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The Cyberdelic Podcast
Augmenting reality is an innately human desire to share our ideas and perceptions to feel connected. Welcome to The…
The recent announcement of Apple’s Vision Pro headset has brought renewed attention to humanity’s future with augmented reality. Spatial computing is an incredibly powerful concept, and we’ve long argued that it represents the future of human communication — but there is a dark side to augmented reality that is important to discuss: privacy.
Visual positioning, which is the dominant way of anchoring AR content, is reliant on comparing camera feeds to a central database of what the world looks like. Put plainly — it’s based on a transaction where you tell a vendor what you’re looking at and they tell you where you are.
Alastair Reynolds’ “End User” is a chilling reminder, if one could call a vision of the future that, of why it is important for us as a society to reject surveillance capitalism and think critically about how AR will be delivered to us. We should never allow corporations to see through our eyes.
- Nils Pihl, CEO Auki Labs
Doug Phale was nearly back at his apartment when the drone came down, lowering onto his balcony with a white package fixed to its belly. After a moment it rose again, the delivery completed. Doug watched it speed away into the gathering haze of early evening, its green and red LEDs soon lost in the background lights of other drones, office windows and construction cranes.
A homeless man sprung at Doug as he neared the steps to the communal entrance.
‘Try these, fella. Try these!’
The man thrust a thin, shrink-wrapped package into Doug’s face.
Doug got a whiff of poverty as he pushed past, grateful that he had already fished out his key pass and had no need to linger on the doorstep. He shut the door behind him, moving back into the cool and gloom of the lobby, eyeing the vagrant until some cops moved him on.
Doug went up to the apartment, let himself in. The rooms were quiet, Martha not yet home from her office.
That suited Doug.
He slid open the balcony door and scooped up the package. It was a flat white box, about fifteen centimetres on a side. Nothing was written on it: no delivery address or return information.
‘The Gaugs?’ Doug mused aloud.
It was true that they advertised fast delivery, but in an era of corporate over-promising the rapidity of the process was still surprising. It was no more than forty-five minutes since Doug had opened the app and completed the ridiculously simple online application. In the time since he had done nothing except go to a coffee shop, tinker listlessly with his CV, and then pick up a stick of bread.
He rattled the box. It felt empty, curiously contentless, like a shipment of high-grade vacuum.
Doug had needed to provide only one piece of information for the delivery of his own pair of Gaugs: just a reference for a drop-off point. It could have been anywhere in the city, but he had opted for his balcony because he knew the three word positioning code off by heart.
Sucker. Downgrade. Regret.
Doug returned indoors, parked himself at the kitchen table, and tore open the flimsy cardboard packaging.
It was the Gaugs.
They were secured by a pair of cardboard flaps, folded up from an inner tray made from the same cardboard as the rest of it. Nothing else was in the box: no documentation, no warranty, no safety information, and no charging lead.
Just a pair of ordinary-looking glasses.
Doug extracted them from the flaps, inspecting them while they were still — practically — box-fresh, almost untouched by human hands.
They felt disposable. Doug had anticipated something heavier, something clearly and obviously jammed with intricate high technology.
The Gaugs looked in no way remarkable. There was no branding on them, no logo.
He slipped off his own glasses and put on the Gaugs.
They slipped down his nose, but only for an instant. With a faint insect buzz, the glasses adjusted to his facial contours. He waggled his head, the Gaugs staying fixed.
The view through them was nothing special, though.
‘Not much use if these don’t come with prescription lenses,’ he said aloud, ready to put the Gaugs back in the box. They would never fit over his old glasses, and his old glasses were too small to wear over the Gaugs.
As he looked around his blurred surroundings, boxes appeared over items of interest in his apartment. The bread stick, the wastebasket, their couch, the TV, the Felix-the-cat wall-clock his mother had bought him when he moved in with Martha. As his involuntary attention snapped to these items, they lurched into temporary focus.
Finally the Gaugs had him look out the window to a series of increasingly distant, dusk-lit objects.
A message flashed up:
Everything sharpened. Everything became, in some tiny but perceptible fashion, brighter, more actively present. Doug understood: the lenses weren’t just correcting the usual defects of vision, they were compensating for age-related degeneration, amplifying the intensity photons before they hit his retinae, and performing subtle colour-balance readjustment.
