“I will not live in the pod,” runs a mantra on right-wing Twitter. “I will not eat the bugs.” It’s an anathema against the various corporate and governmental forces that supposedly want us all to abandon private property, red meat and other American freedoms in favor of a more sustainable future munching millipedes and living in tiny modular habitats, all under the benevolent eye of Greta Thunberg and the World Economic Forum.
The pod/bug refusal, to my mind, rather overstates the power of degrowthers and one-world panjandrums: You can find enthusiasm for bug diets and you’ll-own-nothing-and-be-happy mantras in certain environmentalist and Euro-socialist circles, but it’s usually more of a mood or a set of conference talking points than an operational agenda.
But there’s one genuinely powerful force seeking a more podlike, nutshell-bounded human future. It’s the technicians of Silicon Valley, backed by billions in digital-age ambition, who’ll seemingly stop at nothing until human beings live inside their goggles.
The latest example of this ambition is the Apple Vision Pro, launched with much fanfare and sleek and creepy advertising this week, which promises an immersive visual experience inside a $3,499 headset. It’s in direct competition with Facebook turned Meta’s long-running attempts to make its headset-mediated metaverse happen. And both projects are successors to Google Glass, which was supposed to be the next big digital thing a decade ago but died a slow death amid lackluster sales and public derision against the “glasshole” look.
That derision was good, it was necessary, it was humanist and hopeful and essential. And our health as a society and species depends on sustaining it, no matter how sleek the goggles get.
There are two possible futures for the virtual reality headset. In one, it remains an expensive, niche product used in specialized ways by hard-core gamers, remote workers looking for an edge and digital engineers and artists seeking absolute immersion in their work. In the other, the headset gradually displaces the smartphone as a normal means of interacting with virtual reality in public and semipublic settings: Subways are crowded with headset-wearers, spouses sit with his-and-hers headsets on the couch at night, nursing home common rooms are filled with seniors lost in V.R.-mediated memories, teenagers hang out headsetted in basements or (more likely) just “hang out” virtually from the safety of their own bedrooms, showing up as avatars inside one another’s goggles.
Obviously, Apple, Meta and Google are all invested in the second future. The big money in Silicon Valley comes from controlling crucial platforms and getting other companies to pay for the privilege of having their programs or apps allowed inside, and if enough people migrate to the metaverse then the winner of the headset wars will be the king of infinite money as well as infinite virtual space. So the clear goal of this competition is a future where the Vision Pro or the next Meta headset or some other competitor locks down an iPhone-level market, not just a boutique clientele.
That’s presumably why Apple designed its headset to show users’ eyes to people around them — so that you can imagine yourself to be still engaging socially while you’re goggling. It’s why Mark Zuckerberg, in response to the Apple launch, told Meta employees that he wanted their headsets to stay cheaper and their users to be “active and doing things” while goggling, not just sitting on a couch. The rival firms clearly want people to integrate their headsets into everyday existence, the way we’ve already integrated our laptops, tablets and phones.
Unfortunately, that rational commercial goal is in deep tension with the flourishing of the human race. Back when Google Glass debuted, one could already foresee where the augmented or virtual reality experience would take humanity — toward deepened isolation, depressive solipsism, masturbatory anomie. Now we have much more evidence that the less immersive virtual reality created by smartphones and social media is toxic in large doses — to children and adolescents especially, but to the rest of us to some degree as well.
Of course, you can construct a case where actually the more immersive world of headset life will be healthier than the half-real world of screens and swipes and posting. Or you can take a Singularitarian stance and argue that all future human progress will take place in virtual universes, so let’s start the leap right now. The digital revolution hasn’t failed to deliver the promised utopia, you can say; the revolution just hasn’t been completed.
Here, just slip on these goggles …
Against these blandishments, the best defense is still the social contempt that greeted Google Glass, mixed perhaps with some of the fatigue with face coverings that eventually turned all but the most committed Covidians against masking. Thou shalt not hide the human face isn’t an absolute command, but it should be a general expectation, and the scenes in the Vision Pro introduction video where the laughing dad watches his kids play through his goggles to better film them for a rewind performance later should never lose their antisocial and dystopian vibes.
This is not a rejection of technological progress. It’s a rejection of the social regress and dehumanization that comes when we let technology master us instead of the other way around.
No matter how we respond to them, the headsets will not go away, and a general social stigma against their use as everyday devices will not stand in the way of them benefiting certain people in certain circumstances.
So let those benefits be discovered by the few. But for the many, facing the disappearance of the human face into a goggled imaginarium, it’s important to nurture the feelings that have kept the headset market limited so far, and to appreciate the warning that they’re giving us.
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This Week in Anti-Decadence
“The fear of job loss due variously to mechanization, automation, computerization or A.I. has been a recurring panic for hundreds of years, since the original onset of machinery such as the mechanical loom. Even though every new major technology has led to more jobs at higher wages throughout history, each wave of this panic is accompanied by claims that ‘this time is different’ — this is the time it will finally happen, this is the technology that will finally deliver the hammer blow to human labor. And yet, it never happens.
“But this time is different, you’re thinking. This time, with A.I., we have the technology that can replace ALL human labor.
“But … think of what it would mean for literally all existing human labor to be replaced by machines.
“It would mean a takeoff rate of economic productivity growth that would be absolutely stratospheric, far beyond any historical precedent. Prices of existing goods and services would drop across the board to virtually zero. Consumer welfare would skyrocket. Consumer spending power would skyrocket. New demand in the economy would explode. Entrepreneurs would create dizzying arrays of new industries, products and services, and employ as many people and A.I. as they could as fast as possible to meet all the new demand.
“Suppose A.I. once again replaces that labor? The cycle would repeat, driving consumer welfare, economic growth, and job and wage growth even higher. It would be a straight spiral up to a material utopia that neither Adam Smith or Karl Marx ever dared dream of.”
— Marc Andreessen, “Why A.I. Will Save the World” (June 6)