Everyone’s Overwhelmed

I’m going to write this in two parts, a summary and more lengthy stuff. It seems cruel to approach an article about being overwhelmed any other way. It’d be like saying “no one likes root canals, climb into this chair where I’ll give you a root canal.”

So here we go, summary followed by root canal.


People have felt overwhelmed for decades, but especially the last decade, but especially the last few years, but especially now, and even if 2023 weren’t insane (which it is) it’s still happening RIGHT NOW which makes it even more big feeling. Then here comes chatGPT and it’s causing all sorts of feelings from wariness to boredom to excitement to fear. On top of that, EVERYONE is is rushing to share what they think about it, which makes the overload and overwhelming feelings feel even worse. The end. That’s the summary.

Now, climb into this chair if you’re interested in seeing me perform a root canal!

Here’s where I’m coming from

I write a zine called Near Future Field Notes where I try to think ahead a year or two. I used to write a blog called Fuck Jetpacks where I very specifically was not thinking long term. I very carefully was aiming my writing at things happening now, because there’s more than enough content in the current moment, thank you very much. A few years ago I wrote Megaphone Cyclone, where I interviewed a bunch of people about how they handle information overload. A few years before that I was interviewed for a design thing where I was described as the Twitter designer who eschews social media.

So it’s safe to say that this sort of thing is in my wheelhouse. I have always held social media and fanciful jetpack thinking at a distance, but I also love thinking about what’s going on now. And gosh a lot is going on now. So much. Gosh. Where do we even-

[Youth on YouTube-style abrupt jump cut to next section]

There’s no wrong way to feel

I have seen a spectrum of feelings about not just chatGPT but all sorts of things happening in society. And not just this month, but for years. Pre-Covid, during-Covid, this now period where we didn’t beat Covid but we’ve moved on. Lots of people are feeling a lot of things all the time all at once forever, turned to 11. Hey did you know Trump was indicated? AAAAAA

So to the people who are excited to ignore LLMs the way they ignored NFT the way they ignored Twitter the way they ignore politics because it’s so loud all the time, I get it. I think this is the right way to handle it. On the other hand, the people who are excited to learn more, or scared about AI killing us all, yes. I also think that’s the right way to handle it. These are all valid ways to feel, not just because people get to react how they want. But because like a death in the family, big news causes people to process differently. That’s normal and good.

AR versus AI?

Apple’s AirPods Pro have a feature called Transparency Mode. When you turn it on, you can hear the world around you perfectly clearly … and yet music is layered on top. It’s really useful for enjoying music in a household where people are calling you all the time, or while walking in a city where cars are trying to run you over.

At first, I didn’t get the feature. “Isn’t that how headphones always work?” No, actually. Normal headphones block more sound than Transparency Mode, which is why someone called it “AR for your ears.” That’s a great way to put it. The feature allows the real world and the layered music to be in perfect balance with each other, which is a huge deal.

Yesterday I realised that “Augmented Reality” and “Artificial Intelligence” can be mashed together to make a new (to me) phrase: “Augmented Intelligence.” When you don’t know what movies Matthew Broderick has been in, IMDB easily layers its data onto your brain and the conversation you’re having to remind you of Biloxi Blues. When you don’t know directions, Google Maps layers itself onto your brain and your navigational situation to tell you how to get somewhere. You’re experiencing the world but using data sources to be smarter about it.

Ok. So hold that thought.

I’m not bullish on VR or AR in the near-term. I’ve read a lot of books, I’ve been involved in research projects, I’ve done a lot of client work, and I just don’t see it. Putting your head in a box (VR) is a non-starter. Overlaying a few icons or words on real life (AR) is fine … but the experience ROI isn’t there and won’t be there for a while. (One day it will be there, and it will change a lot, but it’s a ways out.)

But you know what I’m really excited by? Augmented Intelligence. I don’t want to overlay an icon on my glasses to show me how to get to my destination. But I do want to tell Expedia my travel plans, my dietary restrictions, some side trips I was hoping to try out, my frequent flyer info, etc etc and know that it’s going to return REALLY GREAT TRAVEL PLANS to me without all the fiddly forms I have to suffer through today. Seriously, fuck multi-page web forms. They’re going the way of the typewriter, and quicker than we think.

