AirPods are not just earphones -- they're a metaphor of the future

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Just before Christmas I got a pair of Apple AirPods. They're white, completely wireless earphones. AirPods are almost identical to Apple's wired earphones except that in lieu of thin cables, small white cylinders extend from the AirPods themselves. When you wear them it looks like you laughed and the milk came out your ears.

A few of my friends don't get it. "They're just dorky wireless earphones," they say. 

And, they're wrong -- not because they don't look dorky, I'll give them that. They're simply incorrect because they're using the wrong frame for the things that now extend like candy cigarettes below my earlobes. 

And, to be fair, it's hard not to use the paradigm of earphones when AirPods are used to listen to things, and well, they do go in your ears.

But, they're not just earphones. Or, they're earphones the way a smartphone is just a phone, or a smartwatch is just a watch.

In reality, the least interesting thing about a smartphone is that it takes calls. The least interesting thing about a smartwatch is that it tells time. The least interesting thing about AirPods is that they play music, though being able to listen to that music privately without a single wire snagging on sleeves, doorknobs and free weights is pretty great.

All that said, here's what my friends don't get. With AirPods you get a little ear butler to talk to. When you tap an AirPod twice you hear the familiar double chime of Siri waiting for a command or question. You can then talk to Siri casually, almost sotto voce actually, and get a response. 

I was recently making breakfast by myself listening to a jazz playlist. Here are a few things I asked or requested of Siri with my phone face down on a counter:

  • "What's the weather forecast for today?"
  • "Skip this song."
  • "Play music by John Coltrane."
  • "Set a timer for three minutes."
  • "At 10 a.m. today remind me to email Michelle about my column."
  • "Read me my email."

You get the idea. Having that DJ, administrative assistant and weather reporter in your head is like listening to the sound of the future. 

And that's exactly what my friends don't get. If all you do is consider AirPods earphones, you limit your ability to think expansively about what they could be, and what they presage. 

Worse, if devices like AirPods are shunned by people who have never tried them, and so have no real understanding of their power or importance, then those devices are being rejected from willful ignorance or a misframing, not from rational consideration. In short, they are being dismissed out of ear.

Given that artificial intelligence and machine learning have just begun to become truly useful, this is dreadfully shortsighted.

And, if you treat AirPods with horror not mockery because, "We'll all be like that sorry-assed guy in the movie Her," then you're just imagining a future you fear, not all possible futures. You are picturing HAL and Scarlett Johansson; not Jarvis and KITT. 

All of this seems a bit extreme when we're just talking about gadgets that sit in your ears. It is, unless the AirPods are a metaphor. Not everybody has to have, want or afford what looks like white ear snot on either side of their heads. But when a flake of the future appears, in whatever form, it's best to pay attention... not because it looks funny, but because it has shown itself at all.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Design Milk/flickr

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