April 30, 2013

Glass half empty

New Google Glass may not bring the revolution some believe it promises, but it will certainly shift the way its users perceive the world.

On April 16, Google shipped the first units of its Google Glass beta, the Glass Explorer Edition, to both developers and consumers. Glass is a small display, suspended at the upper right corner of the field of vision by a glasses-like frame. It is controlled both by voice and by a trackpad on one leg of the frame, and can execute a host of Google functions—such as searches, hangouts, and translations—and can also take pictures, shoot video, and send and receive messages.

In some ways, Google Glass is unsurprising as the next step in technological progress. We’ve already moved our computers into our phones, and then our phones into our watches; that our glasses would be next seems logical, if not inevitable. For some reason, though, the concept of Google Glass provokes particularly strong reactions. Perhaps it has to do with the eyepiece, which evokes our culture’s long-held image of an often dystopian sci-fi “future.” Perhaps it has to do with Glass’s close proximity to our eyes—organs to which we not only feel intimately connected, but which are also particularly vulnerable and exposed. (Should Google Glass develop some kind of malevolent sentience, it’s easy to imagine it gouging our eyeballs out.) The eye, after all, dominates the sensory information we receive and is our foremost portal to the surrounding world.

With predictions of a late 2013 release, Google Glass is poised to mold the way we perceive and interact with our world. The question is, how?

Perhaps what sets Google Glass apart from its predecessors is its constant, instant accessibility. Users can receive and send text messages instantly when they link Glass to an Android phone. Mark Zuckerberg, an enthusiastic supporter of the project, has already pledged to develop Facebook apps for the device. Having forced myself to block my Tumblr dash at the beginning of this year, and being one of the Facebook-free few, the warnings of such technology entrenching us in the digital realm and distancing us from the “real” one, are familiar.

However, Sergey Brin—one of Google’s co-founders, along with Larry Page—paints a very different picture. According to Brin, “[Glass] makes you less of a slave to your device.” This philosophy is evident in Glass’s design: It frees up our hands to interact with our environment. Voice-activated technology makes it possible for us to record and share events, not only as they’re happening, but as we participate in them. Google Glass is truly an “augmented reality” experience, where the use of technology bends to accommodate and, thus, enhance our life experiences.

Brin and Page may be trying to market Google Glass as a technology that serves the agency of its user, but we cannot ignore the fact that the human mind, even in adults, is malleable. Tech writer Nicholas Carr’s widely discussed 2008 article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” explored the ways the Internet shapes our thinking. He argued that although we drive technology to imitate our lives, we begin to imitate that same technology in the process. Steve Mann, a prominent inventor of wearable hardware, said, “We’re not augmenting, we’re not adding—we’re actually taking some things away, too. It’s diminished reality.” Even as Google Glass provides us with a new, information-filled reality, it simultaneously drowns out the old one. As we are allowed to pick and choose, to add and cut away at what we decide to experience as “reality,” we risk losing a certain essential flexibility—a flexibility that allows us to bend our minds around what’s unknown and uncertain.

A look at Google’s mission brings this reality into sharp relief. They seek to create the “perfect search engine,” which they define as “[something that] understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.” Essentially, they are trying to create an artificial intelligence that is fully conversant with humans’ real intelligence. However, when things must be understood “exactly,” there is little space for ambiguity, and I can already see this “philosophy” of the Internet changing the way newer generations interact with material.

Few things are more frustrating to me than watching my mom try to find a single fact, such as someone’s contact information, using her MacBook (and I’m not just saying this because I’m a PC user). Whenever she opens a page, she combs through it thoroughly, examining each incidental ad and link. I can barely prevent myself from reaching over and hitting Ctrl+F, or scrolling straight to the bottom, where the contact information is probably listed. I’m able to zoom in and pick out a piece of information very quickly, but, in order to do so, I put on blinders. This talent is quite common among our generation: We are able to extract exactly what we want, but that’s really all we get.

Google Glass heralds an unprecedented, almost totalizing merger of the real world and the digital, of artificial intelligence and human thought. But what else does it portend? Will we be reduced to shambling robots, gorging ourselves on a constant influx of information, or will our ability to reason emerge triumphant, more purified by the use of technology? Glass itself does not seem to promise anything quite so dramatic. What we will see, though, is a slow, subtle change in the way we think, for better or for worse.

Eleanor Hyun is a first-year in the College majoring in English.