He was once more seeing the world through a child’s eyes, unfiltered by time and decay.
Doug looked down at his old glasses, rendered stark by the new lenses. The history of wear on them was embarrassingly obvious: the chipped metallic coating, the scuffed lenses, and the greasy residue around the nose pads. Small wonder his last few interviews had led to nothing, if he had been wearing those. He might as well have gone in with clown shoes.
Doug swept the old glasses into the trash.
Doug spent the next hour just wandering around the apartment marvelling at the freakish newness of everything. It was if he had moved in somewhere more upscale, but with exactly the same layout as the old place. He spent twenty minutes staring at the fridge door, its coloured plastic letters suddenly empowered with new, luminous significance, as if they had been coloured in by monks.
He moved the letters around until they spelled NEW DOUG.
He loitered on his balcony, staring out across a city transformed, swept clean. It was as if a microscopic layer of soot had been pressure-washed off every surface, including the sky. The cars below were improbably shiny under the streetlights, like cars in commercials. A distant speckle of police and ambulance lights where the pedestrian bridge crossed the weir looked like something from the James Webb telescope; some far-off galactic marvel of stellar birth and death. Doug guessed that they were extracting a floater from the river, where they tended to ram up against the weir.
Doug ventured to the bathroom mirror. He checked out his reflection. The Gaugs were not dissimilar in style to his own glasses, but they suited him rather better. They framed his face, shaving off a few years.
Temporarily exhausted by all this brilliant newness, Doug needed to sit down for a few minutes. It was overwhelming!
Another message popped up:
<<Maintain normal motion to ensure optimum charging.>>
Doug stayed in the chair, but waggled his head a bit. After a minute or so of that, the message faded out.
Doug glanced at the Felix-the-cat wall-clock.
The Gaugs painted a glowing clock over Felix, telling the same time. Actually it was a few minutes faster, because Felix was running slow. This new glowing clock then shrank itself down and scuttled up into Doug’s upper right visual field.
Under the new glowing clock was a set of six digits:
Doug had no idea what that was all about, but he imagined it would become clear in time.
Martha came home at eight thirty. They pottered around and discussed job applications and dinner plans. Doug made no mention of the Gaugs, thinking it would only be a matter of time before Martha detected the difference in him, but she was either faking him out or had failed to notice the change.
Doug had already disposed of the packaging by then, tipping the scraps of white cardboard into the basket on top of his old glasses.
They had a glass of wine each and she asked him how his updated CV was coming on.
Doug made a noncommittal sound.
Eventually he went out to fetch a Chinese. He took out the trash at the same time: collection day was tomorrow. It was only a few blocks to their usual Chinese so he walked rather than having it delivered, feeling a new spring in his stride. The evening was pleasant, the sky a shimmering burnt orange. He caught his reflection a few times as he passed shop fronts, surprised at his confident, go-get-it bearing.
In the Chinese Doug chose their usual favourites from the menu and produced his nearly maxed-out card. As he made to tap it, the Gaugs dropped a box around the part where his name was embossed.
<<Enjoy your meal, Douglas.>>
‘Wait, what?’ he mouthed.
As he returned to the apartment, the spring in his stride was a bit less bouncy.
Martha had settled into one of her weird, brittle moods. Playful, but slightly arch, as if she was in on some private joke. He glanced at the wine bottle, wondering how much she had drunk while he was out.
‘What’s so funny?’
‘Who’s “New Doug”?’ she asked, cocking her head in the direction of the fridge.
He went over and grumpily scrambled the letters.
Martha was already up and gone when Doug surfaced, roused by the dinosaur moan of the garbage truck.
Martha’s side of the bed had not been slept in. The evening, after the fridge letters incident, had not been a sparkling success. They had bickered over the usual sore subjects. His lack of work, her unrealistic expectations, the same old cycle.
Doug got up, showered, mooching around with a vague sense of foreboding. While hoping that the events of the preceding evening could be written off as a blip, he had the sense that it might be something more than that, a permanent kink in their relationship, a point of no return.
