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Living in the Supersensorium
Reflections on the Vision Pro and the Amish approach to technology
This week Apple announced the Vision Pro, a new “spatial computing” device that is the future evolution of the personal computer. Effectively, it’s a screen you can put on your face to enter an augmented reality environment. The degree of experience polish, technical innovation, and technical majesty required to create this device are truly astounding.
If you haven’t fully seen the demos and the experience, I recommend this video from Marques Brownlee where he describes how incredible it is. (If you’re short on time, you can watch the sizzle reel ad.) To use the Vision Pro, you just look at things and click your fingers - that’s how it works! No more moving a mouse nor scrolling with your fingers - you literally just have to look to navigate; the world around you is projected directly onto your retinas to render your surroundings. In the background, the device’s computer analyze your eye movements to predict your intentions before you even know what you’re going to want so that the response time feels instantaneous. To make it seem like reality (and not like you are staring into dark goggles), the chips on the device render your surroundings in under 12 milliseconds - the threshold to trick your mind into making it feel real. Everyone that has used the Vision Pro so far has mentioned it is even more impressive than it sounds. It’s as close to a brain-computer interface as has ever existed.
This new computer will change much of our world in the next few decades as it reaches mass adoption (in my view this is a near certainty given Apple’s track record, although exact timing is anyone’s guess). But will the change be for the better? Will it increase human connection or make it even more frail? Will it strengthen or weaken the communities around us? And what would the Amish say?
Wait… the Amish? What do they have to do with anything?
I’ll explain, but first let’s talk about rats.
In the 60s, before there were more limits about what researchers could/couldn’t do in their experiments, there were various studies on rats to explore where in the brain we had pleasure centers. The scientists put implants in various parts of the rats’ brains and then the rats could self-stimulate those areas by pushing a little pedal. It turns out that if rats could provide themselves unlimited stimulation, they starved themselves to death:
[Experiment by Routtenberg & Lindy (1965)]
10 rats with electrodes aimed at [various parts of their brain’s pleasure centers] essentially ignored food, spending most of the session self-stimulating, and "self-starved."
Another experiment showed rats will also dose themselves to death if they are given unlimited cocaine:
[Experiment by Bozarth & Wise (1985)]
Laboratory rats were given unlimited access to intravenous cocaine hydrochloride or heroin hydrochloride. ... The mortality rate for 30 days of continuous testing was 36% for animals self-administering heroin and 90% for those self-administering cocaine.
My first reaction here is to think “well of course this happens, these are just rats hooked up to pleasure,” but then I reach down into my pocket and instinctively open up my phone once again to check my email and get another little hit of dopamine.
In “Exit the Supersensorium” Erik Hoel writes about the concept of a “superstimulus” - a biological term for an external stimulus that an animal cannot help but respond to:
[Superstimulus are] like a hack for behavioral reward. Baby gulls cry and peck at their mother’s mouth, which is striped in red. Lower a painted stick with stripes of the reddest red and they’ll climb out of the nest in excitement. Australian beetles are so attracted to the brown backs of discarded beer bottles that they bake to death in the hot desert sun mating with them.
This concept is something that I have been thinking a lot about these past few weeks. When I look around I realize that there have never been more superstimuli in the world as there are now; there is so much stimulation in our world that we live in what Hoel calls “the supersensorium.” Quoting Hoel:
Already there are [countless] unnoticed superstimuli among us. […]
Consider eating habits. Modern food might be the most obvious superstimuli, with the result that over one-third of Americans are obese. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s miraculous this number is not higher. And an analogous situation to the superstimuli of food has been developing in terms of media […] starting at the biological imperative to dream [leading to] the development of artificial fictions, then their distillation with the invention of the novel and poem and art, to the proliferation of these genres into movies and TV, to the recent development of the screen-mediated supersensorium that allows for endless consumption, all the way up to the newest addition to the supersensorium, VR, which has been known to leave users and developers with “post-VR sadness.” Just as we have become saturated with entertainment, is it any wonder we have reached record levels of depression and mental health issues?
This supersensorium extends not just to food and entertainment, but across increasingly numerous aspects of our modern life. We have engineered the world around us to the point where lack of willpower feels almost inevitable. More and more things in our world are just too addictive: soft drugs, hard drugs, pornography, gaming, gambling – the list of growing addictions goes on and on… We humans are getting better and better at (over-)satisfying human pleasures and the result isn’t pretty.
