Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Google's Soma: An Argument Against Glass

“And that,” put in the Director sententiously, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their un-escapable social destiny.”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Reading about gadgets can all too easily make me leak spittle like a malnourished dog sat whining at a butcher’s ankle. I’m the first to admit that I love new technology. I love unboxing new technology, exploring new technology, and using new technology. I even adore peeling away that plastic film that protects a new screen. Yet over the years, I’ve also started to regard new technology with a certain hesitant caution.

It worries me how irrational I become when I desire something that’s newly out there and available. It worries me how online services creep into our lives and how satisfying and addictive their functionality is deliberately made to look and feel. It also worries me that advances of neuro-linguistic programming and behavioural science are finding their way into the marketing and design of our electronic goods. Yet it’s only with the imminent arrival of Google Glass that I find myself feeling genuinely chilled by the way technology threatens to impose itself on our future.

Although Glass is high-tech gadgetry, it produces – as yet – quite low-tech results. It seems faintly ludicrous, therefore, to make grand statements about a technology that only places a low resolution display in the corner of our vision. Yet, as the consumer giants continue to demonstrate year upon year, huge strides can be made in short periods of time. Google Glass might look quite arcane compared with the devices in store and in our stores in a few years but it still hints at the profound changes we might be ready to enter into with barely a thought to the deeply significant contract we will have effectively signed through our simple participation.

Any criticism I make of Google Glass should be considered, therefore, in the light of what might follow. I don’t wish to stand here preaching about hellfire but I would like to ignite debate among people genuinely interested in the ramifications of a technology that will vastly alter the way we view and interact with the world. My argument is as much about the ‘what ifs’ of Glass and related technology as it is about that technology in its prototype stage. And let’s be clear: it is still barely more than a prototype. Resolutions will increase and the screen will get less cumbersome as the functionality expands. We will undoubtedly develop better ways to present an image to the eye, perhaps by advances in retinal projectors that can already paint images directly onto the retina. Yet before those technological leaps do happen, wouldn’t it be sensible to ask what might happen if we do continue down this road of augmenting our vision?

In its most extreme implementation, some Google Glass of the future might do for reality what the new Xbox One is about to do for TV: re-present it with extra information overlaid on the picture and allow it to be paused or even switched off. Is it too much of an exaggeration to imagine a scenario by which the wearer of one of these devices might simply choose to disconnect themselves from the direct feed of their eyes? They could then view everything through the equivalent of the forward mounted cameras you see on some luxury cars, allowing their vision to be suitably enhanced with different overlays filtered through clever on-board algorithms. You want thermal vision? Night vision? What about vision that replaces red flowers with blue? It sounds innocuous enough, especially if the same technology can do something as useful as blocking out any headline you might spot about the soap opera storyline you’ve not yet watched. Implausible? Technology already exists by which a foreign language written on a surface can be changed into English in real time when viewed through your iPhone. What if you don’t want to ever see Lady Gaga’s face again? Then you might think that this technology might just have its uses but what if that same filter can also obscure signs of poverty or aging or news about a war? Is that pure science fiction or merely the contents of the next firmware update? I’m not so sure that the distance between the two is all that great.

Even if Glass remains merely a device that gives us a peripheral view of email, Twitter, Facebook updates, newsfeeds, and the internet, I believe we must all face the fundamental questions this technology raises about how we function as human beings. How important does memory become when facts are in-vision and immediately accessible? Anybody who has taught in Higher Education will already know that the knowledgebase of undergraduates is at an all-time low. The web has already become the favoured source of essay answers and a common refrain that all secondary school teachers hear is: ‘why do we need to learn it when we can just check on Wikipedia?’

Google Glass is already being sold to us for its ability to present additional information to us as we view the world but will our minds begin to operate in different ways when constantly absorbing information from concurrent sources? Might it mean that we improve our ability to perform rapid task-switching but how might that impact on our concentration levels? If you doubt that it would, consider the quality of conversations you last had with a friend preoccupied with Twitter on their mobile phone or playing Candy Crush on their tablet. Might our thoughts broaden but grow less complex? What does that do to the way we think or write? Consider that some experts already suggest that the average length of an ebook should be 30,000 words. Will that small change impact on the kinds of books we’ll be reading in the future? Will authors of the future be less like Dickens, Conrad or Henry James, and more inclined to write in pithy one-liners usually no more than 140 characters long?

