Tools for Enslavement
Our age has proven an eagerness for control.
Dressed in his iconic turtleneck, Steve Jobs began his 2007 Apple keynote, “Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.” I remember the energy that year as my brother and I sat at the lunch table together on our laptop and watched Jobs unveil the first iPhone. Since then, Jobs and Tim Cook have repeatedly hailed their products as “magical.”
Monday's Apple keynote followed the established pattern. All the products we are familiar with were given an upgrade. I can’t remember the number of times Apple has told us the newest software update will run three, four—nay—five times faster than older systems. And then, when it seems that everything has new insides and outsides, Tim walks onto stage, pauses, and says, “There’s one more thing.”
So it was again Monday, when Apple announced their own augmented reality headset, Apple Vision. For all the times that Apple products have failed to launch, Apple has still created whole ecosystems in which coders, game developers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and artists have won and lost fortunes. The release of a product like Apple Vision promises to create another economy of app-creators and businesses to manufacture all manner of new experiences.
Along with its enormous financial reservoir—hovering next to a three-trillion-dollar valuation—Apple has near perfect control at every level of development. For all its mistakes in the last twenty years, the tech consumer still looks to Apple for gadgets like fashionistas look to Fashion Week. If Facebook-Meta designs a virtual reality headset, it may be cool, if a little glitchy, but that “cool” factor only attracts so many. Apple sets trends.
The trust of the mainstream consumer depends on many things: Will the item last? Will it live up to the hype? And, among the most important for tech products, will others buy into it along with me? Augmented reality remains a novelty, a strange headset, until stamped with the Apple seal of acceptability—and look at how sleek and hi-techy it looks on your face. No one wants to wear a Facebook-designed thing on their head. But we already wear Apple products on our ears and wrists.
With the power of Apple to induce acceptability, it is more than a little possible now that these headsets will become a familiar sight in offices, coffee shops, living rooms, and college campuses, their specs melded on the faces of office workers, college freshmen, family members, school children. More probable, but not necessary.
As Marshall McLuhan wrote, “there is no inevitability where there is a willingness to pay attention.” In this spirit, McLuhan provides us with a way of revealing hidden aspects of a technology. And Apple Vision offers an occasion to practice.
McCluhan described all sorts of things—cigarettes, high-rise apartments, microphones—according to four, interrelated aspects. A technology enhances, retrieves, obsolesces, and reverses. A refrigerator, for instance, enhances the availability of a wider range of foods, and retrieves more leisure to the cook; at the same time, it makes dried and salted foods obsolete and reverses a homogeneity of flavor and texture. How many times in the past few years have you gone into the cellar to get some salted venison? How long ago were cheddar cheeses reduced to a narrow gradient of sharpness?
Apple Vision enhances—or confirms—our sense that every technology tends toward involving everything, up to reality itself. Walter Ong did excellent work on the profound change that writing and reading had on the cosmos of every European, from the village farmer to the imperial monarch. Laws could be inscribed on walls, stories on parchment, legal contracts on tablets. Memory, human relations, political enforcement, argumentation, and rhetoric are only some of the areas of life that evolved around the written word, and with it, a new form of politics was imaginable. Every medium either confirms or denies different forms of life. With Apple Vision, every inch of a living room is scanned and measured. Additions to one’s space are made to meet in one’s imagination. Visual and audial reality is an even more versatile canvas.
In turn, however, Apple Vision reverses into—or ends up with—a world where objects are all but perfectly fungible. Forget the world of tables whose legs won't fit around a corner, or couches that take a four-man team to bring in, massive televisions that might fall and shatter. Apple Vision projects objects into the room without the need of a friend to help bring it up into the apartment. Instead of bringing a clunky laptop (all two pounds of it) into a coffee shop where coffee might spill onto it, one need only bring a headset and have, as the keynote promises, “infinite” space for your work. You won't bump into your virtual furniture, unlike that all-too-pointy table you eat at. Objects become weightless, effortlessly adjustable, tactlessly manipulable, harmless. Safe.
If Apple Vision retrieves anything, it may well be the full immersion experience that the rare IMAX 70mm theater offers. Cinema—and other art-media—has suffered for too long the constraints of pocket-sized phones on long plane- ides, or minivans with those plop-down screens. Film and painting strive for the largest screen possible. When touring the Louvre, I was struck by the physical space taken up by canvases such as the Raft of the Medusa or Scène du Déluge, spanning the whole wall, floor to ceiling. They go beyond one's focus, far past the periphery. Gazing at The Last Supper, one must turn right and left to scan the faces of the twelve with the Lord. Painting has no natural margin, but always pushes for an ever wider scope, as the ceilings of churches and the mosaics of Roman homes demonstrate.
