All Screens or No Screens?

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Apple’s recently unveiled Vision Pro presents an all-screen future, but generative AI’s growth in recent months has also hinted at ways we might move toward the opposite experience. What will our tech look like in 50 years?

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

Beyond Four Corners

If I am lucky, I will still be alive some 40 or 50 years from now—a senior citizen in an easy chair reliving my son’s birthdays, graduations, and wedding through a 3-D video playback on a thin piece of glass hovering just in front of my eyes. Another possibility, depending on how technology develops, is that I’ll speak aloud to a robotic simulacrum that’s loaded with the latest generative-AI software and trained on decades of his audio and text messages. It seems certain, in any case, that I won’t be looking at a smartphone.

We may one day remember 2023 as the moment when the world started to bend toward one of these two futures, each of them a divergence from the era of glass-and-metal bricks that the original iPhone ushered in nearly 16 years ago. Yesterday, Apple unveiled a $3,499 headset called the Vision Pro that will engulf your field of view in pure screen. The company pitched the device in part with a marketing video that shows a man wearing the thing alone on a couch, flipping through photos and videos of his children that float a few feet away in his dark living room. (It would be a shattering evocation of divorce if you didn’t briefly see his wedding band.)

Although the Vision Pro has a lot in common with virtual-reality products that have existed for years, it features a uniquely Apple twist—one that may prove crucial in normalizing the gadget for the very many people who, until now, have shown zero interest in grafting a personal computer to their brow. If you want to engage with the outside world while you wear the headset, it will display footage of your eyes on an external screen, an effect that makes the Vision Pro look almost like a transparent pair of goggles. As I wrote yesterday, the idea is to minimize the barrier that the technology might present:

The look is disquietingly cyborg, but the selling point is clear. We live our lives in digital space but also outside of it. Picture the thin pane of glass between you and this article simply vanishing. This is, it seems, an attempt for Apple to have its cake and eat it too. You’ll wear a computer on your face, sure, but you can still exist in real life, talk to your family, kick a soccer ball.

This is the all-screen future: Apple’s promotional video shows the Vision Pro being used in tandem with the Apple Watch and a MacBook, but not the iPhone, suggesting that this is the future of mobile technology. You don’t need the small rectangle: You need your entire universe to be a screen.

But recent months have also hinted at ways we might move toward the opposite experience. AI, you might have heard, is getting pretty good: The path forward might involve digital assistants that listen and speak, replacing the old paradigm of punching queries into an on-screen search engine or text-message box.

It might also involve stranger outcomes. Last November, OpenAI released ChatGPT, a program that responds to queries with startling coherence. Trained on an unimaginable volume of text, the application clarified unlike anything else how generative AI might disrupt digital life as we’ve known it. These large-language models might augment or replace human work, flood the internet with gray-goo content, or revolutionize the creation and distribution of disinformation. As my colleague Adrienne LaFrance described:

We may see whole categories of labor, and in some cases entire industries, wiped away with startling speed. The utopians among us will view this revolution as an opportunity to outsource busywork to machines for the higher purpose of human self-actualization. This new magic could indeed create more time to be spent on matters more deserving of our attention—deeper quests for knowledge, faster routes to scientific discovery, extra time for leisure and with loved ones. It may also lead to widespread unemployment and the loss of professional confidence as a more competent AI looks over our shoulder.

With all of this in mind, I’ve wondered if the supposed AI apocalypse wouldn’t mean the destruction of humanity but instead a crisis of trust. Generative AI is known to “hallucinate,” or confidently present false information as true. Combined with the gray goo, the supercharged fake news, and the potential for our personal data to be turned against us in alarming new ways, AI might turn us away from screens—even ones that rest on our face—simply because we cannot fully believe anything they show us. Human-to-human interactions, unmediated by technology, may become the norm once again.

Reality is unlikely to map perfectly onto these scenarios. But there’s clearly an urge—from Big Tech and its many subjects—to imagine a world beyond the four corners of a handheld screen. History is long; the smartphone era could, and even likely will, seem to be a blip in retrospect. So much can change. Perhaps it’s starting to now.


Today’s News

  1. A dam in southern Ukraine has collapsed, flooding villages in both Russian- and Ukrainian-controlled areas. Both sides have blamed the other for the breach.
  2. The Atlanta City Council voted to approve $31 million in funding for a major police- and fire-training complex that critics have dubbed “Cop City,” despite two years of protests.
  3. Ajike “A. J.” Owens, a Black woman and mother of four, was shot and killed Friday in central Florida. The county sheriff said the alleged shooter, a white neighbor, cannot be arrested until law-enforcement officials determine whether “deadly force was justified” under the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law.


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More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Read. Rubik, by Elizabeth Tan, is a stunning debut novel about how the dead become digital ghosts—a book that feels like a puzzle.

Watch. The A24 film Past Lives (in theaters now) imagines a love that can be both platonic and romantic.

Play our daily crossword.


We would be remiss not to point you toward the April 30 edition of the Atlantic Daily, featuring Damon’s excellent and wide-ranging culture and entertainment recommendations. They include, among others, contributing writer Ian Bogost’s 2022 Atlantic story on “web3”—“the smartest, most clear-headed and creative essay on the issues with that particular technological paradigm that I’ve come across,” per Damon—and Holedown, “a simple game that involves aiming balls at numbered barriers that halt your progress through a tunnel.”

— The Editors

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.