Feb 25, 2024

The inhuman computer

The Vision Pro has arrived. With it, came a splashy Vanity Fair piece featuring Tim Cook reclining at his desk, stoically indulging in some spatial computing. The moment I saw the shot, I was reminded of the iconic photo of early Apple designer Susan Kare, also reclining at a desk, with a smile on her face and a Mac perched behind her. I posted about it, because I thought it was an interesting juxtaposition of two points in Apple’s history.

The more I read about the Vision Pro, the more my mind kept coming back to those two photos. Casey Niestat’s brilliant review illustrates why. Here he was, sitting in the of New York city in the middle of the day, surrounded by people but somehow also alone; wrapped in a personal bubble of technology.

Now, you might take Casey’s video as tongue in cheek. Apple clearly doesn’t intend this generation of the Vision Pro to be used as a walking around device. But if you look at any of their marketing videos, their vision for how it should be used isn’t fundamentally different. People playing with their kids, talking with friends, living their lives, all funneled through the Vision Pro. Apple’s vision for the future of computing, at a time when people feel more disconnected then ever, is to disconnect people even more by turing real life into a digital, Apple controlled experience. It’s a vision that is fundamentally inhuman.

It’s not just the vision; thw same philosophy seems to have saturated into every pore of the device. All the marketing videos share an intentionally bland art direction, with “homes” ripped out of Dwell and characters that resemble department store mannequins more so than living, breathing people. And then there are the avatars. My immediate reaction on seeing them was “Steve Jobs would NEVER”, quickly followed by a recall of Hayao Miyazaki’s infamous reaction to a demo of an AI-created character:

I am utterly disgusted… I strongly feel that this is an insult to life itself.

At every turn, the Vision Pro seeks to remind you that it wasn’t designed with actual humans in mind. Ed Zitron’s scathing review offers an exhaustive list of user hostilities, from a flawed interface model, to major bugs affecting fundamental UI tasks, to a design that requires an individually sized “light seal” to function properly. Even video viewing – one of the more successful use cases according to most reviews – suffers from chronic inhumanity. It’s not uncommon for movies to bring viewers to tears, but crying is simply something you can’t do while using the Vision Pro.

Which brings me back to those two photos. I don’t see the same scene captured decades apart, I see two fundamentally different philosophies, and two fundamentally different versions of Apple.

The Mac was infused with creative spirit from the start; both in expression and intent. It was a tool to empower creativity, empower people in their personal and professional lives. The photo of Susan Kare tells that story. Carefree, feet on desk, a wall of book and notes behind her, and yes, a Mac.

The Vision Pro however represents an inversion of the Mac’s vision of a computer as a tool that empowers and enhances human expression. Instead, like a cell turned cancerous, the technology is now the point, with humans serving to give it life (money) and purpose (more money). The photo of Tim Cook tells that story too. Drab, lifeless, art unhung, Vision Pro at center stage.

Apple isn’t alone here. This tail-wags-dog approach underpins the AI space at large, like it did with “web 3” and blockchain before it. If anything, it’s the defining characteristic of modern big tech. These are the richest companies on the planet, but they want more, and they’re desperate to find or force the next big thing in order to make it happen.

  • In the spirit of the Bechdel test, I’d like to propose the “Can you cry while using it?” test as a means for assessing whether or not flesh and blood humans were centered in the making of a given piece of technology.

  • On the hardware itself; I’m a longtime owner of an Occulus Rift, which uses a large, power hungry computer and multiple hardwired sensors placed around the room to track you. The fact that Apple has packed all of that into a headset – with major improvements to things like screen resolution – is a technical feat.

  • You can’t cry in any other current-gen “goggle” headsets either, but no other system is seriously marketed as anything other than game-playing devices.

  • The Frame glasses from Brilliant Labs seem much more Apple-like than the Vision Pro, and much more human-centric in approach. It’s a mystery to me why Apple – given their experience with Earpods, Watch, and Siri – decided not to pursue this direction.

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