In 'The Pod Generation', a 2023 film by Sophie Barthes, we are ushered into the spectacle of a not-too-distant future where Pegazus, a giant corporation, in response to feminist calls for equal rights and freedoms from the biological burdens of reproduction, offers couples a singular opportunity to share their pregnancies via a detachable, artificial, plastic womb. The egg-like, knapsack-sized things come with sophisticated regulatory mechanisms, sensors, glowing lights, customer support, and rapid-fire conversations among "the wives" about how their husbands are coping with carrying the pods to work.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the reluctant, perpetually confounded partner to Emilia Clarke's character, who desperately wants to have a child, and who - against her partner's sentiments and philosophies - has signed up for Pegazus's program. Ejiofor's botanist professor character is suspicious of AI therapists, plastic pregnancies, and the automated voice that greets him every morning in their apartment, offering to make breakfast for him. He spends hours in his classrooms urging his students to touch a tree, to taste a fruit, to catch the textural whiff of a flower. However, their mortified disinclination to touch anything that touches them back is a testament to a society that is now seemingly okay with buying air at a kiosk and prefers user-friendly holograms to the things they 'represent'.
I first watched 'The Pod Generation' on a plane. Just as the closing credits floated to the surface, I remember hurriedly writing the following words on my serviette: "Whiteness is optimized an-exposure." Something about the movie, something about the repulsion at the materiality of the world, surfaced the racializing terra-forming performance of white modernity. I was fascinated with the cosmological migration from tactility to holographic neatness that was implied in that fictional society's emergence. The retreat into neon-lit safety. The epigenetic repulsion that characterized encounters with material things. The impatience with the corporeal. The new settlements within the virtual. I couldn't help but notice how this recoil from exposure to the elements, this quest to optimize the world so that it is sensorially available for the hyper-individualized citizen-subject, traced out the contemporary cartographies of whiteness as a civilizing ethic.
The Apple Vision Pro emits a sensuous glow, perhaps one too tempting for the modern-citizen subject to resist.
I thought of this "an-exposure" while watching a YouTube review of Apple's latest technology, the Apple Vision Pro, which ChatGPT CEO Sam Altman calls the "second-most impressive tech since the iPhone." A familiar feeling crept up my skin, unrelentingly digging its nails through as it crawled into my reckoning. The multiple images of aloof, boggle-eyed people typing in the air, entertaining invisible guests, and fighting digital assailants somehow recalled those filmic scenes of office workers chugging with plastic wombs through dense traffic.
The Apple Vision Pro emits a sensuous glow, perhaps one too tempting for the modern-citizen subject to resist. The promissory glow offers a prophecy of sorts: eat this fruit and you will know everything, and the world would be safer for your having known it. There must be something to the fact that despite its steep price, Apple’s new face-obscuring computer is selling out fast. It feels like we are in a theologically significant moment, and all the right ingredients (apples, hidden actors, accusations of villainy, and the ontology of the human) are here.
Make no mistake: I do not think plastic wombs, pricey oxygen cafés, AI poetry, mixed-reality face-computers, or cyborgian sex are inherently “evil” things or deviations from ‘nature’. There is no transcendent place to occupy outside of the moral forces, configurations, and conditions birthing these phenomena that is not already immanently co-emerging alongside them. Instead of thinking of the Vision Pro as the insidious product of an evil corporation (an all-too-popular move made by some who seek to preserve nature’s presumed innocence), I ask: what tendencies are being retraced and reinforced within this sensorium? What is this territory doing? What nature-culture is being crafted here? And what does this nature-culture exclude, obscure, and constitutionally postpone?
Despite its impressive multi-instrumentality, the Apple Vision Pro is not “just a tool” anymore than Pegazus’s plastic egg-womb is “just a tool.” The Vision Pro specifically tracks along dominant tendencies of representation, hinting at a territorial fascination with visuality as the ‘sense of the master’, the gift of the divine. It swims in the same neurotypical waters that nourish the ecology of the modern citizen-subject, the hyper-individualized self that focuses agency in a brutal, front-facing humanism that is increasingly (and performatively) disinclined to touch a world that touches us back.
