The cyberpunk dystopia we were warned about is already here

This is a preview of an article you can read on our new website dedicated to virtual reality, Versions.


It’s the Sunday morning following a busy week, and my wife and I are attempting a calm moment. She’s flying out in the afternoon for a week-long company retreat, so these last few hours together are significant, our chance to recharge batteries before entering the world of teleconferences and deadlines. Unfortunately, the routine business of maintaining a household—the multitude of obnoxious little tasks that make up most of our days—has gotten away from us over the course of the week, and before we know it our scant hours together evaporate. The very idea of a quiet Sunday morning becomes the stuff of unimaginable luxury.

Which seems weird, because making a sleepy Sunday morning possible for busy people is supposed to be the battlefield on which Silicon Valley lives and dies, what its array of time-saving hallelujahs—apps and micro-transactional relationships with nearby strangers and smart appliances—are designed to preserve, to nurture, to grow more of. This promise isn’t just of sharing a coffee with a loved one; were I not stuck in traffic or encountering delayed flights or wrangling with FedEx’s automated help line, one presumes I could be painting a portrait or learning Italian. I could find the freedom to realize my best self.

We have too few examples of things simply having worked as intended

This is the world of the “Internet of Things” (often abbreviated “IoT”), a network of devices, appliances, and infrastructure embedded with sensors and connectivity so that they can automatically exchange data to better align products and services. In the world of the IoT, my fridge communicates with the containers therein, senses when they’re getting low, adds milk to a home delivery service order. It talks with a step-counter and heart monitor I am presumably always wearing so that I can be told how many miles I’ll have to walk to burn off what I’m about to eat. A ride-share or, even better, a self-driving car arrives on a schedule that self-adjusts relative to traffic. My bills are paid on time, planes are never delayed, washing machines don’t require me to find quarters in the couch cushions, and FedEx delivers my goddamned contact lenses.

It’s a compelling fantasy. We all have anecdotes of the Kafkaesque experience of filing taxes or attempting to dispute an erroneous cell phone charge. We have too few examples of things simply having worked as intended. Having something feel like it “just works” has taken on the aspect of the ultimate design achievement. Part of what’s elevated Apple to ambassadors from distant continents of next-level business is that the products they design simply do what they’re supposed to do. That things should do what they’re designed to do is so counterintuitive that Apple can unironically claim to “Think Different” for having suggested it.