Spooning sugary cereal into his mouth, coldly surveilled by the ticking, goggle-eyed Felix, Doug worked through various internal grievances. Martha had still made no mention of the Gaugs. If indeed she had noticed, then it would be a very Martha thing to not comment on them, letting him stew in the half knowledge of what he had done. Martha had deep reservations about intrusive consumer technology, especially anything that seemed too “free” to be good.
She had gone over her usual bullet points when they had first seen an advert for Gaugs, and Doug had broached the possibility of adopting them.
‘If you can’t see how they make money off a product,’ she had lamented, ‘then you’re the product. Simple as.’
Doug did not feel that he was anyone’s product.
He returned to his bedside and collected the Gaugs. He jammed them on and looked around as his apartment shivered into the newer, better version of itself.
The little numbers were still there, still reading 00.00.00.
Doug had a moment to notice that before the numbers started counting up. The digits were incrementing, tallying seconds in synchronisation with the clock.
<<Maintain Gaug usage to continue unlocking features, Doug.>>
Doug grabbed his laptop and stuffed it into a canvas shoulder bag. He rummaged for a clean pair of socks. He checked his phone notifications. The incrementing digits had been counting up for five minutes.
Doug removed the Gaugs, setting them down on the table while he took a leak. It was a good minute, maybe two, before he returned to them.
The digits hovered at 00:05:13, then resumed incrementing.
<<Welcome back, Doug.>>
Overnight he had gone from “Douglas” to “Doug”, which troubled him slightly, but only as long as it took to get out into the daylight, into the hyper-real colours and textures of the city. Once more he had a spring in his step. The reflection he glimpsed as he strode along had all the confidence and bearing of the first time.
There were new features to enjoy now. A tracery of augmented reality objects now floated over his view through the lenses. This was really what he had been excited about; the reason the Gaugs had appealed to him in the first place. A green arrow elongated ahead of him, like a ribbon painted on the sidewalk. It zagged and zigged around hazards he had not even begun to notice: fire hydrants, dog mess, chewing gum, loose paving slabs. Doug soon found that it was more natural to be guided by the arrow than to resist it. It seemed to know where he was headed, and it was constantly adjusting itself to avoid collisions with other passers-by.
Tags were appearing over the heads of some of those people, offering names and snippets of biography. Doug estimated that it was about one in ten, but out of that fraction, nearly everyone who was tagged was wearing a pair of glasses not too dissimilar to his own. One was a girl who sometimes served him in one of his coffee shop haunts: the tag offered a name, pronouns and a relationship status.
Doug filed it all away. He presumed that all these people had given some kind of consent about their information being broadcast in this fashion. Presumably when it came his turn, he would be asked to give similar permission.
He would think about that carefully.
A video advert caught his eye as he crossed the road. An SUV slinking through improbably empty city streets under golden-hour light, followed by a close-up of the driver behind the wheel, angling his head to look directly at Doug.
Doug recognised himself. Or rather, he recognised the perfected, tanned, designer-stubbled, golden-hour-saturated version of himself, the Doug he could be, the Doug he was on the way to being, the Doug who suited these glasses.
The advert asked what he wanted to be driving next year. Doug winked back at Doug.
The advert changed: an expensive brand of wristwatch, being slipped onto a tanned, hairy wrist that looked all too familiar.
The advert changed again: the back of Doug, with someone who might be Martha (or might not) strolling hand-in-hand on some white sandy beach at sunset.
Doug crossed the pedestrian bridge over the weir, pausing to survey the scraps of garbage collecting on the high side, where the flowing water encountered a grille. He stared a little longer until — one by one — the scraps melted away, digitally erased.
Whatever unfortunate set of circumstances had drawn the emergency services to the weir last night, there was no trace of it now: just clean flowing water, combing itself into glinting threads as it spilled through the grille, over the two-meter drop in level on the other side of the weir. Doug marvelled at the creamy gyrations of foam on the lower level.
Perhaps it was just a psychological manifestation of wearing the Gaugs, but everything seemed richer and more interesting now, more liable to snag his gaze and hold it. He could imagine spending a lot of time just looking at things. If that was how the Gaugs paid for themselves — if that was how he served his side of the transaction — he could think of far worse arrangements. After all, he did have quite a lot of time on his hands.
