Ep 7: Our Coming AR Dystopia

This episode focuses on the our coming Augmented Reality dystopia.

Image from HYPER-REALITY (2016), by Keiichi Matsuda.

Audio production by Steven Toepell of Bohemian Passport Inc.

TRANSCRIPT (Not exact)
This episode is a followup to a previous episode, on the Simulation Hypothesis. You don’t need to listen to that episode first, but I’d recommend it. It’s a good episode. Among other ideas, I present a way that, even if the world outside us right now is 100% real, even if we don’t live inside anything like a computer simulation, there are forces that will push us to build an all encompassing simulated world, or some kind of virtual overlay to our existing world, and it will almost certainly be driven forward by a desire to control and manipulate.

This episode is a continuation of that idea, and so far as I can tell this potential future is nearly inevitable and almost certainly nightmarish, at least from the perspective of the individual autonomy.

In short, we are headed to an AR dystopia, and there’s no getting around that.

AR stands for Augmented Reality. VR blocks 100% of your view and replaces it with a screen. AR is the much more transformative, and challenging, technology. With AR, you are still looking at the world in front of you, but there’s another layer of information that’s digitally overlayed on top of it. So for example, you may be playing Pokémon, and you see little creatures when you look at your phone’s screen, and those creatures appear to be part of the actual world. They are digitally embedded in it.

Ideally, from a tech standpoint, AR isn’t done with your phone, it’s done with glasses or a beam that shoots pixels right into your eye or even a neurological implant. It’s done is a way that you don’t have to think about it, your vision has been enhanced, and you rarely have to spend time fiddling with the settings or device.

Because AR doesn’t completely cover up your view of the world, it can be an always-on solution. The idea is not to completely surround you in the way that VR does and create a completely synthetic world, the idea is to integrate the real world with this other virtual information.

Imagine for a moment some of the possibilities that open up with AR. A construction worker walking through a building might see every pipe labeled with its function and if it’s been hooked up. They might see walls project in front of them exactly were they need to be built. A company might use it along with face recognition so that you see the name and job title of everyone who passes you in the hallway. It might be vital in emergency medical situations, for example if a lady with a dangerous boyfriend has just overdosed on your narcotics and you need precise instructions on how to plunge a syringe full of adrenaline right into her heart. AR could project a circular bull-eye to just the right location and show you an animation of how to drive in the needle.

So clearly there are some beautiful applications here, and I’ll talk more about those application, but for now let’s take a look at what might go wrong with AR, and in particular how this beautiful technology is almost certain to lead us down a wildly dystopian path. I could speculate endlessly about the exact shape this dystopia will take, but instead let’s start with what is going to happen for sure, based on what we already know about the world and human beings.

If you think about the wold’s most expensive ad spaces, you might think about a commercial during the super bowl or a billboard in Times square. Those are indeed valuable places to show an ad, but in the end the answer to the question, where is the best place to show an ad is, in people’s field of vision. And when is the best time to show someone an ad? When they are mostly likely to act on it. With the potential to put highly targeted ads right in the field of vision of someone right when they are mostly likely to make a purchase, AR is going to open up the greatest and most lucrative land rush for advertising the world has ever seen.

To understand what’s coming we have to start with this as a premise, that there’s ultimately only one place that advertisers what to be, and that’s in front of your eyes, wherever those eyes might be.

So we start with this as a premise. That what you can see, your field of vision, is prime advertising real estate. In fact, it is The prime place that everybody wants to be. So that’s our assumption.

Now then in a general way at first anyway, there’s no real way for advertisers to access that space. They ave to access it indirectly try right now. They go trough things like Youtube and they buy ads there, or as mentioned they buy ads on the Super Bowl or things like that. They are capturing your attention in a piecemeal way, bit by bit.

Now imagine one way that this will work out is that you’ve gone into a store and the store has a special promotion. Stores have done these things for years with a free sample of food or whatever to try to get you to buy it. In this case imagine if you walk into the store and they hand you a pair of goggles and they say, look, if you wear these you will get 10% off anything that flashes in front of your face, or 20% off just for wearing these for a while you’re in the store.

Who knows but certainly there will be incentives there for you to put on these goggles. Or perhaps in the future where everybody already has their own AR goggles, to let that store take over some amount of real estate of those goggles that you’re already wearing in exchange for something of course. You will not do this unincentivized. Nothing nothing about this future that I’m imagining is a place where incentives don’t matter, incentives still matter and in fact this is why I think what I’m describing is inevitable, because the incentives exist to do this and so people will do it. So the incentives certainly exists for stores to offer this service of an AR and and get you to put these on.

