AirPod Nation and Transhumanism

Recently, I went to an all-day conference at Betaworks Studios in New York dedicated to the current and future trends of audio technology. The most eye-opening presentation was by Nick Pappageorge, Senior Intelligence Analyst, Frontier Tech at CB Insights, which opened my mind (and ears) to a change in our society that’s in plain sight, but I had never stopped to notice. 

As a result of his session, now as I walk around New York City I’m noticing more and more people with AirPods in their ears all the time. They go into a restaurant or a store and they don’t pull them out. Last night I was walking down the street and observed two business executives speaking with each other in a normal conversation for blocks, and one of them had AirPods in his ears the entire time. And when I’m in a store, I talk with people who have AirPods on. It’s a little disconcerting because I never know if that person is listening to me. That said, this is becoming more and more commonplace, which means I’ll get used to it. 

Nick postulated that what’s happening is an early form of “transhumanism,” which he defined as “the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.”  

Let’s step back and look at some numbers. An estimated 50 million AirPods were sold through the end of 2018, and another 50 million will be sold by the end of this year. And those are just numbers related to the Apple product and don’t include the number sold by other brands that have similar wireless headphones, including Sony, Bose, and ones I own from Soundcore. 

Nick further described how podcasts are now the fastest-growing new audio format we’ve seen in decades, and some of the growth of that genre is because more and more people are listening to them on AirPods. And, lots of people have AirPods on at work owing to the trend in open office design. The Atlantic in April 2019 published an article titled “Workers Love AirPods Because Employers Stole Their Walls.” I’ve certainly noticed that to be true.    

I’ll bet you’ve read about how in the future there will be computer chips implanted in our bodies that will give us “superhuman” thinking ability. Nick’s point is that the always-on AirPod phenomenon is the first step in that direction. Forward-thinkers are imagining a world in which people leave their AirPods in their ears for five hours or more a day, essentially attached to your body just as watches have been for the past 100 years. And with that change, AirPods become an entirely new open “technology platform,” much as the desktop computer screen was in the 1990s and the cellphone has become more recently.  

Dennis Crowley, Co-founder of Foursquare, presented a session in which he described technology they are working on. The idea is you’d be walking by a bar in a city with your AirPods on, and as you pass by the bar, you would get a discreet audio prompt that a friend of yours is inside the bar right at that moment. It’s no different from a pop-up message on your phone, only you are hearing it — so you can consume that information without any effort.  

If you’re a bit unsettled by all this, you’re not alone. However, I see a big opportunity for our field. In my next post, I’m going to offer some ideas about how arts organizations can take advantage of this phenomenon right now, and for very little cost. Transhumanism can help enhance your event in a meaningful way — and help you build a connection to your patrons. Stay tuned.

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