Apple recently announced the AirPods Pro – shiny new wireless earbuds with some attractive new features. But they can’t be repaired, and are an environmental disaster waiting to happen. They also raise troubling questions about our inability to be silent with our own thoughts.
White Apple headphones have become a visual cliché in urban environments. For many years they were wired, but more recently the wireless kind have risen to prominence. AirPods are expensive, easily lost, and disposable, which makes them a uniquely obnoxious form of conspicuous consumerism. Wired headphones work perfectly fine – or at least they did until phone manufacturers started eradicating the headphone jack – so if you can afford to pay the minimum £159 sticker price of AirPods then you’re signalling that you’re willing to splash out this kind of money on a convenience that’s also a status symbol. Personally I can’t think of anything that screams ‘I conform!’ more than plugging Apple adverts into my ears, but maybe that’s just me.
The AirPods Pro take things a few steps further:
- They are dramatically more expensive, at £249.
- They feature ‘Active Noise Cancellation’, designed to further immerse you in whatever Gripping Content™ you’ve decided to consume, eradicating just that bit more evidence that you’re living in the physical world.
- They’re ‘even more magical’, which is Apple-speak for ‘we can make you give us money’.
My main objection to AirPods is that they are disposable products with a severely limited lifespan. Ifixit recently completed their teardown of the AirPods Pro, and gave them a repairability score of zero. Unlike your phone, which is bad enough but can still theoretically be repaired, AirPods are mostly held together with glue and can’t be opened without destroying them. This means that when (not if) the batteries fail, they become environmentally dangerous technoscrap. These products are destined to end up in the ground in their millions, perhaps forming a geological layer along with all the other technoscrap, rather like the fossilised shoes left behind after the Shoe Event Horizon dreamed up by Douglas Adams.
On a less tangible level, I’m also troubled by active noise cancellation. AirPods Pro are not, of course, the only headphones you can buy with this feature, but when combined with the other downsides it merely serves to sweeten the sauce. Many humans in the 21st-century western world cannot suffer being alone, and will do almost anything to drive away the little slivers of solitude that punctuate daily life. The voices and ideas of others suffuse every moment of consciousness. We look at our smartphones the instant we awake. When walking to the bus stop or waiting in a queue, we plug in headphones and silence the world with music or a podcast.
Look – I love music as much as the next person, and often carry headphones with me so that I can drown out the world from time to time. But wireless earbuds are more convenient to leave in all the time, so why would people ever want to take them off (until they need charging, that is)? Why not leave them in from breakfast until you get home, saturating every instant with music and chatter, keeping precious boredom at bay, preventing a single scrap of genuine solitude from creeping through the defences?
Maybe that sounds attractive, but solitude is important, and we’re starved of it. I’ve been leaving my headphones at home a lot more over the last year, forcing myself to be alone and bored, because that’s when my mind lights up and I know who I am again. But on-demand distraction feels good in the short term so that’s what the brain craves.
Add active noise cancellation into the mix and you make it really easy for the AirPods Pro wearer to pretend that the external world doesn’t exist at all. Gripping Content™ is served to you on a bed of silence, the world just a drab, grubby background behind the hyper-saturated rectangle of your smartphone.
The real world may not be as exciting as Spotify or the latest podcast, but it’s real, and this is where we live. The less time we spend here the less we’ll care about it. We should check in more often.
I’m not even going to get into the other aspects of AirPods I find creepy and dystopian, such as the always-listening Siri voice assistant (luckily, Siri is mostly useless). And it isn’t all bad. The AirPods Pro do have an adjustable fit, which may make it less likely that one will drop out of your ear and be lost. I guess that’s something.
Look, if you have spent £249 on wireless earbuds that are destined to end up in landfill because they can’t be repaired, leaching toxic chemicals into the earth, then you’re not only signalling that you have more money than sense – you’re signalling that convenience is more important to you than the world in which we all live. That not only is today more important than tomorrow, but tomorrow doesn’t even exist. You’re also signalling that you’re easily controlled by Apple’s siren call of consumerism. Did purchasing them make you feel good? But it’s a momentary hit of pleasure in the void, isn’t it, until you feel the need to consume more – or until the AirPods Pro 2 come out and the old ones go into a drawer, maybe for 3 years, maybe for 20, but eventually they’ll come out of the drawer and end up in the ground. Or maybe you’ll decide to be an earnestly conscientious consumer and use your AirPods Pro until they fail, which will be in about two years because the batteries are minute and can never be replaced. And then you’ll open your wallet again because convenience soon becomes need.
How many pairs of AirPods will you get through in your lifetime before Apple announces the ability to embed them permanently in your head, so that you’ll never have to endure silence, or your own thoughts, ever again? Does that idea make you feel uncomfortable – or excited?
AirPods are death. They are a symbol of corporate control, of the annihiliation of the self and the annihilation of all life. Don’t buy them. Tell your family and friends not to buy them. Enjoy music, podcasts, whatever, but also take a few moments each week to be alone and without entertainment – you never know what thoughts will come to you in the silence.