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Why Smartphones May Be Too Good

  • September 15, 2021

Virtual reality goggles are bulky annoyances now, but the bet is that tech like V.R. or computers that can “learn” like people will eventually blur the line between online and real life, and between human and computer, to the point of erasure. That’s the vision behind the “metaverse,” a broad vision that virtual human interactions will be as complex as the real thing.

Perhaps you’re thinking that more immersive and human-ish technologies sound intriguing, or maybe they seem like the woo-woo dreams of kooks. (Or maybe a little of both.) Either way, technologists must prove to us that the future they imagine is more compelling and useful than the digital life that we already have thanks to the magical supercomputers in our pockets.

The challenge for any new technology is that smartphones succeeded to the point where it’s hard to imagine alternatives. In a sales boom that lasted about a decade, the devices transformed from a novelty for rich nerds to the only computer that billions of people around the world have ever owned. Smartphones have succeeded to the point where we don’t need to pay them much notice. (Yes, that includes the incrementally updated iPhone models that Apple talked about on Tuesday.)

The allure of these devices in our lives and in technologists’ imaginations is so powerful that any new technology now has to exist almost in opposition to the smartphone.

When my colleague Mike Isaac tried Facebook’s new model of glasses that can snap photos with a tap on the temple, a company executive said to him: “Isn’t that better than having to take out your phone and hold it in front of your face every time you want to capture a moment?”

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