Commentary

Through The Rose-Colored Google Glass

SXSW has come and gone, and wearable tech was hot. In an article last year in Wired, Thad Starner, a former Google technologist and current professor at Georgia Tech, talked about how wearables -- e.g., Google Glass or Pebble watches  -- may efface such “hold-ables” as smartphones because the advance of connected tech means that soon enough any device you can't reach in two seconds will become a distraction, a barrier to communication and redundant. Such things will go the way of desktops, CDs and Palm Pilots. 

The author quotes Evernote CEO Phil Libin, who, like most in the business -- except the ones who have gone all J.D. Salinger on us -- subscribes to the idea of the connected life as the empowered life; that wearable tech makes you "more aware, more mindful. They'll reduce the number of seconds in the day when you’re confused [I laugh out loud at this]. That's what this whole connected universe will do. It will make you a functionally smarter human being.” 

Wait, now. What the hell is a functionally smarter human being? What is a smart human being, for that matter? One who uses Wikipedia a lot? What's a human being? Do you ever stand in your living room in one of those rare moments when you aren't watching someone throw up on Lady Gaga and wonder what's keeping your head suspended several feet above the floor? "Oh wait! Right, it's my body. I forgot I have one of those. But how does it work? But more importantly, can it make me functionally smarter?" 

Well, hell, Libin is in the virtual-product development business, so almost by definition he sees the world through Smart Glass (I think there's a contract you have to sign when you move to Menlo Park: "I will make people smarter, faster, better connected, more social, better informed and give them a butt-load of friends while delivering them ads they want, and our clients more information than they need.") 

Personally, I only have 285 friends; it's a paltry number, I know, but still I shudder to think what it would be like to actually sit in the same room with them. To actually have a conversation with them, in person, in a real room. We'd all grab our phones and start Skyping. 

But I know I'm human when I Google my name. Don't you? What is a person, after all, but an organism that gets a list of relevant results when he or she Googles their name. If you are bipedal and you Google your name but get no results then you are not human. In fact, you're not alive. Or maybe you're pre-human. Or maybe you're a cat. Wait, you're not a cat because then you'd be on YouTube. In any case it's far better to be a virtual human than an ostensible one, which is anyone without an Instagram account.  

What we have today is an inversion, in more pretentious, Quixotic terms, of art-deco, industrial-age grandiosity of the kind celebrated in Jose Sert's heroic depiction of "American Progress" on the ceiling of the Rockefeller Center atrium. That was the ‘30s though, where industry was an extension of the nobility of the humanus organismus, and we were gearing up for war, anyway. 

In our new inverted Arcadian worldview, it's reversed: Our bodies are an extension of the digital world. We get to be prosthetics to "social media" and content; we become the devices, in a sense. And we've arrived at no less than a theological juncture: animism is back, but in technological garb. Instead of gods and spirits residing in rivers, trees and rocks, we have Googles and Facebooks popping up on our treadmills, glasses, kiosks, windows, cars, jackets and skin-like curious sprites. The use is mutual. We get to be worn by what we wear. So those who trumpet the virtues of connected devices as uplifters of human life and culture are either willfully glib or pulling a hornswoggle. If the latter, they are using empowerment as a euphemism for submission. 

I understand that if the tech is there, people will want to take photos, read maps, read email, Facebook our "friends," order pizza and do remote prostate surgery without using their hands. But I smell fallacy in this saccharine prediction favored by sophists, digital jackanapes and cream-faced loons of the connected world: "Folks, wearable devices will allow us to really be really present, and really smart in the really real world, because our smart glasses, watches, jackets, shoes, condoms, etc. will remove barriers that separate us from people because we won't be distracted by non-wearable devices that are connected, but that you, like, have to, like, hold and stuff."  

I won't dignify that with a response except to say that my definition for a truly disempowered, disemboweled and disenfranchised human being is one who requires a heads-up display to live.

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1 comment about "Through The Rose-Colored Google Glass".
  1. Serena Ehrlich from Business Wire , March 21, 2014 at 6:17 p.m.
    I loved your last line but I don't agree with the concept. In my opinion, as one of those who led a Glass discussion at SXSW, the ones losing out are the ones hunched over their phones for hours each day (2-12 depending on age). That is 2-12 hours a day spent RIGHT NOW bending down, tripping on the street or in car accidents just to be connected to the web. Now, remove the phone from your hand and look up. That is what wearables are offering. It is NOT about being more connected, its about being more EASILY connected. This is the big differential. In addition, it should be noted that most of the wearables on the market are not designed for 24/7 usage. Glass battery life is short for reason, to force users to remove them. While that will evolve and change, we aren't there yet. Lastly, I highly encourage you to look at what organizations like Invisiblepeople.tv are doing with wearable tech. Capturing scenes not possible before, and taking viewers on a journey from the first person perspective. Obviously, as you can tell, I love this topic. Thanks for writing this piece.