By Andrew Sears
Apple’s recent announcement of its second-generation AirPods brought to mind a 2016 article written by Michael Brandt on the eve of the initial AirPods release. Titled “AirPods Aren’t Headphones, They’re Apple’s First Implants,” the article argued that AirPods are designed to operate more like a device inside your head than a device worn on your ear. For Brandt, this represented “a paradigm shift […] where the seam between human and computer is disappearing.” Having now owned a pair of AirPods for about three months, I agree with him.
I purchased my pair of AirPods because I wanted a more convenient headphone. I was looking to do the same things I’d always done – listen to music while working, talk on the phone while driving, listen to podcasts while flying – with greater ease. It never crossed my mind that my AirPods might induce entirely new behaviors and habits, but that’s exactly what has happened. My AirPods have altered the way that I experience and interact with the world in subtle but meaningful ways.
Thanks to my AirPods, I now watch Netflix while doing the dishes. I listen to podcasts while grocery shopping and audiobooks while walking around campus. AirPods have made consuming digital content so convenient that I hardly ever have reason to stop. As Brandt wrote, they’re “default in, as opposed to […] default out” like traditional headphones.
My new habits are great news for tech companies whose revenue depends on consumption of digital content, but they often leave me feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Moments in my daily rhythms that used to provide important space for mental rest, passive meditation, and daydreaming are now often filled with “content.” My inner voice is drowned out by the voices of Ira Glass and Glynn Washington. I feel isolated in public spaces that once lent themselves to spontaneous encounters and human interaction.
It’s surprising that a seemingly innocuous product could affect my life in such tangible ways. But maybe it shouldn’t be surprising at all. Summarizing Aristotle’s argument in Nicomachean Ethics, philosopher Will Durant famously wrote “we are what we repeatedly do.” Our habits shape our virtues, our vices, our values, and our personalities. And, increasingly, our devices shape our habits. Any device that mediates our experience of or interaction with the world is bound to influence the way that we behave in it.
Today’s technology products are engineered to elicit particular behaviors and – over time – to inculcate certain habits that align with the revenue models of tech companies. Nicholas Carr articulates this better than anyone in his excellent essay I Am a Data Factory (And So Are You):
“Data does not lie passively within me, like a seam of ore, waiting to be extracted. Rather, I actively produce data through the actions I take over the course of a day. […] The platform companies, in turn, […] seek control of my actions, which to them are production processes, in order to optimize the efficiency, quality, and value of my data output (and, on the demand side of the platform, my data consumption). They want to script and regulate the work of […] my life. […] And they exercise this command through the design of their software, which increasingly forms the medium of everything we all do during our waking hours.”
Within this paradigm, AirPods represent a category of product that may be particularly lucrative for tech companies and particularly insidious for consumers: novel products that feel familiar. Products that change the behavior of their users while making their users believe that nothing has changed.
People don’t buy AirPods because they want to change their media consumption habits. People buy AirPods because they want a more convenient headphone. This is evidently what Apple believes, at least: nearly every line of marketing content on the AirPods product page screams ease, simplicity, and convenience. But by making it easier to consume digital content, AirPods make it easier to keep your attention focused on your iPhone and harder for you to pull yourself away.
Perhaps this is the foundation upon which the entire smartphone era is built. Early advertisements for the iPhone focused on apps that helped people accomplish familiar tasks with greater ease: banking, shopping, calorie counting, finding where you parked your car. The phrase “there’s an app for that” worked because of its implied ending: “there’s an app for that thing you already find yourself needing to do in your day-to-day life.” Apple didn’t market the iPhone as a device that would fundamentally transform the way that people relate to each other and the world around them, but that’s exactly what it’s done. Maybe that’s exactly what it was designed to do.