While Apple Vision promises the largest canvas possible for that Netflix show, interest in the actual room becomes obsolete. A room can include a couch and maybe a coffee table—the more minimal, in fact, the easier for the headset to scan the space for places to project virtual objects—and the headset will provide the rest. As one’s attention turns to the virtual space, less concern is spent on the room itself. It is more of a beginning to the more vibrant room seen through the headset. The concrete floor and walls are the dark, forgotten background to the main event. As app-developers introduce new games and amusements for the headset, look for other apps, labelled perhaps under “productivity” or “utilities,” that allow you to change the color of the walls, add a clock or painting to the backwall, perhaps render the bags of chips at your feet invisible.
A portion of the Apple keynote explored the exciting prospects the headset offered for education. Students will be able to see a 3D heart, moving the parts to expose interior arteries and other complex structures. The possibilities, however, are truly endless. If education for children was a challenge during Covid lockdowns, Apple Vision must surely offer a solution. The teacher’s avatar face can stand at the front of a virtual classroom; the children can raise their hands like normal; the whiteboard can be saved on one’s iPad for later review.
As part of my teaching fellow duties at my university, I sat through many meetings about ChatGPT and the classroom. Everyone saw new opportunities to cheat; many tried to find ways to shore up assignments. Still, some thought that including ChatGPT in the classroom might not be all that bad. Lacking was the abundance of caution I thought any teacher might well exercise toward such an enormous change to the classroom.
“The primary purpose of advertising technique is the creation of a certain way of life,” Jacques Ellul wrote in The Technological Society. The public is often expected to be open to a new technology the moment it is introduced. There is no space to wonder if this headset is going to aid you in becoming more virtuous. When it comes to product launches, unveiling and appraisal happen at the same time. Here it is, and yes it’s just so revolutionary and magical—and that's a good thing.
And yet, we know that some tools, some of the time, do not produce desirable outcomes. It is by now a truth universally acknowledged that a teenager in possession of a smartphone is in want of mental health. Suspicion and incredulity are sometimes virtues of thought. And waiting a long time before finally getting an iPhone cannot do damage to a child’s habits. One hopes that parents will pause to reflect on the reports about social media when the Apple headset comes out in the fall.
Whenever we raise concerns with a new-fangled product, we encounter an “after-all” objection: The technology is simply on a scale with other tools about which the author cannot honestly have any objection. How different is it, really, seeing someone on my laptop screen from bringing that screen up to my face via the headset? Is not the use of headphones and screens simply an earlier, old-fashioned version of augmented reality? Isn’t the difference between a typewriter and a desktop found to be a sliding scale?
These are interesting and important questions. Yet, sometimes, the root of these objections is simpler. People want to hope. After writing about the woes of education, Ivan Illich wrote Tools for Conviviality, a more hopeful look at how society might be formed to encourage humane living, instead of the controlling and tyrannical methods and tools for life under the current regime. For Illich, not all tools aim toward conviviality, only some. He hoped for a more humane future, but he entertained no delusions. Our own assessment of technological products today would have a different tone if we granted that some are tools for conviviality, and others are tools for enslavement.
I may not be able to show here to everyone’s satisfaction that Apple Vision fits squarely in this category. I will disappoint some by simply suggesting that there is a strong case for its inclusion. There have certainly been other tools that fit the description. Slavery is an old practice, and humans are nothing if not creative engineers of the means for their own enslavement.
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Tools for enslavement are not tools for inflicting bodily pain, constricting shackles, forcing submission, causing mental or social suffering. Nothing about enslavement must be anything of the kind. Tools for enslavement can be as plush as one likes. What distinguishes them is not the discomfort they inflict on the body, but the enforcement—be it ever so kind—of a way of living inhospitable to human flourishing. A slave may push blocks of stone up a ramp beneath the hot sun without food or water. He may also lean back on a couch in his basement viewing pornography after his work shift, moving items on a screen from here to there with a flick of his fingers.
The age we live in has proven an eagerness for control. Our political systems—both public and private—do not have human flourishing in mind. Their presiding political philosophy is Progress. The tools borne out of this ideology bear its mark. They can have little to no downsides; they do not admit of reflection; they promise greater control of man over nature, including his own. It is this regime that demands our allegiance with the sweetest of promises and the most enticing of treats.
More important than believing Apple Vision to be a tool for enslavement is cultivating the practice of attention to technology with this category in mind. Live as if this kind of tool can be made and sold with fanfare, bought with delight, and handed over to children. To reject that such a category can exist is to fall prey to the myth of Progress.