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Pod-Products for Pod-People

The pod-ification of all experience looks different in quarantine

I keep my toothbrush sheathed in a device called a “Steripod,” a grey plastic capsule that splits, thanks to a high-tension spring hinge, into two hemispheres. Embedded in one of these hemispheres is something that looks like a dishwasher tablet. It emits a strong scent—the label says this scent comes from an extract of thyme, but really it smells like pure, undifferentiated freshness, stripped of all associations with anything tangible.

The purpose of the Steripod is to keep your toothbrush fresh and clean. Commercials for the product invoke the specter of germs rising up from the toilet bowl, flying off the surface of fuzzy soap scum to contaminate your “unprotected” toothbrush. (The sexual language is more than an undercurrent: in one commercial, while a father and son marvel at the ingenuity of the Steripod, the mother swoons over the handsome pod salesman who has just mysteriously emerged from the bathtub.) The pod seals your toothbrush in a thyme-flavored chamber and banishes the dangers of the outside world.

The Steripod is just one off-brand representative of what’s become a nearly inescapable phenomenon. Coffee pods, AirPods, nap pods, laundry detergent pods: today it seems like every product, at every scale, comes in the form of a pod. All of these pod-products share a certain stylistic grammar; they sport sleek curves, smooth plasticky surfaces, and some mechanism for sealing in the product. Pods have an air of sci-fi to them. At least since the pulp sci-fi magazines of the 1930s, there’s been a tendency to imagine the technology of the future as pod-shaped. Today’s pod-products continue this trend, sprinkling a faint veneer of banal futurism over our daily chores. Loading a Nespresso pod into your coffee maker becomes akin to firing up a Jetsons food synthesizer; dropping a Tide Pod into the washing machine is a bit like lobbing a high-tech, stain-destroying grenade into your heap of dirty clothes. Just like the pod-shaped structures that protect comic-book aliens from the elements, the pod-product lends a touch of stylistic flair to the basic act of survival.

Today’s pod-products continue this trend, sprinkling a faint veneer of banal futurism over our daily chores.

Of course, the actual factors that drove the pod-ification of all these products have little to do with sci-fi, and even less to do with survival. One key date in pod history is 1998, when Green Mountain Coffee Roasters started mass-producing coffee pods for the then-new Keurig machine. The Keurig machine—much more than Nespresso, which beat Keurig to the punch by twelve years with the coffee pod concept—represented a fundamental shift in American coffee-drinking habits. By replacing the communal pot with the individual pod, the Keurig pod (or K-Cup) transformed millions of home and office users’ coffee drinking rituals from an exercise in generosity and compromise to a field of free play, where personal preference is all that matters. This shift was already apparent in co-founder John Sylvan’s initial “problem statement” for the company. In a 2011 profile, he described the K-Cup as a solution to both the flawed communal system his office had in place for brewing coffee and the simple fact that the wrong measurements or brew setting can turn the communal pot into an undrinkable slurry.

Despite this enticing vision of “coffee your way”—of a brewing system that lets you enjoy your strawberry cheesecake coffee while the rest of the office opts for dark roast—the Keurig pod ultimately turns coffee into something more like a utilitarian “caffeine delivery system,” as one reviewer puts it, rather than an actively pleasurable experience. This is certainly the way I experience K-Cups, choking down a helping of chalky “2× caffeine” potion before going off to teach.

The embrace of bare functionality points is another of the key ideas behind the pod. At its core, the pod is an instrument of standardization. Pods measure out perfect portions; they remove human error from the equation. The K-Cup delivers a consistent cup of coffee, while the Tide Pod cleans your clothes with the same intensity every time. Both—along with the Steripod—protect against overflow and contamination, whether in the form of ambient bacteria, sticky spillage from the detergent container, or the room-temperature air that turns the pot of coffee stale.

But the pod standardizes on more levels than just the physical. This comes across most clearly in the two most prominent reusable pod-products: AirPods and nap pods. The AirPods Pro, a recent update on Apple’s overwhelmingly popular wireless earbuds, feature active noise cancelling that “continuously adapt[s] to the geometry of your ear and the fit of the ear tips—blocking out the world so you can focus on what you’re listening to,” according to the company’s website. All this constant adjustment is meant to ensure that you get the same “immersive” experience no matter where you go, no matter how much background noise fights for your attention. Bosses rejoice; there is no such thing as a “distracting environment” anymore.