Doug crossed the river, skirted a rough neighbourhood (not too risky at this time of day) and parked on a bench at one of his favourite public parks. He killed time, watching the joggers and roller-skaters, their sportswear colours neon-bright.
The digits clicked from over 00.59:59 to 01:00:00
<<Congratulations on your first hour of Gaug usage, Doug. Maintain usage to continue unlocking features!>>
A girl walked past the bench, eyes dipped to her phone. Nice hair, straight black fringe, patterned yellow dress, leather jacket, biker boots and a glimpse of ink on her thigh as the breeze lifted her hem. Doug swivelled his head slightly, tracking her as she passed. He allowed his uninvited gaze to linger on her receding form for no more than a second.
The Gaugs opened a playback window in his upper left visual field. The girl approaching, passing, receding, only rendered more real, more alluring, than when she had actually been there.
<<Save clip for playback, Doug?>>
Doug sweated, then shook his head emphatically.
‘No. No! Don’t save.’
<<Clip deleted, Doug.>>
Doug got up and walked on. For a moment he was gripped by an impulse to rip the Gaugs off his face and throw them into the nearest waste receptacle.
The moment passed.
Doug submitted to the very mild demands of the Gaugs. He was expected to maintain twelve hours of continuous usage per day, which seemed onerous, but he soon found that this target folded effortlessly into his normal habits. As long as he wore the Gaugs, and moved around to a degree, the digits kept counting. If he dozed off on the couch, the digits paused. If that happened too much he had some catching up to do, but the way to prevent that was to keep mobile, finding reasons to be out of the apartment as much as possible. Doug rose earlier and came back later. He did a lot of strolling around and looking at people and things. The Gaugs seemed to like that. Each day, they unlocked some new aspect of their functioning; doggie treats for Doug’s loyal usage. He wandered a litter-less, graffiti-less counterpart of the city he used to know, full of confident, beaming people who drove nice cars and looked like they had exciting, glamorous lives.
Martha appreciated this change in Doug. She thought it meant that he was chasing up interviews, inching closer to the point where he got a proper job and began to cover his fair share of their expenses.
‘If this is New Doug,’ she said, ‘then maybe there’s something in New Doug after all. I’m sorry I made you feel awkward.’
Doug bristled at the throwback to the fridge letters, but he managed a smile for Martha’s sake. If it took her believing in this industrious new version of him to prick some of the tension that had been developing in recent weeks, it struck him as a small price to pay.
For a while, it was almost like old times. They made plans for an autumn vacation. They squeezed onto the sofa while Martha paged through travel magazines and brochures.
‘I’d really like to see Machu Pichu,’ she was saying, stroking one of the glossy images.
Doug went along with the charade, but as Martha spoke he was looking at an entirely different image, projected into the same spatial plane, so that it even followed the mild camber of the pages.
The commercial was for a light lager, promoted by eager hipsters partying on a rooftop bar. That was typical fare now: beer rather than champagne. No more cars, jewellery and trips abroad for Doug now: instead of unaffordable fantasies, he was now being teased with things that were within his realistic means. Or, if Doug was being charitable, more accurately directed at his interests. Besides the lager, it was products like consoles, games, sneakers and earphones.
Doug accepted this, even if it was a little awkward having to pretend that he was viewing the same ads as Martha.
‘It looks very nice,’ he said.
‘You could try and sound just a tiny bit interested,’ Martha said, dredging up the mild complaining tone that had been absent these last few weeks, as if to remind him that he was on probation, not fully rehabilitated.
‘We’ll go to Machu Pichu,’ he said emphatically.
Doug and Martha did not go to Machu Pichu.
The weeks wore on and what had seemed like a late reignition of their passion turned out to be no more than the sparking of the last dying embers.
Martha became less and less happy with Doug’s daily habits. His excuses, in turn, wore thinner and thinner. In her oblique questioning he detected the developing suspicion that he was having an affair. She never came out and confronted him with it directly, but the undertone was there. Doug pondered that, flashing back to the girl in the biker clips, the clip that he half suspected was still in some sense out there, waiting to pounce on him. He hadn’t been having an affair then and he wasn’t having one now, but did it matter when every ad now featured some permutation of that girl? The lager commercials had dried up: now he was being offered the cheapest brand of vodka, the kind that tramps drank on street corners, bottles tucked into brown bags.