So chatGPT feels about a million times more valuable to me than overlaying data on my glasses, or worse, making me put my head in a fishbowl to have a Zoom chat in virtual space. Maybe a billion. That’s partially because I think VR is dumb and partially because AI is already that transformational. Today.

Apps versus operating systems versus vertical integration

A set of features makes an app. Those apps have to live someplace, so they live on an operating system and hardware device. But if you’re really lucky (Apple) you can actually tie multiple products together into a single large organism. Business people call this vertical integration, Tim Urban might call this a “Giant,” but for me it’s the most exciting story in all of tech.

We don’t want products to show seams. The idea that your TV is doing one thing, your phone is doing another thing, your laptop is doing another thing, your smart home is doing another, your car is doing another, etc etc is old-world thinking but it’s the best all the non-Apple companies can pull off.

But designers such as myself have painted a better picture for a long time: you should be able to walk from your car to your house to your laptop without having to do anything. Everything should lock or unlock automatically, with no user interaction, because you’re part of a single experience. And that’s only possible to build if a company controls “the whole widget.” Which only Apple does. For example, when I do a workout on my TV, my Apple Watch can show my heart rate in real time on the TV. It’s a small feature that points to a much bigger end goal, and a level of seamlessness that’s unimaginable today.

Design is changing away from features and apps into something far grander and better for end users. (Did I mention fuck forms, like long ones that time out halfway through a job application? What about the fact that every new medical appointment you go to requires hand-writing on a piece of paper that someone has to type into a computer that isn’t synchronised anywhere?)

So as an old designer, making features and apps isn’t particularly exciting anymore. But building an operating system? Or even better, a series of products that all hang together into a cohesive whole? That’s cool. That’s really cool. And that’s something that only Apple has has the pieces for for the last decade or so … and then chatGPT came out swinging and changed everything.

chatGPT strikes at the heart of Apple’s weaknesses

AI will make apps obsolete, but won’t stop there. It will also make the traditional OS less of a gatekeeper than we’re used to. Recall that this already happened to Microsoft’s monopoly when the internet hit the mainstream. For a long time, you needed Windows to run the latest apps and games, or else why even own a computer? But with the internet, suddenly Windows didn’t matter as much as connecting online (which it wasn’t great at). When feature #1 is “does it get online,” you can set yourself apart by explaining how easy it is to get online. And that’s why the iMac was marketed the way it was. Guess what the “i” stood for. It wasn’t Intel or Intuit, gang.

In the near-future, you’ll have a personal assistant that knows what you’ve already watched on Netflix, where you like to vacation, what books you want to read next, who your family is and what their quirks are, and everything else. You’ll just say “Give me 5 budget vacation ideas” and it will know your wife has a gluten intolerance, your daughter is in a wheelchair, you just went to Bend, Oregon, and you prefer not to fly. It also knows the word ”budget” means different things to different people, but for you it means no more than $1000 total. That’s powerful stuff that will change the whole world.

Meanwhile, Siri can’t even get a simple song request right.

Apple is in trouble, and that’s not something I can remember saying about anything in recent memory. They’re obsessed with privacy (good), they’ve struggled with Siri (bad but not a dealbreaker until now), and they have nothing to do with chatGPT or any other LLM we know about. As apps become less impactful, and the operating system becomes a game of “how intelligently can you speak with AI,” the very things that are needed to survive in the next wave are things that Apple struggles with.

I could use lots of examples, but I’ll pick one. Do you think Apple would allow any search result on an Apple product to potentially be wrong? Super wrong? Legal-trouble wrong? Not the Apple I know! And that’s just the start of the many Achilles’ Heels that Apple is bringing into this-

[I go to DuckDuckGo and type “how did Achilles die” and get a bunch of bad results. I go into chat.openai.com and get the right answer immediately without having to click anywhere]

-Trojan War. It’s gonna get intense. I’m curious to see how Apple manages this transition because an AIMac probably isn’t in the cards.

I don’t know

A lot of things are happening, but I think it’s pretty easy to go up a level and see a general story arc. One, AI will change everything down to the studs. Two, there’s going to be a ton of noise but it’ll all boil down to the same thing: the AI is getting smarter and more capable, day after day, year after year. And three, it’s hard to know what the end result is. But the future is racing towards us faster than it ever has in recorded history, and we’re about to see new companies thrive, some old companies disappear, and everyone in between have to change in significant ways.

Exciting? Scary? There’s no right way to feel. But we’re in it now.