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Mark Zuckerberg's virtual Puerto Rico jaunt misses the mark

Commentary: The Facebook CEO and his social VR leader "teleport" to the hurricane-ravaged island and happen to promote their Oculus conference. Just a little gauche?

3 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

Watch this: Zuckerberg blasted for tone-deaf 'magical' VR tour of Puerto Rico
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They're really suffering. Let's high-five.

screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

The streets behind him were flooded. 

Residents had likely lost everything they owned. 

So it was time for a high-five between Mark Zuckerberg and one of his executives.

On Monday, Facebook's CEO projected his VR avatar -- and that of the company' s head of social VR, Rachel Rubin Franklin -- to Puerto Rico in order to, well what? 

Talk about the company's partnership with the Red Cross to help hurricane relief efforts? Well, yes, he did that.

Or try to get people excited about VR, in which the company has heavily invested through its purchase of Oculus?  Yes, he did that as well.

You see, Facebook's Oculus Connect conference starts Wednesday. There, developers will be encouraged to commit themselves to this new world. "We're going to announce, well, some stuff that I'm not going to announce now," Zuckerberg teased, "because it would be good to tune in on Wednesday and go through that."

So the virtual didn't feel entirely virtuous.

Indeed, the juxtaposition of these cartoon executives against the background of depressing, disturbing real-world 360-degree footage from NPR was as comfortable as sitting on a pin-cushion sofa while someone scrapes very long nails down a blackboard. 

Seemingly lost on Zuckerberg was the idea that the last thing that the island might want to see was some Silicon Valley type demonstrating his virtual cleverness all over their devastated landscape. Three weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, around 85 percent of people there still don't have power

"It really feels like we're here in Puerto Rico," mused Facebook's CEO, as his cartoon self floated above the flood waters

It really feels like you don't know what watching this might feel like.

As one Facebook onlooker, Sasha Orr, observed: "Amazing technology but still v awkward. What you're talking about is much more meaningful. I feel the cartoony graphics belittle that."

Another, Hormuz Barnia, offered: "Whatever the intentions and benefits to the tech are, it's weird to have cartoon characters laughing in a recent disaster zone."

That's what you might call polite criticism. Others were less pleasant.

"Wow, you used human suffering for promotion of lame and non-useful technology... You should be ashamed, both on VR/RR (real reality)," said Tomislav Kencek.

It is, indeed, awkward watching Zuckerberg's animated cheeriness against a background of a local man sifting through what's left of his belongings and wondering what will become of his life. His real life.

A more pointed appraisal might suggest that whatever fine charitable work your company is doing, don't try to hack it together with crude salesmanship of a technology that real humans might never embrace.

And maybe, too, don't glibly remark about how you and your VR exec can just instantly "teleport" to and from the island.

The product placement smacked of disaster tourism, and more disastrous PR.

That message seems to have reached Zuckerberg. Although Facebook didn't respond to our request for comment, on Tuesday the CEO replied to some of the comments on the Facebook post.

"When you're in VR yourself, the surroundings feel quite real," Zuckerberg wrote in one response. "But that sense of empathy doesn't extend well to people watching you as a virtual character on a 2D screen. That's something we'll need to work on over time."

In other words: Sorry, Puerto Rico. My little cartoon was just an experiment.

Yet again, a Silicon Valley bigwig -- one who's been desperately polishing his image on a nationwide tour -- demonstrated he he has a hard time distinguishing between his own exalted (but artificial) world and the real one.

Yet again, one stared at the people who claim to be making the world a better place and wondered: "Oh, just look at yourselves, will you?"

As he drifted along the pained parts of Puerto Rico, the cartoon Zuckerberg seemed to feel nothing. 

Watching it made me feel numb.

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