Interviewer: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Before we begin, what is your preferred pronoun?
CEO of Elephant: I could be anyone.
Interviewer: OK then, let’s start by discussing the remarkable rise of Elephant, and its widespread appeal and adoption.
CEO of Elephant: In the past decade or so, we’ve seen smartphones become practically obsolete as more and more people shift into Augmented Reality platforms like Elephant. We’ve also seen ubiquitous computing and Strong AI expand in ways that would have been difficult to imagine, even a decade ago; computers have became intimately embedded into the architecture and objects that are always already around us. Augmented reality of one form or another has been omnipresent for a long time. Our designers gave a lot of consideration to the ways Situated AR and Strong AI could be overlaid and mapped onto the non-augmented environment, and I think that approach to design is an important reason why Elephant has enjoyed so much success.
Interviewer: But you have your critics, too.
CEO of Elephant: Of course. As you might recall, in the early 20’s, a lot of people were talking about how technology colonized our attention. A critique of Big Tech emerged that raised concerns about the way these products shaped, and often distorted, our sense of what is real and what is not… with significant political, cultural, and economic consequences. Attention is reality, after all.
But new tech paradigms tend to shift the way we perceive the world… and each other. These shifts are not always well understood as they occur, and can be quite disruptive, but we have had the benefit of learning from the past and listening carefully to these critiques. Our design team was quite sensitive to this. I also think the current generation of tech companies, including companies like Elephant, which build and manage social networks, have benefited from new approaches to cooperate governance that have come in the wake of these conversations.
The most important precedent for Elephant, at least with regard to the structure of the company, was the divestment of Facebook, which began in the early 20s. At the time, this was hailed as the sea change that would “give social media back to the people,” but the reality was a bit more complicated than that. There was significant regulatory and cultural pressure at the time, as well as enormous political and social changes taking place; the first Post-Westphalian states were just emerging in the Levant and elsewhere around the world, forcing people to rethink fundamental assumptions about identity metanarratives, especially with regard to national identity and the nation state; the emergence and widespread adoption of Strong AI and the automation of manufacturing marked a major shift in way we thought about labor and work; and the divestment of multinational corporations and their transition into public trusts, especially tech companies like Facebook, which shifted the notion of a social network away from private investment towards something that more resembled a public good.
This is why Elephant was organized as a public trust, with governance and profit sharing distributed between both the employees of Elephant, and the users that make up our community on our social network. Shared ownership is a powerful incentive for participation, so many people joined and adopted our product.
Interviewer: But that can’t be the only reason why Elephant enjoys such a large market share. The groundbreaking design of Elephant must have something to do with the success of Augmented Reality wearables like Elephant. Can you elaborate on that?
CEO of Elephant: AR has been around for a long time. Ubiquitous computing has been around even longer. The first prototypes of Google Glass launched almost 20 years ago, but it failed to catch on at the time.
Yet, consider how times have changed since then. Google Glass and its decedents are our biggest competitor. I continue to see Glass-like products as occupying an important market share well into the future.
Interviewer: So what is it about the design of Elephant that makes it so appealing to so many people? Imagine a time traveler from the past is seeing Elephant for the first time. What do you think they would make of Elephant?
CEO of Elephant: How far in the past?
Interviewer: Let’s say around 10 years.
CEO of Elephant: The first thing this time traveler would encounter is a device, mounted over the mouth and nose, and attached to the back of the neck, resembling a robotic elephant trunk… thus the name.
I imagine it would look a bit absurd at first…maybe more than just a bit absurd. But orienting it on the face affords us some interesting design opportunities. It allows Elephant to project a virtual “bubble” around the head of the user, which gives users an immersive experience. The state of the art microprojection system built into the “trunk” allows us to seamlessly overlay all our virtual content onto users’ lived experiences.
People didn’t know what to make of it at first, but Artificial Facial Prostheses, or AFPs, are far more common these days. I suppose if a time traveler saw it, they would think it looked quite strange, but the same would be true if you showed someone from a hundred years ago a television for the first time. They wouldn’t have a frame of reference to make sense of what they were seeing.
