Once upon a time, the buzzy new consumer technologies du jour involved digital reproductions of analog tools like the typewriter and the camera. Now, it's human abilities that the engineers and software developers of Silicon Valley are competing to clone.
Can a device understand your speech and respond naturally? Can it decide which of the photos you take are worth keeping in a family vacation album? Can it capture your smile, and imagine what it would look like on a cartoon cat or an anthropomorphic pile of poop?
On Tuesday, Apple announced a handful of cutting-edge features for its new iPhone X, including two that struck many tech commentators as creepy. Both involve the device "looking at" and analyzing its users. The new Face ID feature is just like Touch ID, except that instead of using a fingerprint as a password substitute it uses a scan of your face.
Apple also debuted "Animoji," a portmanteau of "animation" and "emoji." The phone will scan your expression and create an emoji version. It's a step beyond Snapchat filters: Instead of merely embellishing or distorting your face, it maps your expressions onto a cartoon simulacrum.
Apple, 2017: YOU WILL CARRY OUR DEVICE IN YOUR POCKET AND EVERY TIME YOU HOLD IT WE SCAN YOUR FACE AND YOU WILL LOVE IT pic.twitter.com/xovyC2CkjS-- Jake Laperruque (@JakeLaperruque) September 12, 2017
It wasn't by accident that Apple made these features the focus of its big press event. The company earnestly wants the iPhone to serve as an ever-better extension of its users' desires. Think of it less as a tool than a super-powered limb. Ideally, the device would obey you as effortlessly as your hands and feet do.
So why does that seem to skeeve so many folks out? Sure, Face ID raises potential privacy concerns. What if a police officer holds your phone up to your face to unlock it against your will? But so did Touch ID, and most users were willing to take that risk in exchange for the extra convenience. Rather, Face ID and Animoji are stark examples of Apple joining the parade of Silicon Valley companies whose innovations offer an implicit tradeoff: Give us whatever we ask for and we'll give you everything you never knew you wanted.
The endgame of hegemonic tech companies is to subsume your entire life in terms of a given domain. Facebook has nakedly pursued this goal for years, trying to ingest every aspect of social interaction. Even for those who find the social networking service too useful to give up, its importunate nudges can be profoundly unsettling. Keeping in touch with your friends and family is great, but seeing your psychiatrist's other patients pop up in the suggestion box is something else entirely. Being prompted to ENGAGE ENGAGE ENGAGE to further a corporate agenda that's divorced from your actual needs ... Who feels good about that?
For a long time, Apple's professed regard for consumer privacy has shielded it from the unease that users sometimes feel for Facebook. Apple is in the business of selling to consumers, not advertisers. It wants to sell devices so indispensable that they serve as your portal to the world. In fact, the continuing build-out of its augmented-reality ARKit shows Apple's desire to not just mediate how users interact with reality, but to become the substrate of that reality. Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa are similar efforts.
As the succession of transformative innovations move up the abstraction stack, from calculators to instantaneous global communication, basic software tools aren't exciting anymore. If you want to wow users, you have to pull out the seeming magic of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, both of which, soon enough, will be blasé features of the consumer and professional landscapes. The companies that make them so will own our world in a more literal sense than ever.
It's not a bad thing. Rather, it's a reality with tradeoffs. Tech platforms will want more and more of your data, of your attention and time, while the terms of service will offer little in return. But you do get something in return: You get to occupy a series of overlapping digital environments full of conveniences and delights. People may say in surveys that they value privacy and the ability to opt out, but with their actions they vote for products that are ever more immersive and intrusive.
Even a younger, smaller company like Slack, which makes a workplace chat app, wants to encompass your professional life and use that hyper-familiarity to build ever more indispensable tools. It explicitly aims to be the primary connecting layer between you and anyone you work with, regardless of whether the person is inside your organization. Slack isn't satisfied with facilitating your work -- it wants to be your work.
Uploading every part of your life, piece by piece, enticing feature by enticing feature, is the natural endpoint of the Internet Revolution. The advent of computing, and its explosion running up to the turn of the century, has transformed the landscape of possibilities as radically as the steam engine, if not more so. We've passed the stage of the process that involves building tools for dealing with information. Now we're in the part that involves entire environments made of information. Guess whose information we're talking about?
Does Face ID make you nervous? Just wait. The rest of your body will be next, and after that they'll take a stab at digitizing the soul. And the really creepy part is you'll probably love it.