Apple's Airpods Are an Omen

The company’s slick, wireless earbuds work great, but they foreshadow startling changes to the social fabric.

Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

The moment I put the Apple AirPods in my ears, I feel like I’ve already dropped them in the toilet. They are so small and slippery. The mere act of removing these precious, wireless ear buds from their lozenge-shaped case makes them feel like a futuristic cure to unknown ills. I am late to adopt them, so I indulge a marvel. I take one out of an ear; this time I feel like I’m sure to ingest it, eventually, mistaking it for a space-age apparatus for wellness or transhumanism. My AirPods, I am convinced, are not long for this world.

Worrying about losing something is a good sign that you feel endeared to it. And, like so many others, I am: The Apple AirPods might be the best product Apple has produced in years. By contrast, I’ve dropped my iPhone in the toilet before, but it almost felt like a relief to do so, at least for a moment. I despair holding it in my hand, but there it is in my hand anyway, almost all the time.

Earphones are now mated to that rectangle of glass and compulsion, perhaps irreversibly. What is the point of ear buds except to listen to media provided by a smartphone—and therefore to connect you to the compulsive lure of a life run by devices? And yet, listening equipment has retained the personal solitude that smartphones have partly eroded. They occupy an orifice in your head. They whisper directly to your brain. They fit inside a closed palm like a secret.

But by going wireless, and by doing it so well, AirPods also decouple that intimacy from the tether that generally has signaled it in social circumstances. And even though it seems like a small matter—just a wireless headset—the device could fundamentally alter the way people interact with machines, and with one another.

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Starting in 2004, Apple ran the “Silhouette” ad campaign for its iPod product line. The television, print, and outdoor ads featured black silhouetted forms dancing against bright, colorful backgrounds. Against the green and blue and purple and blacks, two white objects stood proud: white iPods in the hands, and the white cords that connected them to the ears.

The campaign began years before the iPhone, when Apple’s portable product was a bulky, wheel-controlled device with a single purpose: to play music. First released two months after 9/11 with a spinning, magnetic hard drive that whirred audibly, the device was instrumental in turning Apple’s fortunes around. By 2004, the iTunes Music Store had launched, along with slimmer, cheaper, and more capacious iPods that worked with Windows in addition to Mac. The iPod era had arrived.

There are ways of measuring the impact of that era. Digital music as a prelude to digital movies, television, news, and everything, for one. An oblivious transition among personal electronics devices, from specialized to general use, for another. The rise of Apple itself, even, from has-been to the world’s most valuable company. All those characterizations and more certainly apply.

But the iPod had another, less obvious impact, too. During this period, from the iPod in 2001 through the iPhone X today, the white, Apple earbuds have achieved universal adoption. Every iPod and iPhone comes with a pair of the wired ones, and the white color was unusual enough that it became a signature. That’s why the “Silhouette” campaign worked: Apple products conferred a distinctive style, good down to the last detail—even the earbuds.

White earbuds weren’t an entirely new design, but they became iconic. The sound quality wasn’t great, but they were cheap and conferred status. They spawned cheap knockoffs. They inspired lamentations among those whose ears didn’t hold them well, since opting to use different listening devices would forego the fashion benefits of donning them. They were cool, and for that reason they became more or less universal.

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After acclimating to the AirPods, I began wondering if the role earbuds play in contemporary, technological life has been profoundly underestimated. The best way to understand a technology is sometimes to remove it and go without; only then does its function become palpable. You notice this when your car breaks down and you have to take transit to work, or when you leave your phone at home and can’t check in with work or family, or when a service outage takes out the internet, and Netflix along with it.

Yes, I know, the AirPods are just a new kind of wireless Bluetooth headset, and those are nothing new. But that gadget has always been a mixed bag. Whether or not the characterization was ever fair, the Bluetooth headset was the accoutrement of smarmy business men talking loud on the phone in inappropriate places. The black truncheon attached to their ears became hitched to its associated discourtesy. Meanwhile, Bluetooth audio headphones remained a luxury item, one mostly used by international travelers and audiophiles.

The AirPods free you from the earbud cable without requiring the bulk of headphones. Feeling that sensation made me shiver to realize how yoked I had really been to the smartphone. Not just by the compulsion of use, but in the physical connection to it by thin, white wire. The AirPods retain the familiar color and shape for which Apple has been known, so it really does feel the same, minus the cord. This small change could have a profound effect.

