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The Age of the Enclosed Self
The future belongs to the high-tech hermit
Apple’s mixed reality headset is expected to launch next week. Rumours of the product – think ski glasses that overlay your vision with digital imagery and data – have been circulating for some time, but to call it “long awaited” would be misleading. Who apart from tech obsessives and Apple superfans are crying out for another device they can strap to their face?
Tech companies, it seems, are determined to entomb us in headgear. First there was Google Glass, and then the clunky Occulus Quest headsets (the fruits of Mark Zuckerberg’s long-running metaverse obsession). I do not know anyone who owns these gadgets. Now Dyson has invested its engineering expertise in a contraption that combines noise-cancelling headphones with a face-wrapping air-purifier.
Apple’s headset will no doubt be much more stylish and sophisticated than the existing competition – it will apparently be bristling with cameras that process eye movements, body language and the surrounding world – but the $3,000 price tag suggests even the designers don’t imagine this will be the next iPhone.
It’s tempting to ascribe all of this to a kind of technological decadence; the final, baroque phase of a gadget culture that is about to be swept away by AI. I would argue the contrary. Look around you, and it’s not difficult to see why companies are betting on a future of self-enclosure.
Over the past fifteen years, we have already taken big strides towards mediating our environment with technology. A dam was breached when we started glancing regularly at smartphones. Gaming and scrolling soon flooded into every idle moment. With a universe of media in our hand, the rise of wireless earphones as a near-permanent implant became possible.
This departure from a shared reality is not only sensory. Mass-market advertising and entertainment used to soften atomisation by providing a common frame of reference; now we join a media tribe of our choosing.
If these solipsistic tendencies can become the norm so quickly, then what makes us think we will struggle to live in a digitally augmented capsule, complete with Dyson-filtered air? The headsets being designed now are mainly about developing the tech, and especially software platforms, for the time when it can be packaged in a form that people are happy to wear (think lightweight glasses or contact lenses).
Should we be concerned, then? Those of us who think so have the difficult job of arguing against a revealed preference. Clearly, a lot of people find it more compelling to be immersed in a private bubble of media than to face the public world. I can’t pretend to find this perplexing: I’ve argued in the past that boundaries are crucial for making life in cities bearable. Besides, the digitally enclosed individual is in some ways a more social one, always messaging and posting, always craving a voice in his or her ear.
Not just any voice though. Whether technology created it or merely encouraged it, there is a hermetic impulse in the contemporary psyche. We long for privacy and autonomy, for the luxury of erecting a barrier between ourselves and the world. We want to choose what engages our thoughts and senses. The AirPod revolution is one symptom of this, but so is the unexpected fact that, during the Covid pandemic, many people seemed to find in the surgical facemask a kind of comfort blanket. Many also relished the opportunity to withdraw into their homes, although that had already been apparent for some time.
But authentic desires do not always make for positive developments. Consider the analogy with another increasingly prevalent form of retreat, the gated enclaves where wealthy residents are swaddled with private security and spotless streets. You can understand why people want to live in them, and might envy the sanctuary they provide. But they are not generally the sign of a flourishing society, or the route towards one.
Our fortified private spheres come with costs. Most obviously, the loss of spontaneous encounters, including romantic ones. How many people have failed to meet their soul mate because strangers no longer talk in person? Yes, women could equally point to the unwanted approaches their headphones have spared them, which is entirely fair. Still, it is unsurprising that studies report younger generations having less sex than they used to. The privatisation of everyday life is surely part of the reason.
A lot of social connection happens without direct interaction, and this is being eroded too. Human beings are extremely sensitive to their emotional environment, and public spaces dominated by the glazed expressions of media junkies can be very depressing. For those who already feel isolated or unhappy, this is not a forgiving world.
In terms of wider consequences, we should also expect a decline in creativity. By plugging every minute of dead time with information, we deny our minds the boredom which often brings the most profound reflection and the most original thoughts. The more we collectively saturate ourselves with content, the less nourishing that content will become.
Be that as it may, if the ambitions of Apple and others are realised, the personal media enclosures of the future will be much more immersive. And the barriers separating us from any common experience will only grow thicker.
The proverbial problem with gated enclaves is that their occupants lose interest in improving or even maintaining the world they have retreated from. Likewise, the option of improving personal experience with technology will, presumably, remove the motivation to invest in “real life,” that quaint concept from a bygone era. It will be much easier to design quasi-virtual spaces, especially with the help of AI, than to prevent physical ones from falling apart. Pity those who can’t afford to escape.
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