The incentives exist for the store for a number of reasons. They might be using this space to get you to buy more thing or they might in turn have sold it to other other vendors who who want to promote their products in your field of vision. This is of course nothing new to this is what happens right now, people pay for premium placement on the shelves in one form or another. So AR placements are simply an extension of paying for that kind of Premium real estate within a store, like an end-cap or near the register.

In this case advertisers are paying for their message located in a person field of Vision. Or to highlight your products with a flashing arrow in in their visual field that says, 30% off Campbell’s this way, now only for the next 20 minutes. Certainly these AR experiences will integrate full with whatever rewards points or system have going on before. All of the traditional tools that are used for advertising but applied to this new medium where where you’ve got someone who has a device that’s going to Overlay things on top of reality.

In fact just like with the others, the goal will be to make these overlays as entertaining as possible, as engaging as possible. So you can expect lots of animation, lot of colours, lots of cute characters and content and story lines and all the things we have seen for years with advertising, not to mention any new touches that the technology makes possible

This is phase one of AR dystopia, where the largest retailers begin to offer you as a consumer a bit of added visual information and you are incentivized to partake in this program. The exact details of how the system works and the nature of the incentives is unknown, but one way or another the store will encourage you to put no their AR goggles in the store or prompt you to allow their system to interface with the hardware you already have on your face.

During this phase, we’ll see not just monetary and entertainment advantages to wearing the goggles, stores will also begin us offer additional tools made possible by AR. You’ll be able to locate products faster, for example. Imagine that you were wandering around the store and you want to know where something is. Well, AR can allow you to very quickly scan the aisles for the things that you want, with clear labels that pop up over the sections. Perhaps by turning your head quickly it’ll show you a menu of what’s on the aisle just to the right. Or if you have some kind of an interface with this, perhaps a Siri type interface, where you can stay, Where where the hot dogs, or Where where the peanuts, it will it will immediately begin directing you with arrows in your field of vision the quickest way to get where you are where you want to go.

If you’ve ever been in an Ikea and you see that they project those arrows down onto the floor and show you their recommended path through their Labyrinth. You can imagine that kind of thing, but directly in your field of vision, and with labels on it, to get you you where where you want to go, or where they’ve decided they would like to route you in exchange for whoever has paid for that particular routing. As in the case of pay for placement in front of in front of the store by the checkout aisle or whatever, pay for placement in front of people’s faces as they are walking around the store in order to try to get them to buy Twinkies or whatever.

At some point, there will be a growing realization that it’s stupid for us to have lots of different screens everywhere, each one a different size and configuration. Just like the smart phone replaced calculators and watches and maps, at some point it will seem dumb that we have to carry around our smart phones And our laptops And our iPads and we have big mounted screens in our living room and even our damn fridge gets it’s own dedicated screen. How much simpler would it be to just have one screen, that’s right in front of your eyes, all the time. So much better, right?

So that’s what you can see in Phase 1 in terms of people’s interactions with the world and how they’ll be intermediated with this AR. From there, it doesn’t take much to imagine how things could develop. From being the kind of thing that this novel, fun, almost game-like thing that you get to do when you go into certain stores and it’s a novelty and it’s interesting and you like saving the points or whatever, it becomes more and more the norm. And as it becomes more and more the norm that people have some form of AR glasses, or let’s just call it an interphase layer between them and reality, more and more tools will be built up that depend upon the existence of this layer, in the way that now everything depends upon the web and the internet you can’t do really anything without interfacing with the internet. Any bit of information that you want to get, chances are you’re getting that online. And many many many of the things you want to do, they end up happening on online either directly online, or the people you depend on to get the are are themselves in turn dependant on the internet to make them happen.

In Phase 2 of this scenario we are imagining that that more and more you can depend on the reality that people have a virtual reality placed between themselves and the real world, and that this is something available for companies or others to tap into or to try to incentivize you two to get them to tap into on on a regular basis. In phase two, instead of Niche applications, AR just becomes kind of a fact of life. If you’re standing waiting for a bus the best way to find out when the bus is coming is to just look at the sign that has a QR code on it or whatever, and then your AR glasses will put up the number of minutes until it’s there. So you have an informational overlay that becomes part of your everyday life and you grow to depend on in the same way that many of us now depend upon a Waze or Google Maps in order to navigate to City.

At this point you would be we would be in a tough spot if those things were taken away from us and we had to interface directly with the world, or go back to our very old tools of a paper maps they didn’t know where we were on that paper map. So this is phase two, we are assuming that most people have at least some significant portion of their day spent with this thing in front of their face, and that it’s a device that that others cannot tap into or interface with, of course with permission of the person who has it in front of their eyes, but with the a series of incentives to let these advertisers or information providers or applications on to their face

As these devices become more and more a part of delivering us with important information as well as pricing information, then they become more and more integrated with our environment, and just like with the internet, they become less and less optional. It becomes harder to live your life without using one of these, just in the way that you can get by without Waze still, but you’re likely to get stuck in traffic if you if you don’t. Which makes for pretty strong incentives to use is.