The idea of an affair was interesting, though. Doug played with it, seeing some upsides. Not with the intention of having an actual affair, but deploying it as an excuse for his behaviour. It would be a lot easier than explaining to Martha what the Gaugs were asking of him, because to do that he would first have to confess to the wearing of them in the first place. Whether or not Martha already knew, or already suspected, he could not imagine submitting to that level of humiliation. Better that he be thought of as a cheat, than a willing puppet.
The Gaugs were no longer content with twelve hours of usage. Doug was now expected to put in fourteen hours, and not for the purposes of unlocking new features, but in order to continue accessing what he had already naively imagined was his. Doug might have said that it was a violation of his consumer rights, but it was hard to be indignant when he had never paid for anything or entered into any kind of contract.
He was still free to discard the Gaugs at any point, after all. He wasn’t being forced into putting in those fourteen hours. The power was all on his side.
But he had got awfully used to those overlays and add-ons, and an extra two hours a day wasn’t that bad. …
Things went south after Martha left.
The final straw had been the online dating thing: the service that Doug hadn’t actually signed-up for, but whose paperwork still showed up in their mailbox, gleefully inviting Doug to embark on the next stage of his romantic journey.
In hindsight, the warning signs had been there for some weeks. The ads were increasingly fixated on the idea that Doug was in some way unhappy with some aspect of his life, and that something had to change. As he walked the city, trying to keep up his sixteen hours of usage (he looked back on fourteen hours with a kind of fond innocence), he was increasingly assailed by ads for relationship counselling and singles parties. Often it was the girl in them, or some close approximation to her.
When Martha tore open the envelope, thinking it was one of his unpaid utilities bills, she had read both Doug’s own dating profile (unerringly accurate) and also the list of desired attributes he sought in a partner.
These itemisations offered such a clear insight into Doug and his preferences that Martha would not be persuaded that it was anything but deliberate.
Doug protested, but feebly. Lately Martha had become something of an impediment to the work of servicing the Gaugs. With her out of the equation, he could start to really focus on maintaining those features.
But Doug struggled.
Meeting the rent on the apartment was difficult when it was just him paying. Rather than bail out and find somewhere more affordable, he opted to hang on in and hope for some uptick — a new job, a new (more understanding and tolerant) girlfriend, some ill-defined change of fortune — even as some wiser part of him knew that the uptick was never coming.
He burned through his savings in a few weeks. Once they were gone, he started selling and pawning the stuff for which he had no further need. It was refreshing what he could manage without. The phone went as soon as his contract came up for renewal: who ever called him, anyway? The laptop was superfluous, although he got less for it than he had been hoping. It turned out that Doug was not the only one who was discovering that they could do nearly everything they wanted within the virtual workspace of the Gaugs. Laptops had become about as desirable as typewriters.
Still, it bought a little time.
He shifted most of the furniture, piece by piece. Since he was living on his own, and eating off his lap, a table was a decadent luxury. He had no requirement for a bed, either. A camping mat and his old sleeping bag did just fine. The big flat screen went as well. Doug had been living off streaming services for years, anyway. Anything he wanted to catch up on, the Gaugs could project it onto a virtual surface bigger and sharper than any possible hardware. It was not as if he needed to share the experience with anyone.
Felix took a hike, too.
‘Sorry, mum,’ Doug whispered, as he heaved the clock off the wall, leaving just the hammered-in nail that had been supporting it, cracks spidering out in the render, defects he had always known would need fixing one day.
He auctioned Felix. Turned out it was quite a collectable one, enough to cover a week or two of extra rent.
Evaluating his priorities, Doug decided that he could dispense with an electricity contract. Regardless of the time of day, the Gaugs offered a perfect illusion of illumination. He just needed to make sure he kept wearing them at all times, so they could maintain an up-to-date model of his surroundings and the few possessions left to serve as obstacles. That was all right, though. Doug slept with the Gaugs on now. He never wanted to be reminded of the old world, the one that had not been mediated and processed.
