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The dream is clear: no hand-held device, no screens or keyboards. Just you, jacked into the metaverse like Keanu Reeves

Hugh Linehan: Business and tech inevitably and increasingly define how culture is produced, distributed and consumed

History tells us that we should not underestimate Apple, but the underwhelming reaction to the company’s much touted Vision Pro headset since it went on sale two months ago suggests that Big Tech’s ongoing attempts to stick the internet on our faces continue to meet some resistance from recalcitrant humans. Two cheers for us.

The tech companies have been trying this for a while now, ever since Google Glass was launched to widespread derision 10 years ago. Zuckerberg threw the equivalent of the GDP of several small countries at the metaverse and even renamed his company after it. Turns out that, even for multibillionaires, creating a new universe from scratch takes more than seven days.

Not surprisingly, Apple’s approach is different and more focused on the hardware. The Vision Pro is a sleek, retrofuturist wraparound visor in brushed aluminium, priced at an eye-watering $3,499 (€3,240). It comes with its own uncanny valley, reproducing video images of your eyes on the external display, where your actual eyes should be. It does more of the same by replicating your face as a digital avatar in video calls. Some people, presumably, will like this.

If anyone was going to make this stuff work, it should have been Apple, with its history of turning what were previously sci-fi ideas such as smartphones and tablets into ubiquitous consumer products, and then locking users into its lucrative proprietary operating systems (that last bit is currently under pressure from regulators in the US and EU).


But reviews have been mixed, and after an early spike, sales have fallen back in the US (the Vision Pro is due to roll out to other countries over the course of 2024). Some purchasers have returned their headsets, claiming they are uncomfortably heavy. And the same questions remain: what exactly is this thing for? Do I want to have it strapped to my head for hours at a time? Do I look as if I’m auditioning for a Daft Punk tribute act?

This is not a business or tech column, but business and tech inevitably and increasingly define how culture is produced, distributed and consumed. The Vision Pro and its main competitor, the rather cheaper Meta Quest, represent wagers that at some point technological innovation and consumer desire will intersect again, the world will be remade anew and virtual cash registers will ring out across the globe.

At the moment, though, neither these products nor the immersive worlds into which they are designed to plunge us has achieved anything more than a niche audience. But they still form part of a concerted effort by some of the world’s richest and most powerful people to move us all towards what they believe will be the next stage of the frictionless digital experience. The dream is clear: no hand-held device, no screens or keyboards. Just you, jacked into the metaverse like Keanu Reeves. It’s a vision of the future pioneered decades ago by William Gibson and Neal Stephenson in Neuromancer and Snow Crash. It still crops up all the time in pop culture (currently in Netflix’s big new series 3 Body Problem). It remains out of reach. Which is probably a good thing.

Talking to me this week for The Irish Times Inside Politics podcast, the writer David Rieff explained his belief that the twin pincers of technological capitalism and identitarian progressivism (of which he is no fan), rather than being in opposition to one other, share an objective of erasing the awkward and the difficult in the interest of creating experiences that are “frictionless” in every sense of the word: aesthetically, politically, emotionally. The result, he suggests with a mordant twinkle, is the end of high art and the final triumph of kitsch.

“Why shouldn’t it be easy?” asks Rieff. “You don’t want a taste that you have to learn. You want things that are immediately pleasurable, or make you feel immediately good. That’s where we are. But that’s completely inimical to high culture because high culture is precisely about friction. Kitsch is when you feel better about yourself for having an opinion or giving an opinion. So if you like something, you feel more virtuous for the liking of it. It’s a kind of cultural narcissism.”

I’m not convinced that Rieff is right that the frictionless consumer experience offered by technology represents the triumph of globalised capitalism over creativity and art. But I’m not sure he’s wrong either.

David Rieff’s Substack, Desire and Fate, is at

Listen to his interview with Hugh Linehan on next week’s Inside Politics podcast