arms race. Mopping-up operations are under way in the gaming world as it seeks to overcome regulatory objections to its $68.7 billion takeover of Activision, makers of Call of Duty. Even if that deal does go ahead, it seems unlikely we’ll see Call of Duty’s design features imported into Microsoft 365, which is a shame. Most Teams meetings would be greatly improved if they took place on a Normandy beach on D-Day.
Instead we must resign ourselves instead to measuring out our lives via Outlook Calendar in this sterile, corporate workspace. We were promised jetpacks. We dreamed of dragons. What did we get instead? Clippy, stamping on a human face – forever.