Skimping on electricity only bought some time, and eventually Doug was turfed out onto the street. By then he owned little more than the clothes he stood in, the sleeping bag and camping mat, and the Gaugs fixed to his face.
Assuming he even “owned” the Gaugs. That was an interesting point, one he had never really examined before.
They were very helpful, though, once he was down and out. They directed him to food banks and homeless shelters, so that he was just about able to keep nourished and warm, even as the cooler months stole in. By then Martha was a distant memory, along with every aspect of his life prior to the white box arriving on his balcony.
Doug subsisted. The Gaugs were happy with him just wandering around, absorbing information. The amount of directed advertising being fed his way had tailed off rather sharply — he supposed there wasn’t much point trying to get him to consume stuff now — but he was evidently still providing some kind of residual useful service, even if it was tracking the attentional habits of other people, the ones who weren’t necessarily wearing Gaugs just yet, but who might respond to a well-targeted nudge, even if it needed to come through traditional media channels.
Two months into his homeless experience, the food bank shut down. It was there one evening, gone by the following morning. Developers had moved in, erecting scruffy plywood screens all along the block. Nobody had left any kind of indication about where the bank had relocated, and Doug recognised none of the usual customers still hanging around. When he started asking workers and pedestrians for information, cops told him to move on.
There was hope, though.
<<Would you like to earn food credits, Doug? These can be redeemed at any affiliated vendor.>>
‘Yes,’ Doug said, spitting out the word through a mesh of broken, decaying teeth. ‘Yes. I’d like to.’
The Gaugs led him to an unpromising corner a block away from the redevelopment work. On the ground, easily confused for street trash, lay a plain white box similar to the one that had first been delivered to his apartment, except that it was four times as large.
Doug opened the box. Inside was a jumble of individually shrink-wrapped Gaugs, twenty at least. He scooped them out and tucked them into his pockets. He understood the parameters of the transaction.
Doug went back out into the street with the idea of giving the Gaugs to anyone he could find.
It turned out that this was easier said than done. Doug had to endure considerable consumer resistance before he managed to off-load the first five of the Gaugs. That took all morning, and sapped what little energy he had started with. His pockets still rattled with the fifteen or more Gaugs he still needed to move.
Doug persisted, nonetheless. He adopted more aggressive tactics, getting in people’s faces, door-stopping them, hopping on and off buses and trams between stops.
‘Try these, fella!’ he repeated.
By the end of the day he was down to just the last pair of Gaugs to be given away. Doug was willing to be unusually persistent now. His approach had evolved to a kind of reverse-mugging, using force and surprise to slip a pair of Gaugs into a recipient’s pocket or onto their face, before they could resist.
It was enough to count as a “win”.
When he had finally emptied his pockets, the Gaugs announced:
<<Well done, Doug, You’re well on your way to your first food credit.>>
Doug wiped blood from his mouth, still bleeding after the necessary scuffle.
Doug found another clean white box waiting for him. He decided to try a different neighbourhood this time, the rougher area across the river he normally avoided. It was a calculated risk but he needed some virgin territory now, and he felt his new, more aggressive approach might suit the neighbourhood. Doug crossed the bridge over the weir, his belly empty, but his pockets lavishly restocked.
He could feel his luck changing, the spring in his stride returning.
Under a pulse of emergency lights, the Gaugs at last detached from the body jammed up hard against the weir’s flow. In the chaos of eddying water, it was not long before a stray current snagged the Gaugs and pulled them away from the bedraggled, bloodied, semi-submerged corpse. The Gaugs moved with that current, but in little feeble twitching motions of their arms, they seemed almost to swim with it, finessing the direction of travel, choosing one fate over another.
As the emergency workers chatted and grumbled above, in no great hurry to extricate the body — there would always be another, and then another, the Gaugs moved unobserved. Presently, when they were safely beyond human attention, they emitted a homing signal.
The signal called a drone from the sky, swooping down with seagull swiftness. It plucked the Gaugs into the air and rose aloft with them, receding into the gathering haze of early evening, its green and red LEDs soon lost in the background lights of other drones, office windows, and construction cranes.