Mark Zuckerberg’s Comments on Smart Glasses and Climate Change Are Not Based in Reality

Well, perhaps virtual reality. But that’s about it.

Photo: Amy Osborne/AFP/Getty Images

In an interview with The Information on Monday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed that augmented- and virtual-reality glasses would help mitigate climate change by allowing people to virtually “teleport” places rather than physically travel.

“It’s going to have a big society-wide impact on a lot of things we care deeply about like climate change, because look… obviously there are going to keep on being cars and planes and all that,” he said. “But the more that we can ‘teleport’ around, not only are we personally eliminating commutes and stuff like that that’s kind of a drag for us individually, but I think it’s better for society and the planet, too.”

The thinking here is that the more people are able to have realistic experiences through AR and VR, the less they’ll consume fossil fuels by driving or flying places.

While a lot of us were on the road and in the air a lot less in 2020, there were still ample emissions from factories, farms, diesel trucks, and cargo planes.

But in 2020, we learned that the individual lifestyle changes that occurred as a result of global quarantine measures were not nearly enough to reduce emissions to zero. Preliminary research from the Rhodium Group, an independent data and analytics company that tracks global emissions, showed a 10% drop in global greenhouse gas emissions due to Covid-19 mitigation strategies.

So while a lot of us were on the road and in the air a lot less in 2020, there were still ample emissions from factories, farms, diesel trucks, and cargo planes. That’s probably the biggest problem with Zuckerberg’s comments. We need more drastic action than being able to pop on a pair of smart glasses and “snap your finger,” as he said, to be in a friend’s living room or at work.

Comments later in the interview, though, suggest a severe class bias in Zuckerberg’s vision for how AR and VR can mitigate climate change. “We talked a little bit about climate change before just being so important,” he said. “I think people are just going to want to maybe travel a little less in the future and do it more efficiently, and be able to go places without having to take the travel or commute time.”

Zuckerberg went on to mention that he thinks it’s going to be “very profound” for people to be able to “live anywhere you want and teleport to work anywhere else.” But who is going to have access to this privilege?

During the pandemic, it became clear that stark racial and class divides existed in terms of who was more likely to be an essential worker and who has the best access to online education. According to 2019 research from Pew, 58% of Black people and 57% of Hispanic people have a desktop or laptop computer at home compared with 82% of white people. The same poll showed that smartphone access bridged some of the digital divide that exists between Black and Hispanic people and white people but not nearly all of it.

An August study published by public health researchers in World Medical & Health Policy showed that the Covid-19 mortality rates were higher for Blacks than whites, partially due to the fact that more Black people are essential workers.

And a September 2020 study published by economists from Italy in the Journal of Population Economics found that labor benefits resulting from an increase in work from home opportunities would tend to favor men, older, highly educated, and highly paid employees.

In other words, Zuckerberg’s vision for the future of AR and VR is most likely to be enjoyed by the same people who always enjoy privilege. Meanwhile, the technology is unlikely to have a substantial impact on climate change — which also disproportionately affects people of color, as I explore every week in my Color of Climate column from OneZero’s sibling publication Future Human. For now, these glasses are a toy for the privileged, not a solution for the world.

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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