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Google Glass: augmenting minds or helping us sleepwalk?

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google along with Larry Page, was photographed recently on the New York subway wearing Google Glass, the company’s latest offering to augment your mind. But will our minds be…

Glasses that mediate between the user and reality – it sounds like sci-fi but it’s not. Cristoph Dernbach, EPA

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google along with Larry Page, was photographed recently on the New York subway wearing Google Glass, the company’s latest offering to augment your mind. But will our minds be truly augmented?

The Google Glass “glasses”, if connected to Wi-Fi, show information on a screen about what the user is seeing – based on Google search data – such as location and recognisable people and brands. While Google Glass is still in development, Google is expected to begin shipping the device to enthusiasts within the year.

The idea of wearing glasses that mediate between the user and reality might still seem a little far-fetched, a little sci-fi – maybe something to have a few minutes of fun with. But bearing in mind that the computer in these devices can take photos and video of what, and who, is being seen, and share it immediately for further online interaction, it seems that’s not what Google has in mind.

These devices are meant to be worn for substantial periods of time. They perform the kinds of functions - albeit in a more obtrusive way – that are currently taken care of by smartphones and tablets, the technologies we are increasingly tethered to as we live our daily lives. To simplify things, this time we’ll wear the device on our faces.

If it’s not difficult to see Google Glass as a simple continuation of the relationship humans have with technology, it’s even easier to see some of the problems being exacerbated.

Previous technophile turned techno-pessimist MIT professor Sherry Turkle writes in her latest book about the way users of mobile devices engage in compulsive behaviour – which she describes as being “always on” – cradling their technologies in bed in the middle of a sleepless night, checking emails quickly in the middle of reading a book to a toddler, logging on to Facebook just as the lights have gone down in the cinema.

In such cases, genuine emotional engagement with our physical reality – and other human beings - is sacrificed for online performance and interaction.

Shifting sands

Every day new activities are transferred from the physical arena to the digital one. The death of the record shop has switched the experience of browsing the aisles to browsing the iTunes library. The workplace, the one space where even the shyest among us were forced to socialise, is often now a laptop on the kitchen table. There’s even been a radical change in the way we fall in love - not just through online dating agencies but via flirty Facebook posts and Tweets.

If we really put our minds to it, we could do almost everything without face-to-face contact with other humans.

For a growing number of people, this shift represents freedom – freedom not to go to work every day, and who can be bothered to get in the car to go to the supermarket anyway? But in return we seem to be handing more and more control over to the technology companies who facilitate these changes.

Rather than chat through our ideas with a colleague over the coffee machine, a great many of us now think in front of the computer – or rather we now think with the help of the computer. Type any word into Google – however simple, however vague – and Google will offer a whole list of potential thoughts you might be having. Some turn out to be better than the original thought.

But even if we do make it to our original destination, the list in front of us contains the information the Google algorithm throws up: it has already selected and privileged certain streams of knowledge for us; it has decided where our thinking should go.

Whereas Facebook offers more interaction with the thoughts of actual human beings, Google has encouraged us to edit ourselves, and our own thinking.

Google Glass takes all this one step further – in the future, sightings of friends will be mediated by the device, what we know about them will be delivered to us by Google, and even questions of where we physically exist will be given to us by the algorithm.

Users barely have to think at all – which doesn’t seem completely out of step with what top people at Google have told the world is their aim. Sounds a little like sci-fi? At least sci-fi usually includes a small band of dissenters, but all Google’s latest announcement seems to inspire is consumer enthusiasm.

And as it’s coming from Google, we can be sure the company’s competitors are working on their own designs already.


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