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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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14 Comments sorted by

  1. John Newton

    Author Journalist

    Am I missing something in being happy with the world I see through my eyes?

  2. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    The article suggests 'genuine emotional engagement with our physical reality – and other human beings – is sacrificed for online performance and interaction'.

    This is so quaintly luddite. It's like saying the printing press exposes people to wrong thoughts. Or TV makes children anti-social. Or the telephone encourages ideleness.

    Don't worry, we'll work out how to fit the technology into our lives. We can decide what makes us happy!

    1. Yoron Hamber


      In reply to James Jenkin

      Maybe, maybe not? In a world of short crude messages subtlety and free thinking shrinks :) But you're perfectly correct in that what the papers present often is colored by political and economical views. That was what you meant right? As for the type of television we see today, I don't know. You think it represent reality then? What would then 'reality shows' represent? Even more reality :)

      But I agree on one thing. We better choose what we want ourselves.

  3. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email

    Ah, but we're all cyborgs now: hip replacements, amalgam and synthetic dental fillings, cochlear implants, false teeth, organ transplant, heart valve replacement. Human existence not augmented by technological aids, including as well things like the wheelchair and even the walking stick, is mere biological nature at work. The issue with the eye candy at the centre of this article isn't the technology as such, it is who owns it and to what purposes will it be put. I suspect retail shopping will feature strongly. A hideous idea, of course, but the real issue at the centre here is the political economy of this device. Who owns it? In whose interest is this technology being marketed?

  4. Pat Moore


    Mass means of corralling/yarding/penning/homogonizing human consciousness? For means of maximizing marketing opportunity & encouraging/influencing consumption in a capitalist market economy. And a blanket means of depoliticization & conformation. More profit in human husbandry than in animal? App feeding in Suckerburg?

    JJ your thesis would be fine if the techno feed-in originated from a neutral or benign value system but it is actually a tool of marketing & of information-controlled mass media…

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    1. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Pat Moore

      Hey Pat, I get your point - people are being manipulated by a profit-seeking monster.

      I just think people are smarter than that. I mean - you and I can both recognise a commercial agenda. Surely other people can as well?

      Or are the folk in the burbs a bit dim?

    2. Leo Kerr


      In reply to James Jenkin

      holy cow James - there's a commercial agenda here!

  5. Mike Robertson

    system administrator

    The objective here is to look beyond what they are doing. Remember they are developers, and simply developing a product according to what they imagine.

    I don't see using these glasses on a constant basis.

    But imagine them in combination with, say, an evolution of the Logitech BCC950 Conference Cam. (Call it the BCC1000.) Instead of people in the conference room controlling that unit, imagine control of it done from afar by the person remoting in to the conference room. Imagine further that…

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    1. Leo Kerr


      In reply to Mike Robertson

      lol - do you sell the BCC1000 series Mike..........

  6. Michael Pulsford

    Lecturer, RMIT School Of Art

    'genuine emotional engagement with our physical reality – and other human beings'

    With respect, I find I'm way less engaged with these two things when I read a book than when I check my smartphone. I can carry on a conversation when I'm looking at my phone. When I'm reading a book I'd really like the world to just bugger off and leave me in peace. That's just me though..

    1. John Newton

      Author Journalist

      In reply to Michael Pulsford

      'genuine emotional engagement with our physical reality – and other human beings'

      I'm reminded of an interview i conducted with Ferran Adriá, the Catalan chef famous for his modernist cuisine and especially for his invention the foam, or espuma.

      At the end of the interview I asked him what was the point of the foam. "With foam", he said, "I can give you the essence of the flavour of a nectarine." But I can get the essence of the flavour of a nectarine by eating a nectarine I replied.

      He laughed and changed the subject

    2. Mike Robertson

      system administrator

      In reply to John Newton

      The reason he changed the subject is because you can get the essence of flavor of a nectarine by eating a nectarine... but you cannot use a nectarine itself to construct a particular dish that requires that flavor!

      One of the essential parts of human nature is to not only experience things in their natural state, but to manipulate them. To change their state, while distilling certain parts of the experience. Consider beer. You can get the nature of barley and hops by directly ingesting those things. But by distilling out the barley malt sugars, mixing it with hops in a boil, and fermenting the mix, you get an entirely different and wonderful experience!

      Chefs would be out of business if all we ever did was experience nature in its own right.

  7. Benjamin Arrow

    logged in via Facebook

    I can't wait for Google Glass. First step to AR and we can't imagine what will come about because of it.
    The applications for the workplace are phenomenal, of course military applications but also medical too! Bring on the full spec FTTH NBN and Google Glass!