The questions seem interminable because the ramifications of this technology are so great yet barely considered. What interests me most of all, however, is the broader context of social interaction. To many of us, the virtual societies we belong to on the internet are often already more vital than any society we nominally belong to in what might now be called the ‘unfashionably real world’. I know I have more varied and interesting discussions by leaving comments beneath The Guardian’s articles than I have going about my daily life. For the most part, then, all this innovation seems beneficial. Yet might that also be the underlying danger?

The tyranny of the future probably won’t look like tyranny. It will look like entertainment or a beneficial technology you simply can’t live without. The tyranny will not even function as a tyranny in that it won’t be overt. Like Huxley’s reality-neutralising drug soma, it will be something we passively choose in what we believe is an expression of our own free will. Tyranny will look no different to an addiction and you will be the tyrant of your own life.

The closer we align ourselves to the services provided by companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the countless other would-be information gateways, the more we allow those services to decide who and what we are, what we see and what we think and believe. Consider a life where your entire world view is in the control of the media giants, feeding you a diet of talent shows and Simon Cowell. Mobile phones are already changing the nature of our social interactions, as well as the way we think of ourselves as individuals both real and virtual. Google Glass is a very significant step towards a future where we are in a mode of almost permanent distraction and where reality itself might be pre-filtered before we experience it. This is already happening to a certain degree when we select our news feeds and tell the web crawlers what kind of stories we want to read. Yet what do we become if we are only fed a diet of what we think we want rather than the things that we prefer not to see because they can often be difficult, troubling, yet also life changing and ultimately life affirming? As Victor Hugo wrote, ‘thought is the labour of the intellect, reverie its pleasure. To replace thought with reverie is to confound poison with nourishment.’

Google Glass is the kind of technology we might have been dreaming about for a long time but we should also be very cautious about replacing our power of thought with that kind of reverie. The better we become at some things, the less able we might become at others. Technology might help us advance more quickly as a civilisation but it might just as easily stunt our growth. Google Glass is one technology I will be watching very closely but one I genuinely doubt I’ll ever want to wear.


Another article I wrote thinking it might stand a chance to get published over at The Guardian's 'Comment is Free'. Since they ignore everything I ever send them, I'm beginning to think it might be me, not them... Anyway, I've just come across a blisteringly good article on Google by Bryan Appleyard. It makes the case the Google are crazier than even I thought they were.


  1. A long time ago, I wrote a story called 'The Imagination Virus'. It was in 'Nocturnal Ooze' online-magazine in 2004, but that mag's gone now. It's still around in a little book called 'Fears of the Old and the New'.

    In that story, the world was Hell but those infected with the virus had their perceptions altered. They saw the world as it was before it was blasted by weapons that weren't deeply discussed (the war and weapons weren't the point of the story).

    The virus vector was never satisfactory. It was a stretch to believe a virus could do that. If I was writing it now I wouldn't have a virus. I'd have next-generation Google Glass as implants in both corneas. Then everyone would see the world as the programmers want them to see it.

    That was one of the stories I thought could never possibly get anywhere near coming true. Turns out I just had the wrong mechanism.

  2. Yes, that's the kind of horrific future I see myself, though with less of a hell and more of a heaven as envisaged by other people (for which I would think ITV on a Saturday night). The way you describe your story, it also reminds me a little of that classic John Carpenter movie, 'They Live', except in that world, you put on the glasses to see the black and white reality, emblazoned with slogans such as 'Don't think' and 'consume'.

    And that's the problem with Google Glass. No matter what controls they put on it, you are always going to be viewing the world through a filter of other people's devising. Perhaps I've just seen and read too much Sci-fi but... I don't know. The whole thing just feels a step too far.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment. Glad to know I'm not the only person who sees a problem with the way we're going. ;)

  3. The way we're going technologically and drone-wise leads to the Borg, and then the Cybermen.

  4. Nothing as cool. Probably just large flabby lumps of fat connected to the mains.

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