Apple’s awful iPad ad shows it has run out of ideas

Crush! | iPad Pro | Apple

Given the prominence of psychedelic drugs in the Big Tech mythos, I doubt it’s a faux pas to share the story I’ve heard about Steve Jobs and the devil. As the story goes, asked what he learned on LSD, Steve replied that he sold his soul to Satan for charisma. Funny or not, given his way with marketing, it’s a plausible tale — as is the sad outcome wherein, it’s claimed, he believed his pancreatic cancer was the devil come to collect.

However, it’s Steve’s corporate heir, the substantially less magnetic Tim Cook, who faces a related reckoning. After dining out on the cult of Jobs and the totemic devices Steve sold as the one true way to Think Different, Cook coasted through increasingly narrow shoals and now finds himself pitched for the falls.

Beyond war, beyond rule, the most profound reason to keep stretching the human form to fit the tech, rather than the other way around, is because if we don’t do that we might question everything about the value of progress.

Decent buzz and functionality haven’t been enough to lift the Apple Watch to the iPhone’s stratospheric heights — a lofty realm where, today, each subsequent model in the crowded field of commoditized smartphones feels more inessential than the last. Victim of its own success, Apple’s stalwart effort to change the game once again has coughed up a series of doubts.

The Vision Pro is a bridge too far for all but a handful of self-style visionaries. The new iPad, introduced by a flashy, obliviously creepy ad, has triggered a wave of pro-human backlash that, in turn, has prompted an extremely uncharacteristic company apology. Public press chatter about Cook’s most likely successor has already begun. At this point, Cook may be asking his bathroom mirror, “Am I the App-hole?”

The problems are myriad, the solution elusive. For a company as powerful as Apple, existential challenges are most likely to be found only at the most stubborn of limits — such as those that describe the form of humanity and technology themselves.

Americans are no strangers to the way leading technologists eyeing a full-blown digitization of governance like to cast human limits as a problem that can be solved. But a simple look at the Vision Pro gives pause. The human field of vision is adaptable but finite, with bounds of comfort defined by your big-screen TV at one end and your smartphone at the other.

Of course, we can and do push those bounds for the benefit of the high that comes from limited exposure to unsustainable extremes. IMAX can be breathtaking, but, as some recent social media pics of “Dune Part 2” in the third row make plain, at the margins, the image is too distorted to be useful or genuinely entertaining. Likewise, a smartwatch can offer some fun features for the person who doesn’t want to have to keep checking their phone, but you don’t want to watch “Dune Part 2” that way, either.

That’s why the Sphere in Las Vegas, although improving on IMAX in terms of reducing distortion, worsens the experience by distorting us, the audience, shrinking us down into specks within what from the outside is often seen as a monstrosity-sized eyeball. The Vision Pro causes an inverse but similar effect: Instead of being trapped inside the all-encompassing screen of a vast eyeball, a small screen is brought so close to our eyeballs that it seems to be inside them. I can hear legions of neuro-tech nerds salivating over the prospect of finally getting the screen across that flimsy barrier and straight into our optic nerves.

Yes — I’m sure there’s a way to achieve these machine dreams and even a way to do it without killing people or turning their brains to lentil soup. But what purpose is so important as to justify all the trouble we’ll have to go to in order to do so?

The classic answer for runaway technological development is that it’s needed to defend ourselves militarily, or might be one day, probably soon, and after all, the best defense is a good offense, right? Even now, however, we’re starting to see that logic leap as a barrier of its own — rather than saving us from some foreign enemy, full-blown technologization is being pushed on us as the only viable form of government going forward. From the pharaohs to the Trump administration, we are told, all human forms of rule have been tried, and all have been found wanting. We need justice we can’t achieve, and the only place we can turn for it is the machines — programmed correctly, of course …

It’s a logic that reveals the primary use case for so many of our most cutting-edge technologies to be compulsory, not liberating. How far we’ve come from fifty years ago, when John Lennon commanded us to “imagine all the people” — today, Apple’s iPad demands that we “imagine all the things” the device might create. Our journey from subject to object is nearly complete!

Yet, somehow, no matter how many people our dehumanization projects maim, torture, or kill, we human beings keep on ticking. Beyond war, beyond rule, the most profound reason to keep stretching the human form to fit the tech, rather than the other way around, is because if we don’t do that we might question everything about the value of progress. When that happens, the collapse will surely be nigh. Like it is right now? Hey, wait a minute.

Much like “art for art’s sake,” tech for tech’s sake is a recipe for disaster. However prone to extremes we are, choosing just one extreme in the hopes of channeling all that self-destructive energy into a godlike creation project brings us back to a very ancient form of ruin, one we are always tempted, in ways large and small, to bring repeatedly on ourselves.

Quite a lot for a humble technology company like Apple to wrestle with. But the titanic burden shouldn’t be much of a shock if your mission is really to Think Different about stealing a bite from the Garden of Eden. Just ask Steve Jobs.

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