Apple’s AirPods Pro are a symbol of death

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.

Resistance is futile

Why think for yourself when a machine can do it for you? That’s the message being pushed by mobile network ads in 2018.

Here in the UK, mobile networks are being advertised in a way that makes my skin crawl.

If you’re looking for evidence of a hypothetical ‘smartphone dystopia’, look no further than every time Martin Freeman pops up on your TV screen pushing Vodafone’s digital wares. While not all network ads are this bad (Giffgaff is taking a completely different approach, for example), I find the current campaigns of EE, Vodafone and Three downright obnoxious.

Let’s look at some examples.

EE

Of the three, Kevin Bacon’s EE ads are perhaps the least potentially harmful (albeit still cringeworthy). In this long-running series, actor Kevin Bacon encourages you to choose EE because you can consume more pointless digital stuff all the time and anywhere you want. ‘Consume more’ is a key message in most advertising, of course, but especially in mobile advertising, where – with a few exceptions – the products are framed almost exclusively as consumption platforms. EE’s ads are typical in that they try to convey a sense of breezy excitement in new technology, that by participating you’re joining something big.

EE actually stands for ‘Everything Everywhere’. If that’s not a direct command to consume I don’t know what is.

Vodafone

Vodafone’s current TV advertising campaign in the UK features actor Martin Freeman. Many of the earlier ads weren’t so bad – some were even a little charming. We saw the character’s girlfriend presenting him with a new phone, and another in which he was getting frustrated trying to ‘break up’ with his old network (but guess what, Vodafone has a cooling-off period!).

But I find the most recent Vodafone ad highly disturbing. Martin Freeman is on a commuter train packed with passengers watching videos on their phones. He tries to strike up conversations but is ignored; the expressions of those jacked in to the network become increasingly aggressive and hostile as Freeman’s character becomes more and more agitated. He soon discovers that everyone is watching the same show. Finally, he yells ‘What is wrong with you people?’ before turning away and cringing, as if realising that he is the only one not participating in this shared experience, facilitated – the implication goes – by Vodafone.

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But here’s the thing: this ad fails to communicate any of the positive aspects of smartphone use, instead focusing on the negative sides. The Vodafone users are depicted as mindless drones whose attention has been stolen by the passive consumption of content. None of them looks happy or calm. Most look distracted at best, or angry at worst. The attention-robbing nature of smartphones is emphasised by the fact that none of these people seem physically capable of tearing themselves away from the glowing rectangles in their hands. They look exactly like the junkies they are.

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This ad plays the peer pressure card big time: you are the only one not consuming this presumably gripping content, the ad’s message clearly says. Resistance is futile. It concludes with their cute little tagline, ‘The future is exciting’, but I don’t think this ad conveys any excitement whatsoever – only numb conformity.

Three

I’ve left the worst until last. Three UK has recently launched a campaign called #PhonesAreGood. This campaign is a direct attack against the current and growing humane technology counterculture.

The first ad (presumably of many) begins with a woman scrolling through headlines such as ‘Phones are bad’, ‘They’ll end humanity’, and ‘Life was better before phones’. She looks shocked and worried… but then her phone is sucked into a wormhole and zapped back through time so that Three can prove that phones would have solved all of humanity’s problems throughout history.

We see the Titanic saved by a data readout on the smartphone’s display (‘Phones 1, haters 0’, apparently), Eve ignoring the serpent’s temptation in the Garden of Eden because she’s scrolling through pictures of Adam on Instagram, Henry VIII using Tinder (‘Phones save wives’), and a starving band of Neanderthals ordering a pizza with a tap. Moses divides the Red Sea while a follower videos it.

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Finally, the hashtag #PhonesAreGod appears for a split second before changing to #PhonesAreGood.

I find this advert troubling on several levels. Most importantly, it dismisses the growing mental health concerns regarding smartphones and social media in the most flippant manner possible. I get it – it’s supposed to be funny and cute, but this will only serve to make people who struggle with this stuff wonder if they’re the ones at fault, not the technology, when in fact the opposite is true.

You wouldn’t see an advert in 2018 glibly making fun of depression or anxiety, so why is this considered ok?

The ad presents a world in which human agency and ingenuity are worthless. Why think or do anything, Three says, when a smartphone can solve all your problems with a tap? This is even worse than the message of mindless consumption promoted by EE and Vodafone, because in Three’s world human beings are relegated to mere smartphone operators, slaves to the machine god. And while adults will have the necessary perspective to avoid taking that message literally, children and teenagers will be watching this. Is this a message we want to implant in young minds – that your intellect and creativity don’t matter?

On a deeper level, it’s even possible to argue that this message is an attack against humanity itself. Humans are messy and imperfect. We fail and we die – but these are priceless aspects of the human condition, things that make us who we are. Technology cannot eliminate failure or death. Would we want it to? And if it did, would we even be human any more? I can’t help but think a war is starting to be fought against our very humanity, and perhaps we’re seeing the first hints of it.

Resist

As the anti-Entanglement pushback gathers pace, mobile network ads are becoming more aggressive in their drive to further entangle and enslave us in the world of passive digital consumption. They use the age-old advertising tactics of peer pressure, technodazzle and the lolz to get us to spend ever-increasing amounts of money on stuff that we do not need (and, in most cases, had no idea we even wanted until it was shoved in front of our faces by Kevin Bacon). So far, so capitalism I guess – except that no object in the history of the world has the power to capture and mould attention like the smartphone.

The tactics being used in 2018 take things much, much further. They push an agenda of relentless, ever-increasing, unquestioning consumption

Years ago, when I worked for Carphone Warehouse, I came to believe that we were using unethical tactics to sell smartphones. Back in 2011–12, most of our customers did not want them; they wanted something inexpensive, familiar, and simple to use that did the basics (calls, text, and photos in those days). But smartphones were more profitable for us, and so we pushed our digital drugs, convincing people that they wanted email and Facebook in their pocket even if they did not need these things. During the ‘Walk Out Working’ period we even signed people up for new Google accounts during phone setup without taking the time to explain what consequences this would have for the rest of their lives. I didn’t know then what I know now, of course, but I look back on those years with shame.

The tactics being used in 2018 take things much, much further. They push an agenda of relentless, ever-increasing, unquestioning consumption. They teach us to stop thinking for ourselves because the machines know best. They want us to spend more and more on crap we do not need, solving problems that don’t exist. And most of all, they whisper in our ear that resistance is futile – that this is just the way the world is now, so get with the programme.

It’s time to resist.