The nap pod is an even more dramatic case of this dynamic. Devices like the “EnergyPod,” arguably the first nap pod, are designed to give office workers a quick twenty-minute rest so that they can return to work “recharged.” Part office chair, part gurney, part miniature spaceship, the EnergyPod is a stretched-out pseudo-bed with a curved, white “privacy visor” that you can pull over yourself for extra hermetic sealing during your nap. Ambient noises and soothing vibrations immerse you in a featureless pod-space and lull you into a peaceful, but brisk and strictly timed, rest, no matter what’s going on around you.

What these pod-products seem to be controlling for is less their own consistency and more how you feel when you use them. While the push for standardization in the twentieth century was largely about making products themselves consistent, today pods are an attempt to produce standard experiences. The goal of pod-products as diverse as nap pods and AirPods is to deliver the same experience anywhere, anytime. In order to do this, the pod hermetically seals its contents off from the outside world. The experiences all pods deliver tend to have this same sealed-off character: they brew you a personal cup of tea that announces itself as an “escape”; they give you a quick respite from the never-ending workday; they block out the painful first date happening at the table next to you in the cafe. In at least a minimal sense, all pods are escape pods.

The pod recasts experience not as the product of a person interacting with the world but as something we can mainline, download, or otherwise consume in pure, concentrated form.

But escape to where? And for who? After all, AirPods cost a considerable chunk of change, while K-Cups are one of the least cost-effective ways to drink coffee. And you’d need to work in Silicon Valley or attend an elite private college in order to have regular access to an EnergyPod (though you can rent out something like it at a pop-up “nap factory”). In all these iterations, the pod seems to be the form par excellence of the professional class, lovers of all things “optimized”—or at least things imbued with an aesthetics of efficiency, optimization vibes. (The obvious irony is that many kinds of pods are infamously wasteful. We only have to think of the landfills bursting with crushed K-Cups that, if set end to end, could apparently circle the earth many times over—a kind of perverse ouroboros, a case of the aesthetics of efficiency eating itself and turning into an aesthetics of waste.)

For young, downwardly mobile professionals in particular, the idea of escape has switched polarity. Rather than a respite from work—a weekend, a vacation—for many, the escape that matters most is an escape to work. Working remotely, shifting frantically from location to location in pursuit of functional Wi-Fi, stringing together increasingly vague and stingy contracts, all the while perpetually available to “jump on a call,” the precarious professional needs all the help she can get to shut the world out so she can work. The pod is tailor made for her: it promises the “flexible” worker a canned experience of productivity amid all the chaos in her life.

The pod recasts experience not as the product of a person interacting with the world but as something we can mainline, download, or otherwise consume in pure, concentrated form. It’s hard not to think of the Tide Pod, long marketed aggressively to college freshmen out on their own for the first time, as a sac of liquid domesticity, an amniotic capsule filled with both domestic labor-power and warm family feelings. In this way, the half-ironic phenomenon of the Tide Pod challenge is the logical endpoint of this general drive to can, distill, and consume experience.

Meanwhile, the pod-form continues to spread beyond consumer products. Take, for example, the conversation pods on the recent Netflix dating show Love Is Blind, which ensure that contestants can hear but not see each other. These pods are supposed to be purifying devices that strip away the contestants’ prejudices and allow them to form “genuine” connections with each other. In fact, the thesis of the show seems to be that pods, by boiling social interaction down to the essentials, can help us be better versions of ourselves by forcing us to be more open-minded, more flexible with our romantic preferences.

These pods, like all pods, represent an unholy union between absolute enclosure and absolute flexibility. Today, as the U.S. government in particular imposes self-isolation measures on vast swaths of its citizens without making coronavirus testing or health care freely available, many of us find ourselves caught in a similar paradox. We are called on to be flexible—either to work anywhere, tough out unemployment with minimal state support, or keep going in to work on the front lines of a pandemic—yet sealed off from the world. Both responsibilities fall to us as individuals, rather than any institution. Maybe the most sinister thing about the pod is that it literally encapsulates both of these competing imperatives. In a real sense, many of us are now living in pod-space.