Well, this is awkward. If I understand the recent news cycle correctly, I am supposed to be surprised that a white, straight, and male technology entrepreneur in the highest of tax brackets with reported libertarian inclinations is supporting trolling and/or Trumpist activism. I guess it all depends on how you define “surprise.” I was not expecting Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey to be involved in a pro-Trump meme scheme, but that does not make it a complete surprise. As the election draws nearer, we all need to reckon with the fact that unpalatable causes are not only supported by people in wholly different spheres or one’s proverbial racist uncle.
In broad strokes, this furore stems from Luckey’s support of an organization called Nimble America, which The Daily Beast’s Gideon Resnick and Ben Collins reported last Friday. Nimble America sought bring Reddit-style shitposting into the real world by erecting memes on billboards. One read “Too Big to Jail” next to a blown up portrait of Hillary Clinton. Anyhow, The Daily Beast’s article indicates that Luckey funded the group and posted in support of its activities on Reddit. Luckey was introduced to the Nimble America by notable bigot Milo Yiannopoulos (himself the subject of a recent Out profile that makes advertorial content look like incisive journalism). By late Friday, Luckey had denied writing the Reddit posts and Resnick had produced his correspondence with Luckey that largely refuted this claim.
In a narrow sense, this is a virtual reality story insofar as some developers have vowed to abandon Oculus. “Hey Oculus, Palmer Luckey’s actions are unacceptable,” tweeted Tomorrow Today Labs. “NewtonVR will not be supporting the Oculus Touch as long as he is employed there.” Scruta Games tweeted a similar criticism: “Until Palmer Luckey steps down from his position at Oculus, we will be cancelling Oculus support for our games.” For more on this, Ars Technica has you covered. For a poorly timed fawning profile on Luckey that came out the day before these revelations, Wired UK has you covered.
To the extent that VR is A Thing (about which, maybe?) it is hard to imagine that Luckey’s actions will usher in a mass exodus from VR generally or Oculus in particular. Innovators are sometimes assholes, and that complicated legacy is something with which we must reckon. Henry Ford was an anti-semite who traded with Nazi Germany. The Model T and the practice of paying workers enough that they could buy consumer goods were truly important. Those facts go on different sides of his leger, but there’s no point in forgetting one or the other. Developers will, for the most part, continue to develop experiences for Oculus and periodically some members of the public (this one included) will point out that Luckey’s an asshole. That is suboptimal, but also how these things work.
Luckey’s political views, however, are not entirely separable from his work. What Oculus pitches, above all else, is a vision of the future. It’s fair to ask what, exactly, Luckey’s vision entails. Early this year, Wired’s Wagner James Au noted that Luckey dreamed of VR being used to allow the world’s poor to escape their circumstances—albeit not in a material manner. That is a political use of VR. If you were on the fence about the relevance of Luckey’s political life, that should be reason enough to wonder how Luckey’s views might shape the technology. He likely lacks the power to build some strange libertarian (or worse) world, but his efforts to do so are still of note.
This whole episode is also preparation for a discussion that we’re all going to have many more times whether or not Donald Trump ascends to the presidency. Lots of people are going to vote for the giant buffoon, and that is going to be awkward, to say the least. The normal post-election instinct is to forgive and forget once ballots are cast in the interest of efficiency and governing. (This is not always a great practice, but let’s save that discussion for another day.) I’m not sure to what extent that is possible in this election, because there might be too much to forget this time. I don’t know where we go from there. Maybe new coalitions are formed—a prospect that is not as cheerful as it sounds. But when it’s all over, we’ll be able to remember this: VR’s Large Adult Son backed the Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Tacos Supreme of presidential candidates.