The culture war for your face

“Don’t wear the goggles.”

So implored New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in a newsletter last week, making the case to his readers that a reality lived through the mediating influence of augmented reality was not really one well-lived at all.

“This is not a rejection of technological progress,” Douthat writes. “It’s a rejection of the social regress and dehumanization that comes when we let technology master us instead of the other way around.”

Fair enough — there’s an entire field dedicated to making sure that technology serves humanity’s existing needs instead of amorphously shaping them. But VR devices affect us differently, in that they’re the exact opposite of new technologies like AI that operate mostly behind the scenes. They actually create the scenes. There’s a reason that Douthat is so agitated, just as there’s a reason that in introducing Apple’s Reality Pro headset, Tim Cook positioned it as the next step in an evolution of computing that started with the personal computer, evolved to the smartphone, and now will enclose your eyes in a digital bubble.

The vision of a VR-augmented world proposed by Apple and the broader community of metaverse boosters would transform society as much as the smartphone did, if not more. Now Apple has developed a headset that people might actually want to use on a daily basis, assuming they can afford it.

That’s why critics like Douthat (and many others) are now painting a bleak vision of what a VR-saturated society might look like, and the tech companies themselves are ardently fighting back. Whoever gains more cultural influence and wins America’s hearts and minds in that debate could help define for a generation how we interact with our devices, and how those devices in turn shape our experience of the “real world.”

One of the tech world’s representatives in this fight, as one might expect, is metaverse evangelist numero uno Mark Zuckerberg — but his rhetorical mode in doing so might be surprising.

“Our vision for the metaverse and presence is fundamentally social… Our device is also about being active and doing things,” Zuckerberg told Meta employees last week. “By contrast, every demo that they showed was a person sitting on a couch by themself. I mean, that could be the vision of the future of computing, but like, it’s not the one that I want.”

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