According to Pesce, we may find ourselves in the precious final interval before influential mechanisms of social media and personal technology curate themselves out of view.

“What power does is it makes itself invisible. It removes any gaps in its functioning, it just looks like this smooth surface,” Pesce says. “That’s Discipline and Punish. There’s nothing new in that idea. And so as these systems become more totalizing, if you’re talking about a system that can literally edit reality, it edits its own visibility out.”

Billboards, storefronts and the like have traditionally been the primary means for commerce to intrude upon our surroundings. With immersive AR that knows no boundaries, backed by machine learning and individual data collection, it’s almost impossible to describe precisely what the next stage of data collection and influence will look like. But our current situation offers clues.

Few of us would have imagined how much time we’d spend on our phones, or the impact they’d have on our state of mind and sense for the world. 15 years ago, one might have suggested that we could avoid our engagement addiction by simply putting down the phone. But of course, we’ve only grown more attached to our devices. As the form factor becomes less and less intrusive — Pesce reckons we’ll see affordable, spectacles-style AR devices enter the market in about 5 years — the same trend may begin anew.

In an augmented world, that system of influence is all-surrounding and always present. Being able to take off the spectacles will depend on how much we get out of keeping them on.

“If you’re talking about something that’s responding to — and perhaps, I would say, playing off of your emotions — then establishing a sort of critical distance is easy. If you’re talking about something that is actively working to keep you engaged, to keep you enthralled in a way, then, while possible, the psychic bar you have to cross is higher.”

This all may sound a bit overheated, but the concerns are rooted in the realities of how both AR and data collection works. Today, any shiny whizbang new device or service ultimately exists to hoover up, analyze, and sell the myriad forms of data they gather from users. That’s key to the business model, and AR is not unique in this regard.

What is unique about AR is its reliance on detailed spatial and visual awareness of a user’s environment and their activities within it. Apple’s ARkit, for example, is built on what the company calls World Tracking. Per their document for developers:

To create a correspondence between real and virtual spaces, ARKit uses a technique called visual-inertial odometry. This process combines information from the iOS device’s motion sensing hardware with computer vision analysis of the scene visible to the device’s camera. ARKit recognizes notable features in the scene image, tracks differences in the positions of those features across video frames, and compares that information with motion sensing data. The result is a high-precision model of the device’s position and motion. World tracking also analyzes and understands the contents of a scene.

Constant awareness of the environment and user is key, and other technologies underline this fact.

For example, in parallel with empowering personal devices to track and make sense of their users’ environment, leading technology companies are also pushing hard for the widespread use of facial recognition technology.

Tim Cook demonstrates iPhone X’s facial recognition technology. GIF via Buzzfeed

Increasingly capable of registering emotions, eye movements, and other rich data streams generated by our faces, this capability exists largely because it can feed into the sprawling infrastructure of commercial data collection. Sharing funny videos with goofy digital masks is secondary to the true value of facial tracking. So are virtual reality, augmented reality, and the various games, utilities, and social apps they enable.

“This is going to be the next big battle after the smartphone, and part of it is going to be the battle for the devices, but more of it is going to be about who gets the data feed that’s coming off of all these devices,“ Pesce says. “Is that going to be Facebook’s game? Or is it going to be Sony’s game, or Google’s game? Or is it going to be Tencent’s game? Because China is absolutely going to do their own thing … In All the President’s Men the line was ‘follow the money’, and now the line is ‘follow the data’.”

None of this is to suggest that these companies maliciously seek to undermine civic or social life. They’re caught in their own feedback loops after all, of satisfying shareholders and capturing market share. But despite such familiar motives, these devices and platforms are increasingly capable of shaping social sentiments, with effects that are largely unpredictable but already tangible in out discourse and politics. And the step from corporations selling data for profit to governments weaponizing the same data to monitor and manage people is unnervingly short.

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