The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, “the largest and most influential gathering of conservatives in the world,” finished its second day on Friday. There were no breakout sessions, as there were the day before; all speakers appeared for an average of no more than 10-15 minutes at the tightly-run general session held in an enormous ballroom in the Hilton Anatole, where many thousands of chairs had been set up for attendees.
Giant screens are placed throughout the room, and unless audience members are sitting in the VIP section close to stage, they look at the screens to see the speakers, shown with multiple good camera angles, in HD, with subtitles and excellent sound. The room glows with colorful electronic displays that change from flag bunting to texts to moving images.
This high-tech approach contrasted with the decidedly low-key/no-tech approach to security, which seems odd, given the prominence of many speakers. Attendees come and go as they please, as long as they have a plastic badge on a lanyard. There are no checkpoints or metal detectors, and some people sit in the session drinking bottled beer.
Not a second is wasted in the general session. Between speakers, there are videos and ads in heavy rotation. One is for Space View, a Japanese company that makes virtual reality headsets for the Metaverse. Space View hopes to sell the VR platform “to constantly generate the ‘sense of unity and solidarity’ of the conservatives online…. [T]he basic principles of conservative will be instilled in the young people who will lead the country in the future, furthermore [sic] the unity of the people, and will enhance the power of the nation. We believe that CPAC Metaverse will be the system infrastructure for building a better society.”
Space View is a company of the Japanese Conservative Union, whose chairman, Hiroaki “Jay” Aeba, a regular at CPAC conferences and cofounder of CPAC Japan, spoke on the first day. Aeba is the former political leader of another organization, Happy Science, “a Japanese cult run by a man [Ryuho Okawa] who claims to be the incarnation of multiple Gods while pretending to channel the psychic spirits of anyone from Quetzalcoatl to Bashar al-Assad to Natalie Portman,” an expert told VICE News last year.
The Space View headsets, available for trial at an exhibit table across from the main entrance to the general session, consist of a heavy visual device held over the eyes by web straps over the head, and a small mouse held in the right hand. I tried it, with the help of Mahmood Al-Imam, a software engineer at Space View. Once turned on, the VR headset allowed me to look around a fictional virtual meeting at CPAC. AL-Imam explained that eventually the device will allow users to walk around in real life, corresponding to the virtual space, and interact with other remote users, listen to speakers, and watch multimedia of the sort used in the ballroom. But because they did not want people bumping into other conference goers on this day, I could only point and click to jump to different spots in the visual field, or interact with AI bots—avatars of women in red shirts. It worked okay for me, but a 20-year old man at the conference who tried the set described it as “decade-old crap.”
The device highlights the tension in the conservative movement over technology. In general, they distrust it deeply and see it as a tool of the state or some other malevolent, prying force looking to control them. Many insist on paper ballots only for voting or decry the use of digital devices in classrooms. Some sound like paranoid, tech-illiterate luddites (in the negative sense).
One woman described to me how the Chinese are mining data from our schoolchildren, through their school-issued tablets, in order to build detailed profiles of them. These will be used to deny them individual admission to colleges and force them into “ditch-digger” jobs, which means not only “the end of the American Dream” but Chinese Communist control of our country.
But even the rank-and-file of the party understand they cannot escape technology. Speakers explain to them that their ideological enemies are friendly to tech, and besides, they saw what Twitter did originally to spread Donald Trump’s messaging before he was banned (which is still described, falsely, as a First Amendment violation).
Meanwhile, other conservatives have founded companies for bitcoin, cell phones, wireless networks, and encrypted messaging, and are selling them at the CPAC expo.