The thing about superstimuli is that they can be too addictive to avoid. When something is a superstimulus it’s not as simple as “just do a little bit less” or “have more willpower.” As goods become more and more pleasurable and engineered for addiction, it becomes hard for a sizable part of the population to avoid them. Similar to the rats, many people get trapped into stimulating themselves to direct and indirect negative spirals. With superstimuli you need to be extremely careful what you let into your life.
How the Amish evaluate new technologies
In various podcasts, Kevin Kelly (a legendary polymath with interests and pursuits across innumerable fields) talks about his experience learning from the Amish. Kelly explains that there is a common misconception that the Amish avoid all forms of technology. The Amishactually aren’t luddites – they are more like hackers that are very selective about which technologies they let into their lives. The way they evaluate what to let in is instructive.
The default approach an Amish community takes towards any new technology is to reject it. The reason for this is that they consider technologies to usually be harmful to the religious lives they want to lead. Before a new technology is adopted, they need to first test it and evaluate it. The Amish rubric for a new technology is: will this technology make their communities and families stronger? Will it help them achieve what they want their world to be, or will it do the opposite - increasing selfishness, individualism and paths they consider antithetical to their way of life. As Kelly writes in his longer post on this topic (which I highly recommend reading in full):
[The] Amish motivation [is] to strengthen their communities. When cars first appeared at the turn of last century the Amish noticed that drivers would leave the community to go shopping or sight-seeing in other towns, instead of shopping local and visiting friends, family or the sick on Sundays. Therefore the ban on unbridled mobility [with most Amish sects prohibiting cars] was aimed to make it hard to travel far, and to keep energy focused in the local community. Some parishes did this with more strictness than others.
Similarly, when evaluating whether or not to connect to the electrical grid:
A similar communal motivation lies behind the Old Order Amish practice of living without electricity. The Amish noticed that when their homes were electrified with wires from a generator in town, they became more tied to the rhythms, policies and concerns of the town. Amish religious belief is founded on the principle that they should remain “in the world, not of it” and so they should remain separate in as many ways possible. Being tied to electricity tied them into the world, so they surrendered its benefits in order to stay outside the world. For many Amish households even today, you’ll see no power lines weaving toward their homes. They live off the grid.
[… However, nowadays] solar panels are becoming popular among the Amish. With these they can get electricity without being tied to the grid, which was their main worry. Solar is used primarily for utilitarian chores like pumping water, but it will slowly leak into the household. As do most innovations.
There are many nuances on how the Amish evaluate technology. First, they distinguish home vs. work and evaluate each based on that context. Somethings are OK in one context but not in the other. They also make a distinction between what they own and what they can rent (e.g., they will take a taxi but not own a car) – they do this to use the technology on their own terms and avoid many of its temptations. The Amish also don’t evaluate technologies in the abstract - it’s a very practical analysis. For example, they are OK using genetically modified crops since “the technology of genetically modified crops allowed the Amish to continue using old, well-proven, debt-free equipment, which accomplished their main goal of keeping the family farm together.”
The other thing to mention is that Amish are willing to give new technologies a try in a controlled fashion. Effectively, one family can try it out under permission of the community and then the whole community observes its impact on the experimenter’s life. If it’s positive, they will take that into consideration. If it’s negative, it’s further evidence they shouldn’t allow it. For example, credit cards:
A few Amish got [credit cards], presumably for their businesses at first. But over time the bishops noticed problems of overspending, and the resultant crippling interest rates. Farmers got into debt, which impacted not only them but the community since their families had to help them recover (that’s what community and families are for). So, after a trial period, the elders ruled against credit cards.
As for phones, the jury is still out I believe. Writing in 2008 (or so), Kelly explains:
One Amish-man told me that the problem with phones, pagers, and PDAs (yes he knew about them) was that “you got messages rather than conversations.” That’s about as an accurate summation of our times as any. Henry, his long white beard contrasting with his young bright eyes told me, “If I had a TV, I’d watch it.” What could be simpler?
The more I read, the more I realize that television was worse for social cohesion than I ever realized. In the book Bowling Alone sociologist Robert Putnam investigates why social capital and cohesion has decreased in the US in the decades after the 1960s. One of his conclusions is that the main driver for this decline in social capital was television and the corresponding increase in “individualized experiences”;when people started watching hours upon hours of television a day, it cannibalized other activities that would instead build community. As the Amish interview from Kelly states aptly, “If I had a TV, I’d watch it.”
