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Artillery Row

Escaping Plato’s goon cave

Vision Pro illuminates the telos of modernity and the narrowing of human experience

Apple debuted its Vision Pro recently. Videos of early-adopters, gazing gormlessly at holograms invisible to onlookers, are all over X already. Many see the subsequent derision as an inevitable hurdle to be overcome before new technology becomes ubiquitous. But I caution any optimists against donning the goon-goggles, lest they become imprisoned in a Plato’s Cave of solipsism.

To refamiliarise ourselves with the venerable analogy: prisoners are chained from birth in a subterranean cave, watching shadows cast by the torchlight of passing guards on the wall before them. One escapes, sees sunlight, and returns to tell the others of the world outside. He is met with denial and derision. The others are unwilling to leave the safety of ignorance, and continue to insist that the shadows are all that exists.

Plato’s Republic used the Cave to explain why the Atheans persecuted Socrates, and to convince readers of the existence of an immaterial realm of a priori Forms. However, in the approaching age of holographic projection, the outside world will become a fully-customisable, opt-in experience. 

The Vision Pro differs from prior headsets, such as the Playstation VR or Meta Quest, in that it uses wearers’ eyes, hands, and voice rather than handheld controllers to navigate its user interface. Its demonstration video shows users able to put the real world in a background tab while watching movies, designing blueprints, or calling relatives. Functionality is limited to existing Apple content; but rival headsets, and advancements in procedurally-generated audio-visual content, will bring new ways to augment reality. Its “interactive narratives” will give way to immersive worlds created by user prompts, meaning we may never consume the same piece of media again.

Our materialistic consumerist culture provides few arguments against permanently plugging into these vicariotica machines

Denizens of this new subjective hyper-reality may lash out at anyone who attempts to return them to the real world — just as those in the cave hated the harbinger of news of what lies outside it. And who can blame them? Our materialistic consumerist culture provides few arguments against permanently plugging into these vicariotica machines. Set your watch to count down until someone argues “What a consenting adult does in the privacy of his own headset doesn’t affect you,” in response to the release of deepfake nudity mods or men caught watching pornography in public. 

On that sordid note: there is, as with Plato’s Forms, a Gnostic aspect to this technology. Manichaeism encouraged asceticism, believing that the body was a prison for the soul, and that pleasure detracts from spiritual purity. Though counterintuitive, VR headsets will result in mass abstinence through an oversaturation of voyeurism.

Desensitisation through repeat exposure to the “supernormal stimulus” of internet porn is one of the factors driving Gen Z’s “sex recession”. More Zoomers report having sexted than had sex — which is to be expected, for a generation of digital natives, who have fewer friends and relationships than their parents and grandparents. Young men amass a digital harem from 11-years-old. Some young women turn to gender ideology, neutering themselves to avoid the violent sex acts they see online — which are increasingly reenacted by children

For those blissfully unaware of the term “gooning”, contentious academic Norm Finkelstein defined it as becoming transfixed by internet pornography for consecutive hours, inducing a docile state. It is not disputed that online porn is a seductive habit-forming phenomenon. Despite what “experts” in lay-press outlets claim, men survived for millennia without internet-assisted masturbation. Some assert consumption may be sufficiently managed to mitigate the negative health and relationship effects — but this framework focuses on reducing harm, rather than doing what is virtuous.  As such moral principles are subordinated to the pursuit of personal gratification. “Gooning” is a pejorative, because it describes this pliable, compromised state that porn puts its consumers in. As St Augustine said, man has “as many masters as he has vices”. Our digital age provides no shortage of dopamine-boosting distractions. 

VR headsets have already expanded the profit margins of online porn companies. One subscription-based website saw VR-driven revenue increase 433 per cent in a year. Interfacing with the internet already makes it plausible to a generation of digital natives that you can live as if dislodged from your body. By making the goon-cave a permanent, portable reality, wearable AR technology will result in some totally withdrawing from the physical world and relationships. 

These people will live as if on corporate life support — with their integration with their headsets and immersive erotica the enabling condition of their existence. It brings to fruition C.S. Lewis’ vision of a technological future in which “power [is] exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.

This should remind us that no technology is neutral. It reflects the animating principles of the civilisation which creates it. Products like the Vision Pro demonstrate that the telos of technological progress is to nullify our need to rely on others to have our needs met. It facilitates the fulfillment of all desires in a fully customisable bubble. These newfangled cyborgs are ridiculed for their entitlement: necessitating everyone extend them unilateral social consideration to accommodate their disconnection from civilisation. But this only looks absurd until the technology is widely adopted, and we are all atomised together.

While this seems dystopic, well-meaning liberals may be aghast to learn that this is the end-goal of their ideology. The watchmen state exists to arbitrate rights violations and property disputes under those conditions of scarcity. But, as Francis Bacon wrote, technological innovation seeks to alleviate man’s estate by mastering nature and abolishing scarcity. Liberal society produces more resources from less energy expenditure; thus, our interdependence decreases in direct proportion to the plentitude of consumer goods increasing. We will revert to the atomised, anachronistic State of Nature, which Rousseau hypothesised predated society. Apple’s Vision Pro headsets, in rendering us atomised consumer units occupying worlds entirely of our own making, reveal the anthropological assumption of modernity to be that human beings are homo economicus. Human beings are considered integers to be molded and managed to the needs of global markets. Holographic projection is a profitable way of making permanent consumption the prerequisite to modern living. 

This faulty anthropology is also why the aforementioned adolescents are casualties of unforeseen harms caused by adopting new technologies. Liberal philosophy cannot account for a hierarchy of rationality. Liberal legislation thus sets a universal standard for consenting consumers, which subjects children to social and technological experimentation.

The recent discourse around banning smartphones for under-16s exposed how childhood innocence has been desacralised, in a tradeoff for an adult’s positive right to anonymously consume. We know that this bottomless portal in the palm of our hands exposes impressionable minds to a deluge of ideological brainwashing and explicit material. But even social conservatives like Nigel Farage defaulted to arguing for children to be “treat[ed] … as grown-ups”. I am certain that the use of VR headsets in homes and classrooms will result in the same developmental problems as those caused by smartphones. 

Politicians should implement legislative safeguards against children being given experimental technologies and access to adult content. But there’s no stopping the development of wearable technologies. We can only conscientiously object, and live in the nourishing sunlight outside the cave.

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