the apple vision pro, the tyranny of the retrofuture

the apple vision pro, the tyranny of the retrofuture
Apple's Vision Pro

The new Apple headset — the clunkily named Vision Pro — has begun to roll out to the public. You can preorder it now, even.

Tech journalists have been getting stage-managed experiences with it; it is the latest gizmo that purports to change at least something about the world. What's interesting is that it seems like may of the people who have had an IRL experience with it leave thinking they don't quite know what it's for. Take Kevin Roose at The New York Times:

The second thing to say about the Vision Pro is that even after trying it, I still have no idea who or what this thing is supposed to be for. At $3,500, it’s not a device for the masses, or even the mass affluent. It’s a big, honking statement piece — a status symbol for your face.
Which isn’t to say the Vision Pro isn’t compelling, or that I didn’t enjoy testing it. It is, and I did. 

I'm less interested in the device as a device than I am as a symbol of the times. Apple's always been the final word, so to speak, on tech trends; they move them from the enthusiast sphere into the general public. But the trend that Apple is reifying, so to speak, is more slippery than most: wearable computing crossed with the idea of virtual reality. And for decades now, various people and corporations have been trying to make them happen, to varying degrees of success.

But I think that's the whole problem, and part of why the Vision Pro already feels somewhat dated: we've seen this before. It's from a future that's been exhaustively imagined; the ideas in the device are all over sci-fi and cyberpunk. The Vision Pro feels like an artifact from a future that no longer obtains — a piece from the feverish daydreams of the '80s, from the flying car/hoverboard future. Not the one we've got.

In other words, the Vision Pro is an authoritative statement about the past. And who needs that?

A while back, I made a podcast episode with my buddy Ryan about the metaverse — and how actually the ideas that animate it as a concept were ripped directly from Snow Crash, which presented a fairly grim vision of what it'd mean to live in a virtual world. (I loved it, obviously.) But it's this same set of ideas that's behind the idea of headset computing in the first place. The funny thing to me is that we already live in a virtual world. We have it. It happened. The internet and real life are one. As the editor Blake Montgomery put it recently in a killer piece for The Guardian, writing about the time he spends on his phone:

All of these minutes, in aggregate, are my life. I would no sooner call the time I spend using it wasted than I would call my life wasted. I edit technology news for a living. To me, digital life is real life.
This is my screenager’s manifesto: it does not matter how much time you spend on your phone.

The digital and the physical are already one. And that's why it's hard to say what the Vision Pro is for. It replicates things you can already do; it is a device that does basically what every other device does. It is boring. And it doesn't seem to acknowledge we already live in a mixed-reality world.

And this itself feels a bit like a trend. When I'm on TikTok, my feed is inundated with videos of young people explaining the specifics of their lives: talking about how it's impossible to get a good job now, about how everything costs too much, about how they'll be working until they die. It seems like their main frustration — which I think is justified — is that what they were told about the world doesn't line up with their experience of it. The old structures, the old way of thinking about things: they're still embedded in the culture and the way we talk about it. But they also don't obtain. Tell me, what is a starter home?

This of course brings us to Gramsci. There's the famous quote — about the old world and the new one — but here's a version that's a bit longer, taken from Selections from the Prison Notebooks:

That aspect of the modern crisis which is bemoaned as a “wave of materialism” is related to what is called the “crisis of authority”. If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e. is no longer “leading” but only “dominant”, exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. N.B. this paragraph should be completed by some observations which I made on the so-called “problem of the younger generation”—a problem caused by the “crisis of authority” of the old generations in power, and by the mechanical impediment that has been imposed on those who could exercise hegemony, which prevents them from carrying out their mission.

The problem is the following: can a rift between popular masses and ruling ideologies as serious as that which emerged after the war be “cured” by the simple exercise of force, preventing the new ideologies from imposing themselves? Will the interregnum, the crisis whose historically normal solution is blocked in this way, necessarily be resolved in favour of a restoration of the old? Given the character of the ideologies, that can be ruled out—yet not in an absolute sense. Meanwhile physical depression will lead in the long run to a widespread scepticism, and a new “arrangement” will be found—in which, for example, catholicism will even more become simply Jesuitism, etc.

Obviously Gramsci was reflecting on Italian politics in the early and mid 1920s. But damn if the sentiment doesn't hit. The Vision Pro feels like an artifact of the old world. We won't need it in the new one.


things i'm consuming

Insano, Kid Cudi

God of War (2018)