Putting Lipstick on a Dystopian Pig (OR: My Dad Will Kick Your Ass)
A few months ago, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), a start-up known as Aō Air debuted their Atmōs personal re-breather. I heard about it third-hand through the Nerdist Blog, who reported what they’d seen on The Verge. At first, I took a look at it and thought, “Wow, neat, an AR headset.”
Alas, no: It’s a breathing mask that wraps around your face. It’s very sleek, very beautiful, and very expensive: $350. It definitely leans into the smartphone/Apple/Samsung school of design, right up to the price point.
Now, back in February when I first read this, the practicality of this device was focused on air pollution. Fine, there’s plenty of that to go around, no doubt about it.
And then March came in like a lion. A diseased lion who coughed on everything and stole all the toilet paper.
Suddenly (and maybe coincidentally, or maybe I saw more of this stuff because of my interest in Aō Air?), I saw more and more articles about fancy breathing devices.
For example, this mask that was designed to repel viruses and contaminants electronically so the mask can be re-used, unlike paper masks. It’s been in development for a long while but is now really taking off because of…well, (gestures broadly at everything).
As I browsed other articles on DeZeen, the “Woobi Play” mask appeared. It’s supposed to be an inexpensive mask specifically for kids that can be used in areas with high air pollution. Beautiful as it is, it bummed me out. It reminded me of those creepy gas masks from the WWII era, the ones designed to look like Mickey Mouse.
As I stared at these masks, I kept wondering, “Are these Proofs of Concept? Are they supposed to be commercially available one day?” I kept trying to find the “Just kidding!” or “Wouldn’t this be something?” line in the articles, and I never found one. I think they’re very serious. They’re trying to solve problems and they’re trying to do so in a beautiful way.
And I hate it.
Don’t Hate It Cuz It’s Beautiful…
Here’s a big fat disclaimer: I don’t hate the products (or the people) at Aō or the Guardian G-Volt (the electric breath mask) or Woobi or anybody…I’m not being hateful of the work, I’m hateful of the “Why.”
With the exception of the Woobi Play (which I think is being built in such a way that it will be inexpensive to deploy in affected areas? I think I read that right), these are targeted at high-end consumers, or at least people with money. They’re trying to reach people who have resources and make them pay attention. The messaging (to me, at least) is “Hey, you’re going to have to survive in a world where the air sucks and everyone is sick all the time…why should you look bad doing it?“
They’re expensive and chic and cool and aesthetically-pleasing, but to me, they telegraph something very sad: “This product is not for everyone.”
But these problems affect everyone. Clean air shouldn’t be for “The Smartphone Set.” I see a pathway from these products to more consumer-friendly versions that adapt and adjust the style and drop the prices. In this way, I’m definitely a believer in small-c capitalism and “The Market” (ugh). Inspiration can take a $350 re-breather and make the same thing, if a little clunkier, for $35. It’s not unheard-of.
But even $35 is more than this should be. A clean breath of fresh air is not supposed to cost you or me or anyone any MORE money than…well, it should always be free. These products are “good” because they are there to draw attention to a need, an issue that design was there to solve or at least present one kind of solution to, but they put the burden of solving that problem on the wrong parties.
Which brings me to my Dad…
The Hank Hill We Need Right Now
If you love King of the Hill the way I do, you know a few things about Hank Hill:
- He loves his family, his friends, his country, and Propane
- He is a kind man, but does not suffer fools
- He will kick your ass
My dad is Hank Hill. That’s not his name, but it is his personality. It’s his haircut. It’s his truck. It’s his…lemme put it this way, my dad was SO much a Hank Hill that we would watch King of the Hill and get freaked out by how similar Hank and my dad really were.
And my dad, like Hank Hill, will kick your ass.
My dad’s getting older, sure, but I wouldn’t want to go against him in a fair fight. Honestly! He’d paste me. I mean, I’m his son, I hope he wouldn’t, but put him against a man my size and he’d mop the floor with the guy. I know he would. But he wouldn’t do it without just cause.
This leads me to a story that is written in my family’s history: The Popeye’s Incident.
Y’see, my sister was going back to college and my family stopped for lunch at a Popeye’s chicken. A group of younger guys near my family was being boisterous, cussing, speaking rudely. Now, most folks would move to get away from the guys. But my dad was worn out from a day of moving furniture and driving and fretting about his cargo and stressed about my sister going to college in the city. So he’d had his fill.
He marched over to the guys and told them to keep it down. They made the mistake of mouthing off to him.
That was the last straw.
My dad threatened each of them individually. I can’t recall the exact details, my mom tells the story better than I do. But my dad made it abundantly clear that he was going to take all the guys outside and, one by one, kick their asses.
They ended up leaving. I swear to God, they all caved. My dad won without ever throwing a single punch, because anyone could see that he was perfectly willing to cash the check he was writing. My mom was so anxious that they would come back on him, but that never crossed my dad’s mind. He’d settled the issue.
I bring up this story because I’m a father now and I have to think about these things. I’m not the man my dad was or is (I am very much a Bobby Hill, not a Hank), but all around me are threats to my daughter’s well-being. That includes polluted air. That includes corona-virus and flu and whatever other diseases there are. And I don’t want to shell out $500 for a breathing mask or a clean bubble for her to live in, or buy a custom Vault-Tech vault (Whatup, Fallout people!).
All I can think of is, “Who is responsible for changing my daughter’s environment?” When I think about that, I think about my dad. My dad could’ve left the Popeye’s. He could have gotten the manager. But instead, he put his foot down and he made demands. The environment his family was in wasn’t suitable, and he demanded change. He backed it up with not just strength, but his love of his family and a simple demand: “Change what you’re doing, or I will kick your ass.” Because it’s not just the responsibility of the consumer to demand cleaner air, it’s the responsibility of everyone dirtying that air to make it right.
It’s hard to say that to the world, but we’re going to have to get comfortable with it. Instead of trying to architect a new way of breathing for the individual, we need cleaner air for every nation, the whole living, breathing world. Instead of treating symptoms and hoarding materials, we need to get everyone on the same page, and work on solutions. And when those who make our environments unlivable (or at least unlikable) try to flex, we need to Hank Hill our way through them.
I want my daughter to always know that I’m willing to work on making her environment better. I want her to know that if people threaten her safety, her health, her happiness…her dad will be there through it all.
And he’ll kick the other guy’s ass if he has to.