Consumption · Food for Thought · Philosophy

Apple has a vision. Are we a part of it?

When I think of futuristic technology, I don’t think I am alone in looking to Apple as one of the drivers. I am sure techies would roll their eyes at this, but Apple’s marketing prowess helps bring new technologies into the hands of users.

This ability cannot be overlooked. But who is really driving this push forward? Is it the big companies with multi-million dollar R&D budgets? Or is it us, the lowly consumer, casting a vote with our hard earned money?

Let’s take a look.

Entering the world of Augmented Reality

On Tuesday, Apple released to the public the iPhone X. The top-line model costs around $1000, and it does all sorts of amazing things. For example, the whole front of the phone is a screen, and there is no home button. To access the device, you simply look at it. Apple’s facial recognition software does the rest.

On the surface, Apple’s at it again—new, fancy devices like the world has never seen. But maybe there’s more to it?

On WBUR’s daily roundtable talk show, On Point, host Tom Ashbrook spoke to some experts about the new iPhone X and what it means for the industry. One of the guests, David Pierce, senior staff writer at WIRED magazine, claimed this release signaled a shift from making new, fancier phones to drive profits to producing something that will embrace future technologies, specifically, augmented reality.

Once only found in the world of science fiction, augmented reality is the future. It will happen. By basically morphing the “real” and “virtual” worlds, augmented reality is a real game changer. It will allow you to read emails and texts projected on the wall in front of you, or play zombie games with holographic zombies running around your house.

Personally, this stuff terrifies me—but not just because there might be zombies running around my house (though that’s plenty scary). No, this augmented reality hearken far too much to the world Ray Bradbury constructed in Fahrenheit 451, where people absorb themselves in the virtual world through wall-size TV families, running away from the reality that surrounds them. This is dystopic, I know, but I can’t help but draw parallels.

But I digress.

Apple’s technological progress

Part of what has made Apple such a successful company is its vision—they have an uncanny ability to produce the products people want before they want them.

So this idea that the release of the new iPhone X is indicative of Apple once again setting out on turning a vision for the future into reality got me thinking. Shocking, I know.

Where does progress come from?

I’ve always been interested in the idea of progress. I studied history in college, and I have always had a curiosity for understanding how things are the way they are. While I still have no definitive answers—and likely never will—my general understanding is that we’ve gotten to this point from a combination of happy accidents, good ideas, and hard work—and of course some adversity fueling the fire along the way.

This is mostly true. But assigning this random energy to the forward thrust of humankind is, to me, maybe missing the point.

Human beings are capable of accomplishing virtually anything they put their mind to, so long as they stay within the confines of the laws governing the physical world.

Technological progress is no different. We now have hover boards, self-driving cars, and oh yeah, going to space nowadays is pretty much no big deal. That still amazes me.

Happy accidents are certainly a part of progress, but I would make the argument it’s far from a random process. It may start randomly, but then it comes to fruition through dedicated effort, tremendous resources, and human will.

We aren’t where we are today by accident—those who lived before us have chosen for us to be here.

What do we choose?

We can all pretty much agree that one of the reasons we do what we do is to try and make the world a little better than it was the day before.

This means different things for everyone. For some, it means earning a good wage any way you can to provide comfort and security for your family, or to help your children go to school and live a better life. For others, it might mean heading out into the political trenches to fight for more widespread change.

No matter what people do, though, it’s a stretch to think many are out there trying to make things worse. At least that’s how I like to think of it.

Knowing this, it’s important to remember how we are constantly choosing our future. In today’s capitalistic economy, company actions are driven by consumer choice. They follow the money. If people are willing to buy something, they will make it.

Tim Cook and the folks at Apple are banking on the fact that people will welcome this augmented reality stuff, and chances are they probably will. After all, it’s pretty cool and will probably make people’s lives easier in some ways.

However, the success of companies such as Apple indicate how little our priorities have adapted to a changing world. We continue to put a tremendous amount of effort into trying to make our lives easier and more comfortable. Or, one could say, into making our lives more pleasurable. While this is noble pursuit, is exerting so much effort on creating material things to make our lives better still the right path?

What will we choose?

To me, thinking of the tiny things I do each day as a choice for the future makes life a bit more interesting.

It’s certainly easy to think these seemingly insignificant actions mean nothing. But is that entirely true? If I choose to go to a certain store or buy a certain thing because it is cheaper or easier, I am in fact choosing the thing that is cheaper and easier. This signals to those above that we value cheap and easy, so cheap and easy is what we get.

But the beauty of living today is that there are so many different choices. If I don’t want cheap and easy, I don’t have to have it. And by choosing something else, I am allowing those forging that progress to live another day, to cast another stone into the pond of tomorrow.

Moving Forward

This doesn’t just apply to cheap and easy, though. It applies across the board. Buying something is essentially your contribution to that line of progress. To return to the example I started with, buying an iPhone X may very well be your contribution to the future world of augmented reality. It’s already under way, but by pitching in, you’re closing the gap between now and then.

I personally think our efforts could be better spent. It seems much of the progress we see in today’s world comes from our perennial dissatisfaction with what we have—our obsession with new and shiny.

For our ancestors, choices on this basis made a lot of sense—new and shiny made their lives a whole lot better, and quite frequently, a lot safer. But does it make just as much sense for us? Or could we be choosing something else?

There is plenty of merit to the idea that any step forward, no matter the direction, is still a step forward. But is a new iPhone that can read your face and augment your reality really a step forward? Is that the choice we want to make? We need cell phones, of course—they have redefined how we communicate and opened so many doors. But do we need to spend so much time, and so much energy, and so much money making them better? Or is what we have good enough?

What do you think?  Is progress the result of haphazard efforts to try and make our lives better? Or is it a well-thought out, well-guided path we choose to take?

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