So here we are at this point now where we’ve got a device that’s feeding useful information to is on a regular basis, and at some point it becomes more than just useful information, it becomes necessary information. And this is bound to be a subtle yet profound change that happens, where we go from want to know, to must know information. And we also integrate into our systems, by law probably, a requirement that these systems are open to interrupting users.

So to let me explain what I mean by that. Right now many phone systems have Amber Alerts which let the authorities push out a notification to every single person and interrupt everything that’s going on in their phone too to give them a notice. In the case of an amber alert, that’s about someone who might be a kidnapped or missing. These are notices that the authorities have determined to be Vital Information, and they can now be placed in front of your screen, and everybody screens all the time and right away.

Of course if we get these kinds of AR systems, there’s no doubt that the same thing will be extended from your phone to being right in your field of vision, and your phone itself will likely be subsumed into the AR system, so you can see visual notifications about incoming calls and message. In terms of the amber alert type notifications, at first they will be used in a restrained way, but of course as time goes on, well we’ve seen it with any median, when someone can put information in front of your face, that’s going to be for more, because we the incentives exist to use it, because attention is valuable.

So now we have a battle for real estate in front of your eyes, as stores and advertisers and governments and perhaps your mobile service provider try and take up as much of your visual field as they can, as often as they can. As use of AR becomes more widespread, the infrastructure around us can adapt to that in ways that make using AR ever more important. If you think about the system of pricing stores have right now, it’s widely inefficient. Right every time you want to change the price on a can of soup is your system in the back and print up a new physical label bring that out and put it on the shelves. That’s crazy. Why not just replace those labels with QR codes, and when a customer looks at those codes, they see the current price info and any other product info the store wants to provide? This system opens up another possibility Assuming the glasses pull their data from the store’s application, and assuming that stores will know who those glasses belong to (because they are linked to the customer’s rewards account), stores can price discriminate at the individual level. In a rush professionals pay more, slow-shopping house wives pay less. If consumers resist this on the grounds of fairness, that resistance will be eliminated in the same way that airlines got everyone to pay a different price for the same class of seats.

At any rate, for a time you will still be able to do shopping without the glasses, you might just be charged a default product rate that’s higher, and of course if human-readable price labels are replaced with QR codes, then you won’t know the price until you arrive at the front of the store and the scanner reads all the RFID tags of products in your card and you learn how much each one costs.

Everyone has their own threshold for adopting technology and service, but as wearing AR goggles becomes more and more advantageous, and not wearing them becomes more and more of a hassle, we’ll see almost eveyone owning a device, even if they don’t yet use it all the time.

At this point, the people who don’t have AR systems available to them may start to look like weirdos. These will be updated versions of those those strange people who still occasionally stop you on the street to ask the time or for directions. Don’t they have cell phones? You have to wonder is there something wrong with this person, are they homeless or is something else going on here.

As people come to expect that everyone else has these AR services available to them, the people who don’t start to become marginalized. We’ve now entered this world and we are seeing that just like with carrying a cellphone, having this AR on you, and on, is more and more a part of everyday reality. After a time when bus stops have physical schedules and virtual schedules called up by a QR code, those physical schedules will no longer be replaced if they get out of date or covered with graffiti. Why bother, when the AR overlay provides much more precise information about when the next bus will arrive, along with other useful info like which door is closest to a currently empty seat.

At this point, we’ll begin to see some aspects of our lives that require the use of AR glasses. These may begin with controlled environments, like physically dangerous work environments, and then extend to everyday activities like driving. Before we get to fully automated cars, imagine how much better driving could be, from the perspective of a municipal government, if all drivers had them on? They could alert you in real time to detours ahead, virtualize traffic lights to optimize their timing based on road conditions, alert you about a nearby firetruck without loud sirens and with plenty of time to pull over even in busy traffic. They could remove speed limit signs and replace them with an app that flashes an alert right in front of your eyes if you go too fast. If you go way to fast, a speeding ticket could be mailed right to your house. No need for an officer to block traffic or risk her life by pulling your over.

At this point, more and more of the things that you do in your life require that you have this device, and that you’re using it.

AR has gone from something that you want to have, to something that are strongly incentivized to have, to something that you basically cannot live without.
So now you have a device, in front of your eyes, that’s expected to be on more and more of the time. It’s a conduit for important information, anything from amber alerts to road closings ahead. And it’s become harder and harder to live without the AR layer, and more and more of the things you want to do are impossible without it.