Whiteness is optimized an-exposure
It needs to be repeated: Whiteness is optimized an-exposure.
Optimization is a ruling out. A fencing in. A managerial logistics concerned with interventions that reduce the raw, growling surfaces of the material to ergonomic interfaces. Screens, screens everywhere! A representational grid that locks out the surprising indeterminacy of things and proliferates a stable, safe archive of encounters. A taming of experience.
An optimized world is finished, complete, and defragged. In such a world, exposure is mere reflection – a duplication of images, a masturbatory reinforcement of our own selves. Ironically, with the Apple Vision Pro strapped to our heads, we risk losing vision. We risk slicing off the tentacularity of vision for its more optimized, an-exposed counterpart. The ‘vision’ that springs out of this corporate, megalithic, archetypal matrix of agencies and algorithms is a political distillation of what white modernity seeks to do. What the Man wants to do: to reduce the world to representation.
While admitting that the Apple Vision Pro seems to be caught up in dominant tensions involving questions about the human and the colonial, I do think the Apple Vision Pro ‘solves’ problems. For instance, the medical applications are interesting to consider. But solving problems is not the ontological slam-dunk we often think it is. In a sense, that’s what moral assemblages do: they solve problems. But they do so by becoming the conditions of the problems they attempt to solve. This Sisyphean circularity is what makes moral structures potentially incarcerating – an analysis that is not itself an attempt to universalize my readings or seek out an Archimedean point upon which to hang a final description of morality.
That the Apple Vision Pro solves problems does not extricate it from the larger agonistic forces and political tensions that trouble its emergence – especially in a turbulent epoch when the very ways humans meet the world and are met by it feel critically central to the challenges confronting us.
Perhaps this turbulence is not merely in the field of vision of those that wear the Pro. Perhaps something within the very design, something behind the lenses, something about the intra-actions between flesh and the digital breeds monsters. Dragons.
I do think the Apple Vision Pro ‘solves’ problems... but solving problems is not the ontological slam-dunk we often think it is.
Are these words intended as a review of the Apple Vision Pro? A clarion call to abandon the product? A parsing of the world into those that use the Vision Pro and those conscientious, enlightened others that reject its seductions? No. I don’t think I’m that good at making reviews. Moreover, I cannot say that I will never use it myself. I just might.
In the third act of The Pod Generation, Ejiofor’s character has fallen in love with the egg. He bonds with it – despite his initial objections. Somehow the egg’s mute distance, texture, glowing silence, and simmering vitality enact a strange kind of “thing power” on the couple, calling them into a deeper intimacy that ultimately disrupts Pegazus’s unchecked power. The plastic egg becomes a minor gesture, the syncopated upbeat innervating the imperial downbeat of its production.
Victor Krebs writes about digital animisms, suggesting that “the digital…does away with the dualism responsible for the modern disenchantment of nature and—decentering the human, placing it as equally part of a rhizomatic and entangled nature—lays the groundwork for an animistic ontology that is consonant with a new materialism.” Digital animisms are comedic punchlines: the punch here is that despite the tendency to holographic neatness, to immateriality, even the digital isn’t neat or tidy or impervious. Flesh is not merely local; it is virtual as well.
It might just be the case that just in the same way the language-based models of AI seem to be troubling the centrality of human claims to intelligence, the floating worlds, and screen-infested orgies of Vision Pro – despite its tendencies towards optimization – might proliferate “things that touch us back.” As much as there are risks in bonding with the Vision Pro, there might yet be dreams curdling its complicated circuitry. Dragons breathing fire in its wires. Ghosts haunting the architecture of its confident designers.
Yes. Even here, with the emergence of Apple Vision Pro, there be dragons. Despite the humanist longing for transcendence that is encoded into Apple's brand new technology, we are not yet in the clear - even in the heart of the clearing.
Or, as Karen Barad puts it, the master’s tools may not dismantle the master’s house, but the master’s tools don’t stay faithful to the master for too long.