Erik Hoel writes about TV in his article on the supersensorium. When TV first came out it was irresistible:
Our reaction to the screen is fundamental, physiological, and so commonplace we don’t credit its strangeness anymore. According to Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants, when television was first introduced, one woman in the 1950s described it as:
“We ate our suppers in silence, spilling food, gaping in awe. We thought nothing of sitting in the darkness for hours at a stretch without exchanging a word except ‘who’s going to answer that confounded telephone?’”
[…] Regular TV’s addictiveness is hypothesized to come from the orienting response: an innate knee-jerk reaction that focuses attention on new audio and visual stimuli. The formal techniques of television—the cut, the pan, the zoom—are thought to trigger this response over and over. TV, and many other cultural products, amplify their addictiveness via their narrative or mythological properties (consider the omnipresent expression of the hero myth in everything from Disney movies to role-playing games). And as the supersensorium gets more and more super in its capabilities and extent, the biological urge to dream the monomyth grows to eat the world.
Apple’s Vision Pro in many ways will be a super-TV. Some of the demos shown this week allow you to experience being in a different location. Using a newly developed 3D camera format, people will be able to record experiences such as being at a concert, or at a baseball game and render them onto the Vision Pro so you feel like you are there. The tech analyst Ben Thompson was able to use this experience and he writes:
What was much more compelling [among the demos] were a series of immersive video experiences that Apple did not show in the keynote. The most striking to me were, unsurprisingly, sports. There was one clip of an NBA basketball game that was incredibly realistic: the game clip was shot from the baseline, and as someone who has had the good fortune to sit courtside, it felt exactly the same […]
It turns out that one reason for the immersion is that Apple actually created its own cameras to capture the game using its new Apple Immersive Video Format. The company was fairly mum about how it planned to make those cameras and its format more widely available, but I am completely serious when I say that I would pay the NBA thousands of dollars to get a season pass to watch games captured in this way. Yes, that’s a crazy statement to make, but courtside seats cost that much or more, and that 10-second clip was shockingly close to the real thing.
What is fascinating is that such a season pass should, in my estimation, look very different from a traditional TV broadcast, what with its multiple camera angles, announcers, scoreboard slug, etc. I wouldn’t want any of that: if I want to see the score, I can simply look up at the scoreboard as if I’m in the stadium; the sounds are provided by the crowd and PA announcer. To put it another way, the Apple Immersive Video Format, to a far greater extent than I thought possible, truly makes you feel like you are in a different place.
If you thought television was a superstimulus, wait until you can feel like you are actually in the show or actually at the game… How can one resist?
“Going to work”
I joined the workforce in the 2000s as a management consultant. “Going to work” involved a lot of conference calls and a lot of traveling. For a long time I had to fly cross-country every week: on Monday morning I would board my flight in SFO and fly to Atlanta. I would spend three days in a soulless office park locked inside a windowless room and then I would fly back home. I would be gone from home four days a week, exhausted the two days after returning and then only have one day I was an active participant of my home.
Compared to this, my current work environment is a huge improvement. I now work from home a few days a week and then commute locally a few other days. Thanks to video conferencing and high-speed internet I now can work from anywhere, which means I get to see my kids in the morning and night basically every day. I get to exercise more and I spend a small fraction of the time, energy, money and pollution I used to when I first started working.
And yet, in the new post-pandemic hybrid environment I feel we’ve lost so much of the camaraderie that used to exist pre-2020. I miss that a lot. Working from home and also working from an office, I find I now have to stare at a screen to engage with my co-workers for almost every meeting. Even if it’s the best team in the world, having to stare at a very low-fidelity version of the real experience for hours on end isn’t great. In the past few years so much of my corporate work life has become abstracted and two-dimensional.
Won’t working via the Vision Pro be a huge improvement to this? A fully immersive experience could increase my sense of connection, providing me with the feeling complete presence and making working from home feel like actually working with others. But at the same time, won’t it also increase isolation and pull me away from more physical connections, fraying already weak in-person cohesion? There’s something sad to me about the idea of each person staring into the Vision Pro’s goggles in their own individual rooms, even if it isn’t that dissimilar to our current devices. But it’s hard for me to separate from the myopia of the present. All things change…
Writing in mid-2023 I gaze into the future the Vision Pro might bring with strong trepidation and wonder. Here is a dazzling piece of technology that offers to satisfy our wants and needs beyond our wildest imaginations... Might it strengthen our communities, friendships and families, or might it do the opposite, one more superstimulus too powerful to resist?
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Note: The term “the Amish” is a generalization. As I understand it, they are actually a decentralized set of communities where each community can make different rules and there can be strong divergence between them.