Interviewer: What other strategies did you develop to get users to adopt such an unconventional approach to wearable technology?
CEO of Elephant: We tried our best to build upon associations that people already had to existing technology, and to help our customers see Elephant as an extension of familiar and everyday things.
For example, concern about air quality and contagious disease in most large cities around the world has reached a point where it has become necessary to wear face masks that cover the mouth and nose. Elephant isn’t so dissimilar from that kind of face covering when you think about it. Elephant has even built in these same kinds of filters as a feature.
By building on existing paradigms, these kinds of design transitions can be made to feel less abrupt, although looking back, they seem quite dramatic. Who would have thought a decade ago that so many people would be walking around with robotic elephant noses attached to their face?
Interviewer: Were there any mistakes your design team made along the way?
CEO of Elephant: Definitely. Many. Elephant gives users extraordinary augmented sensory perception; augmented intelligence through intuitive search, made possible through our non-invasive brain-computer interface; augmented sight through our mircoprojector “bubble” display system; augmented hearing with enhanced bone conductive speakers. And you can lift up to 300 lbs. with your face.
So, it would seem obvious to include augmented smell for a device that was inspired by a nose. It turns out, not so much. Smell is a sense that many people, especially people living in crowded cities, would prefer not to augment. Being able to better smell all the other passengers on the subway is not exactly a feature that our users were excited about, so we ended up eliminating it.
Interviewer: How did elephant trunks become the inspiration for the design?
CEO of Elephant: Even though they have been functionally extinct in the wild for some time, Elephants are still among the most extraordinary animals on the planet. Their trunks might be the most fascinating part of their physiology. They can manipulate their environment with them in so many different ways. Their trunks are as powerful as a crane, able to lift almost 800lbs, but can also be used for delicate tasks such as shelling a peanut. They have a sense of smell comparable to a bloodhound, which turns out to be less useful for reasons already discussed.
Interviewer: The design is impressive, without question. But there is serious concern emerging. There is concern that Elephant is too immersive; that too many users can no longer tell the difference between what is real and what is not. With each Elephant user living in their own bubble and representing their own reality — an experience often described as a kind of lucid dream — there is concern that not everyone’s realities are aligning and that our society is becoming alienated from the truth. There is a great deal of concern about users getting “locked in” to this kind of hyperreality. What would you say to these critics?
CEO of Elephant: Haven’t we all been locked into this kind of hyperreality for a very long time now? Since at least the invention of radio and TV, and probably before, our species has been alienated from the “truth”, or at least the idea that a single objective truth can even exist. As we have become more interconnected, we have also become more alienated from each other. We have been living in our bubbles for a very long time.
Interviewer: What does the Elephant community think of all of this?
CEO of Elephant: There are different perspectives.
There are the Transhumanists who see body and mind modification as just the next phase in the evolution of the species. As you allude to, there are a growing number of people who never remove their AFPs and see them as an integral part of who they are. There are those who go even further. Surgical rhinoplasty with AFPs is increasingly common these days, as the hard distinction between machine and human blurs.
There are those that go even further than that, and see this kind of technology in almost religious terms. They see the advent of this technology as a move towards a kind global apotheosis, something akin to the type of World Spirit Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote about in the 19th century; the emergence of a new form of consciousness.
There is the antithesis of this, too. There are the Luddites who eschew augmented reality all together, instead placing their faith in what they refer to as “pure reality.” But, as I have mentioned, I’m skeptical that pure reality is even still possible, if it ever was.
My own position is a synthesis of these views, I suppose. These are real concerns, which is why I try to practice good tech hygiene. I never sleep with my AFP on, just as I don’t sleep with my shoes or contact lenses. I make time for a weekly “tech sabbath,” as well as longer, periodical “tech sabbaticals.” Taking a day or two each week to disconnect in order to recalibrate to a non-augmented world has helped me stay grounded. It allows me to see the world with deeper meaning and purpose, and to get the most from this kind of technology.
But in the end, it’s just a robot tongue in a human cheek, and the distinction between what is real and what is not might be as obvious as the nose on your face.