The latest gadget from the British inventor is dystopian
At the height of the Covid culture wars, the people who really hated face masks came up with a derogatory name for them: face nappies.
But I wonder if one day we’ll look back on the face nappy era with longing. You see, things can always get worse. Consider, for instance, the latest gadget from Dyson: it’s a pair of noise-cancelling headphones combined with a personal air purifier. Called the Dyson Zone, the earphone cups contain filters, which pass a stream of purified air down to the mouth and nose via an attachable visor.
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Thus, as well as fighting noise pollution, it also protects the wearer against air pollution. Dyson promised the product earlier this year and is now about to deliver it — but at a cost. According to Engadget and Gizmodo the Dyson Zone could be yours for the price of $949.
The immediate question is whether anyone will be willing to pay that much. I’ve got a horrible feeling the answer is yes. Dyson is an experienced purveyor of upmarket appliances; if it can persuade us to pay premium prices for vacuum cleaners and hairdryers, it can surely do the same for the Zone. Millions of consumers already spend small fortunes to cancel out other people’s noise — so, for a few hundred dollars more, why not cancel their noxious emissions too?
One obstacle may be the look of the device. Wearing a highly-engineered piece of tech over your mouth and nostrils is ever so slightly cyborg-y. Comparisons have been made to Bane, a comic book supervillain. But, then again, haven’t we become used to concealing our faces in public?
What’s more, for many consumers, any embarrassment will be outweighed by the advantages of a personal supply of cleaned-up air: people with respiratory conditions, for instance — or who live in the world’s most heavily polluted cities. Better a red face than black lungs.
Even in the somewhat de-smogged cities of the West, there’s a growing awareness of the damage done to our health by airborne contaminants. Launching a new report yesterday, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said that outdoor air pollution kills between 26,000 and 38,000 people in the UK every year.
It’s possible that, in years to come, breathing unfiltered air will become as unthinkable as drinking untreated water. If that’s the case, then Dyson has got in early on a growing market.
And yet, despite the genuine benefits this machine could bring to millions, it’s hard to ignore the dystopian aspects. After all, if we have to pay a thousand bucks each just to breathe easy, then we’ve finally realised one of the great sci-fi nightmares: the privatisation of air.
One could argue that this happened decades ago with the invention of modern air-conditioning. Nevertheless, the advent of personal air filtration represents a new stage in our technological debasement. Breathing hasn’t just been commercialised, but fully individualised — with no need to share.
On the other hand, we could demand the return of something that once belonged to all of us: fresh air.