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Apple’s Beautiful, Lonely Vision
Plus my commencement address, see me in New Haven, and Nerf John Wick
Me, fatbiking on a part of the Great Salt Lake that should be covered in water.
I’m currently writing from Utah, in the final week of filming for Season 2 of my PBS series, America Outdoors, which finally has a premiere date: September 13. Here are a few other things going on in my brain or life right now.
It’s graduation season, and I’ve finally uploaded the commencement speech I gave at my alma mater Sidwell Friends back in 2022. It will work for those who graduated in 2023 or even those who’ve never graduated from anything! I’ll also be keynoting the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut, this Saturday June 17. Tickets are still available. And I’ll be speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival June 25-30th. Come through. Say hi!
For tonight’s column, my wife and I watched last week’s Apple’s WWDC keynote, because Apple keynotes are my love language. I’m going to share with you some of my context for the ideas and technology behind the Vision Pro, what I find impressive, what concerns me, and what it all means.
But first, a few news and media items that have been capturing my attention:
A New York lawyer used ChatGPT to make legal arguments in court, but didn’t know the bot doesn’t care about facts and ended up citing non-existent case law. It’s amusing but also sad and highlights the risks of such a rapid deployment of untested technology.
The Canadian wildfire smoke choking the Eastern U.S. and the media capital that is New York City shined a brighter-than-usual light on the present-day impacts of climate change. For a hopeful but grounded climate perspective, check out this Teen Vogue story featuring Pacific Islander youth who aren’t waiting for others to save their homelands. One idea that caught my eye: a fossil fuels non-proliferation treaty.
On The Media, one of my favorite podcasts, did a segment about “Quiet Quitting,” the non-trend that generated so many headlines over the past year. They found that employers have been complaining that “no one wants to work anymore” every decade for a century now. Maybe we should work on improving our social safety nets and decoupling health insurance from employment rather than shaming workers.
And for pure delight, please watch this video of John Wick with Nerf guns as many times as I have.
Happy Pride Month!
All right now let’s get into it.
Apple and the End of Shared Vision?
I’ve had so many thoughts in the past week about Apple’s new device and wrote a a lengthy piece for Puck. It includes much of what I’m excited about for virtual travel, live events, and computer screens we can call up on-demand. The entire essay is available here. I’m going to share one of the most resonant parts of my critique below. The combination of such high resolution headsets with generative AI is ushering in a facsimile world driven heavily by commercial interests disconnecting us from ourselves and from nature, which is another way of saying ourselves. If the paywall is an issue for you, and you’ve exhausted your free trial, reply to me, and we’ll work something out 😉
During his keynote, Cook claimed that the Apple Vision Pro is “the most advanced personal computing device ever.” From where I sit, that is quite possibly true, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, and my real problem is with the word “personal.” Yes, Apple is an American company, and we are a nation obsessed with rugged individualism and individual rights, personal freedom, and personal security. Our culture and built environment reflects this worldview: A big part of how we’ve created the most powerful economy in world history is to convert entire social spaces and experiences into individual and private ones, monetizing all along the way.
This grand trend has found vibrant new expression as our economy and society undergo digital transformation. We went from a single landline per household to a smartphone per person. We went from a few broadcast television networks to hundreds of cable channels to infinite online video libraries. We went from a personal computer for the family to multiple personalized internet-connected devices per person, each with algorithmically-determined personalized channels of content. And in this transition, we’ve gained orders of magnitude more access to data and entertainment. But we’ve also lost something: Common experience and shared stories.
Now, with Vision Pro, Apple may complete our retreat into the individual self, putting the final nail in the coffin of shared experiences in a physical space. With a big-screen TV in the house, the laptop screen at the office, or the smartphone anywhere, we still have the option to share that screen with the person next to us. We can gather around a metaphorical digital campfire and experience and create a story together—we can look at photos, make memes, or listen to music together. No more.
I kept waiting for the part of Apple’s presentation where they showed two people in the same room, both wearing headsets, sharing a…. well, vision. But the Vision Pro doesn’t bring you closer to someone nearby; it only creates a barrier. For the headset wearer, the other people in a room only exist as backdrops to your private experience, moving between and among objects that only you can see. In exchange, the other people in the room get to see fake eyes. And to me, at least, that sounds like a vision of dystopia.
If successful, the Vision Pro and its eventual competitors will be the mediator of all human contact with our most intimate and trusted spaces. We will literally lack a shared vision because they will offer us individually personalized perspectives on reality. Imagine: As overwhelmed as we feel by our devices now, at least we can choose to look away, even if only for a few minutes. When I’m staring off into space, unless I hold my phone up in front of me, I just see the stars, not TikTok, or text messages or ads. It’s one of the things I love about making America Outdoors for PBS—it forces me to look through the interface that I already have, which is my actual eyesight, not Apple’s patent-pending version of the term.
Bonus for you. A friend reminded me of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Massey Lectures after reading my full piece. I’ve cited these words before, but they are relevant again.
“Another distortion of the technological revolution is that instead of strengthening democracy… it has helped to eviscerate it. Gargantuan industry and government, woven into an intricate computerized mechanism, leaves the person outside… When an individual is no longer a true participant, when he no longer feels a sense of responsibility to his society, the content of democracy is emptied. When culture is degraded and vulgarity enthroned, when the social system does not build security but induces peril, inexorably the individual is impelled to pull away from a soulless society. This process produces alienation — perhaps the most pervasive and insidious development in contemporary society… Alienation should be foreign to the young. Growth requires connection and trust. Alienation is a form of living death. It is the acid of despair that dissolves society.”