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Mixed up reality
Apple's new "mixed reality" Vision Pro headset, launched earlier this month has simultaneously impressed and horrified. While hi-tech, internet connected goggles have been around for years, the tech giant seems to be aiming at an "everything" device, which can move seamlessly from work to play, from business to home and from private settings to social. For better or worse, carrying a phone has become part of normal life, even wearing a smart watch is fairly common these days. But encouraging users to wear a computer on their face throughout the day (and night) may be a hard-sell.
Apple insists they designed the goggles to be used in the company of other humans – the glass lightens to reveal the user's face if someone is nearby. But journalist John Daniel Davidson writes that the Vision Pro is an "incredibly powerful isolation device." Separating people from one another while connecting them to the internet, he argues, is a recipe for control. And certainly the accompanying advertisements are a little unnerving if you think about it a bit – people sitting alone in a darkened living room, watching clips of their children who are elsewhere. Even if be-goggled users share the same space, one professor wondered what damage will be wrought on human friendship when we can no longer look each other in the eye.
The Atlantic's Charlie Warzel raised concerns about the immersive allure of the goggles. While previous groundbreaking Apple products were designed as utilities for humans to use when creating things, the Vision Pro "is not a tool meant to help navigate the physical world: It is a way to tune it out." Warzel worries that in the face of upheaval in so many realms of life, a device like Apple's encourages people to check out, when more than ever, humans need to be together, clear-sighted about the future. He makes a good point.
Reading about Apple's new baby brought to mind a third concern: the pitfalls of "telepresence". Writing during the pandemic, artist Livia Foldes published a thought-provoking article, reflecting on what is gained and what is lost when we "extend the reach of our bodies using technology". While Zoom meetings were all the rage during lockdowns, people became painfully aware that digital presence is a poor substitute for being near living, breathing humans. If you've been awake through these pandemic years, you will know that not being "present" where you are presently has a cost.
We will quote Foldes at length as she writes it well: "The paradox of remote presence at once constructs and blurs boundaries: between near and far, us and them, valued and expendable, human body and machine. Every promise of telepresence is a narrative of rupture and suture, a simultaneous making-more-than and less-than human. These technologies strike a bargain, imperfectly extending some of our senses while flattening the rest, connecting us to distant places and people while fracturing our bodies from their sensations, their labor, and the situated networks that physically sustain them."
Vision's capability is well beyond rudimentary video calls, so Foldes' assessment of telepresence seems even more relevant. Though digital devices promise to augment life with safety, convenience and efficiency, we know that the joy of embodied-ness often comes with risk, exploration, perspiration and trial-and-error. With digital technology, there is as Rev Fisk calls it, an inequivalent exchange, like Foldes' simultaneous "making-more-than and less-than human". Ease at the expense of satisfaction, convenience at the expense of innovation, speed at the expense of durability. To harness the proffered benefit, you must sacrifice something which quickly overshadows what you thought you gained.
The strange idea that we've reached a kind of "peak humanity" by never having to leave our desk, couch or house is not one that would make sense in much of human history. How is that a life worth living? As we've written before, the most satisfying things are usually what we do in a specific place, present with people we know. That is not always flashy, fast or easy, but it makes us more than machines.
Economist Thomas Sowell famously quipped that there are no solutions, only trade-offs. In many ways, he is spot on. That doesn't mean we need to shun all new technology, but engaging it with prudence and thoughtfulness calls for wisdom and time. As St Paul confessed: "All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any."