The Pods of No Return
Will we choose the real world or a quieter, better one?
This week’s launch of Apple’s new noise-canceling wireless earphones may seem like another incremental improvement of a popular product. But in fact, the AirPods Pro could be a harbinger of a vastly different world ahead.
Hemingway famously described the two ways a man goes bankrupt: “Gradually and then suddenly.” Cultural shifts can happen in much the same way, particularly when sparked by technology — in slow motion and in plain sight.
This tiny but powerful accessory is designed to add an artificial barrier between our bodies and the world we inhabit. At some point, a majority of us may make that new layer our default setting. We’ll decide that for most of our waking hours, it’s better than the real world.
That tipping point won’t arrive in a far-off dystopia full of virtual reality helmets and dark rooms. Its sleek white vehicle is shipping now, bound for a pocket near you. But might a sudden cultural shift be just what we need?
We once laughed at self-serious business types and their brick phones. But before long, mobile technology was everywhere, tethered to our bodies with iconic wired earbuds of glistening white. Self-consciousness fell away, replaced by permanent chatter and hand gestures that would make an Italian blush.
Through the power of connectivity, people felt they could exist in two places at once, wherever they roamed. And they loved it.
Still, many laughed again when the original AirPods debuted in 2016. Freed from their wires, the protruding buds looked silly to many. Surely these naked, elongated Tic Tacs would only be embraced only by introverted tech nerds lacking in self-awareness.
But again, the culture shifted in time. Apple would sell an estimated 50 million pair within a couple years. Once we built up the social courage to look a little odd, we realized that something so functional and easy made wires seem downright barbaric.
As with many successful tech products, AirPods improved in time, almost imperceptibly. New features emerged while voice assistance became more responsive and useful. As battery life grew, connections with the broader Apple ecosystem strengthened.
Other companies launched many fine competitive products over that period, many of them well-entrenched audio brands. But in a few short years, Apple has captured 60 percent of the category, with AirPods expected to double in sales by 2021.
Now, as the AirPods Pro complete their transpacific journey, consumers face an even bolder promise than mere ease and freedom. It’s a new layer of noise-canceled tranquility in an ever-loudening world — on your person, integrated to your devices, and at your command.
The laughter of old has been silenced. We’re well past the question of whether people will wear these things. Now it’s a matter of whether we’ll ever take them off.
The product’s most telling feature is a subtle one. With the touch of a button-like area — a “force sensor” in Apple speak — the AirPods Pro enter Transparency mode. While the earphones still function, some external sound is allowed in, so you can hear traffic or a flight announcement. Then, with another touch, return to your sonic cocoon.
This option may seem almost obvious in its logic, but it actually flips the entire paradigm of such a device. Until now, we would default to the outside world, wearing earphones when we wanted to tune it out. Now, we have the power to live in our heads all the time — and control exactly when to let the world in.
Most of us live under the old model, as we always have. We put on a listening device for a specific purpose, and once our call or commute concludes, we remove it. Our ears and attention return to our natural state: the bustling analog world around us.
Now, though, AirPods Pro offer a new and intoxicating level of digital control. In a time of relentless stimulus and discord, we’re starving for some peace and quiet — and the agency to summon it whenever we want. Why not wear them in from dawn to dusk?
Early adopters who choose to live “always-on” may face a touch of social static at first. But if our recent social history is any guide, self-consciousness will fade as quickly as adoption rises. The minority will become the majority, and a tipping point will arrive.
Armed with a powerful new weapon in the battle of signal versus noise, signal will emerge victorious. Gradually. And then suddenly.
Your humble columnist considers himself torn on the matter. On one hand, an extra layer between ourselves and our reality — like our screens often function today — makes us more socially isolated. Our attention becomes fragmented, our powers of concentration diminished. We risk missing out on the world around us.
That said, these times require all the control and peace we can muster. By taking command of a new sonic layer, we might claim greater agency over our day-to-day consciousness — boosting our focus with curated audio, achieving more through voice assistants, or simply enjoying inner calm at a more profound level. That new value may be worth the social compromise.
Even if our tipping point hasn’t arrived yet, it can’t be far off. A quick glance at any workplace or downtown area proves that these devices have already become ubiquitous. (Provided you live and work in the kind of place where people use the word ubiquitous.)
Every technological breakthrough has its early doubters. But in the end, video always kills the radio star. In David Mamet’s underrated film Redbelt, a character makes a powerful statement in the context of martial arts. “Everything has a force,” he says. “You embrace it or deflect it. Why oppose it?”
Whether we like it or not, a tipping point is a cultural force — and the act of opposing it requires the most energy. We can embrace this new reality fully, or deflect it by participating with open-minded caution.
But denying the inevitable will drain us. And we damn well need our strength.
So this author, for one, will choose to embrace our artificially peaceful future.
Even if noise cancellation becomes our default setting as a civilization, it still comes with an on-off switch. In certain settings, Transparency Mode is no replacement for two old-fashioned ears.
We should still be fully present for the moments that matter, from key meetings and vulnerable conversations to the dining table and the bedroom. (Unless we’re ready for an even more intimate relationship with Siri — and possibly Alexa, in the right moment.)
Within society, we’ll all need to work harder to earn the attention of others. We experience designers must create new modes of interaction to keep up with an evolving reality. Creative professionals will need to rethink virtually everything. Thankfully, we love a good challenge.
Most importantly, becoming more tranquil might just make us better people. Armed with more signal and less noise, we could gain a firmer grasp of what’s important and true, and begin seeing past our differences. Or at the very least, staying out of each other’s way.
It’s a big decision, even as our cultural plate is rather full. But every breakthrough has its risks, and some are worth taking. Maybe it’s time to give peace a chance.