So now in effect what you have is a captive audience. You have people who do not have a choice other than to see the world through this lens. It’s now mandatory, or effectively mandatory, to view the world intermediated through AR. At this point, it’s game over. At this point, there is no way out of the system. The system has you by the balls. And the system knows it can depend upon you seeing the world through their tools.

You are a captive audience. Now, how valuable are captive audiences? I’m going to repeat that question, because it’s key to understanding the final phase of the coming AR dystopia. How valuable are captive audience? Remember that is a world in which incentives still matter as much as they ever did. What is the incentive to access a captive Market? The incentive of course is enormous. The rewards to being the one who is the Google of VR or AR, the primary source of information or whatever it is, whoever has control over what gets put in front of your face, they’re gods.

I’m going to repeat that as well, because it may seem like it’s hyperbole but it’s not. The people who control what goes in front of your eyes, those people are effectively Gods. They are controlling how you see the world. They can manipulate you they can direct you they can encourage you they can cajole you they can virtually twist your arm. They can make life very good for you, or they could make life very bad for you. It’s completely up to their control, and there’s a very good chance that how good or bad they want to make your life, will have a lot to do with how much you’re paying, in one way or another.

Remember the now well understood axiom about services online like social networks. If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. In this case there will of course be premium services that are good things that you can get with your AR. Buyers Clubs or things like that allow you to get special deals or to spot them. There will be those carrots. And then there will be the sticks. Either way you going to be paying.

Now we move from a world in which corporations have driven people to adopt this, to a world where municipalities have, as tends to be the case with government, slowly come around to this, and they have begun offering augmented services like the virtual bus signage and routing. At some point in this transition, governments will begin to view AR as a key tool of social control and order.

This may seem like I’ve made a stretch here, but all I’m doing is extrapolating in the normal way that we’ve already seen when it comes to the ordinary internet stuff. We make that transition from a tool that everybody uses to get information and that’s in front of our faces all the time, to a tool that becomes heavily used, and manipulated, by the government. And the government, or it doesn’t really matter at this point whether it’s the government or a handful huge companies with the an oligopoly of control. Whether it’s them or the government doesn’t matter at this point much this point. They have this thing in front of our face. we are a captive audience, and at this point the possibilities really are unlimited.

Maybe you can imagine. What what would you do if you were a God? because this is essentially what’s happened. AR will give, as it evolves and becomes universal, god-like powers to whoever controls the interface. And the interface will be more and more on and it will be more and more inescapable. And your captive audience can be fed anything. And not only that but as some sort of the threshold is crossed where AR becomes the norm as opposed to just something that some people have, then you can begin to increase the stick for not using it.

So now we getting too speculative possibilities, but the argument here is not that this particular speculative possibility will come true, but that something like this HAS to come through in some way. that if you have a situation where there is a very very powerful tool and there are very powerful incentives to use it in a particular way, then will be used in that way. Guaranteed.

So now we get to a place with very aggressive sticks as incentive. I already mentioned some of those for drivers, who might at some point be compelled to wear AR glasses as a condition of being on the road. But why exclude pedestrians? Won’t they have to see traffic lights as well? Bicyclists will want to see the virtual bike lane they’ve been granted.

And beyond issues related to traffic, we’ll see all manner of pressures to use the app as a mechanism for social control or safety. As mentioned in the simulation hypothesis episode of The Filter, it’s easy right now to see how AR glasses might be used in ways related to the pandemic. AR could highlight information related to social distancing, flashing warning signs in your field of vision if you get too close to a stranger, just like modern cars give you proximity feedback when parallel parking. AR could tell you if that person is a suspected carrier, based on their previous proximity to people who’ve tested positive. AR can alert you in real time to all manner of virus and other public hazards.

The world out there is a dangerous place, and the longer we live, and the safer our lives overall, the more effort will go into eliminating new and existing risks. If you try and opt out of this new kind Safety net, or Safety Mesh, you will be viewed as selfish and dangerous. Devices and data will be interconnected, and if you go off the grid, you’ll no longer be sharing your threat data perceived by your device with others, and the threat you yourself pose will be harder to judge. What kind of crazy awful person doesn’t care if they kill grandma by hiding the fact that they haven’t been vaccinated against a disease that kills the elderly.

At this point We’ve moved from a world where there are many many benefits from AR goggles, and a small stick for not wearing them, to a world where where the stick is so big it’s just unimaginable that you would leave your home without them on. The AR glasses intermediate every aspect of how you navigate the world, and are an always on, always in your field of vision layer for amber alerts, political propaganda, or commercial messages that, for a high enough feel, you might be able to opt-out of. Otherwise though, and in all important ways, you are the ultimate captive audience.

We have other terms for highly captive audiences. We call them hostages. Or prisoners.

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