The AirPods feature many deft design choices. The case charges the buds, which magnetically attach inside to prevent loss. When you place one in an ear, a sensor detects the action, and pairs audibly. The same sensor allows the device to pause music or movies when you remove an AirPod bud, perhaps to listen to someone in the room. These are slick features that offer some nostalgia for an age of it-just-works Apple design that otherwise feels long past.

But features tend to distract people in the present from the implications of technology in the future. After an hour with the AirPods in, listening to music and making a few calls while working, I lose the sensation that they occupy my auricle anymore. But unlike the corded buds, there’s no need to untether myself from the phone when I get up to do something else. I’m in the kitchen making a coffee. Then I’m outside getting the mail. I might or might not be listening to music or talking on the phone, but it doesn’t matter anymore. I could be, at any time, and without impediment. I could also pose requests to or initiate tasks to Siri. I am connected to the phone, and therefore the world, without being tethered to it directly.

This makes the AirPods more than just a wireless headset; it puts the device squarely in the domain of voice assistants and devices, like Amazon Echo and Google Assistant. Even as augmented and virtual reality promise to immerse users in space and information, speech offers a simpler answer that is no less science-fictional: Being able to talk at a computer and have it respond. Echo does so in the room, Siri on your phone, and AirPods right inside your skull.

The AirPods do look a little ridiculous. White sprouts hang down an inch below the ears where the cords would attach. Those with longer hair, like me, can obscure them partially, at least, for the time being. But eventually it won’t matter, as people will get used to everyone having wireless buds stuck in their heads. Not like they’re used to wired earbuds, in the train or on the sidewalk or at the dog park. No, more like they’re used to people staring at phones all the time, anywhere. The earbuds won’t disappear, just like the smartphones haven’t. But they will become invisible as they become ubiquitous. Human focus, already ambiguously cleft between world and screen, will become split again, even when maintaining eye contact.

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There are some consequences to this scenario, if it plays out. For one, earbuds will cease to perform any social signaling whatsoever. Today, having one’s earbuds in while talking suggests that you are on a phone call, for example. Having them in while silent is a sign of inner focus—a request for privacy. That’s why bothering someone with earbuds in is such a social faux-pas: They act as a do-not-disturb sign for the body. But if AirPods or similar devices become widespread, those cues will vanish. Everyone will exist in an ambiguous state between public engagement with a room or space and private retreat into devices or media.

The smartphone’s own excesses might accelerate the matter. In Georgia, where I live, a new law intended to reduce distracted driving goes into effect on July 1. The law prohibits holding a phone while driving. There are exceptions, including operating a mapping app, but ambiguities of actual use (and fears that police might use it as an excuse for citing other infractions) might push more drivers to newer, better hands-free options. AirPods are expensive, but they’re a lot cheaper than traffic infractions or insurance hikes.

Other, stranger applications are on the horizon. In the next version of the iPhone’s system software, iOS 12, Apple plans to make an accessibility feature for hearing aids work with AirPods too. Called Live Listen, it allows an iPhone set on a table to be used as a directional mic, routing the sound it picks directly to a listening device. Once it works with AirPods—much cooler and more stylish than the average hearing aid—more people with undiagnosed hearing difficulties might use Apple’s product as a prosthetic. But even those without hearing loss might find the feature useful. It could facilitate discreet conversation in a loud restaurant, for example. Or, more disturbingly, cloaked eavesdropping. With the AirPod, everyone might become a de facto secret agent, people or machines mouthing additional information into the ear directly, unnoticed.

When Apple announced that it was removing the industry-standard headphone jack from the iPhone 7, the company was rightly mocked for citing “courage” as its rationale. Profit and control seemed like more likely reasons. With the headphone jack gone, Apple could push its users to buy more of its expensive hardware. AirPods—a $159 purchase on top of up to $1,149 for an iPhone—seem to realize that opportunity.

But Apple’s most successful products have always done far more than just make money, even if they’ve raked in a lot of it. They have also changed how people work and live together. The AirPod, which is still just a wireless headset for music, calls, and podcasts, might seem like an unlikely candidate to join the ranks of the personal computer and the smartphone in its social aftermath. But then again, back in those early days of the colorful Silhouette ads, it never seemed like the iPod, also a simple digital music player, would evolve to change how people do almost everything.