Google Glass and the rise of the connected (yet disconnected) human being
December 31, 2013
Face computers like Google Glass have their advantages. But when you start talking about the disadvantages of Glass, one of the big topics that keeps coming up is a general disconnection from your surroundings. Keep an eye out for our full Google Glass review, but in the meantime, we have some more thoughts on the subject from our time beta-testing it.
So you strap this US$1,500 tech product onto your face and enter the world of Google Glass. You suddenly have the entire internet waiting for you, ready to be displayed on the tiny glass prism that sits above your right eye. You can summon the world's information completely hands-free, with just a nod of the head and a few words. You're now the world's most connected human being.
Or are you? While you're extremely connected to your inbox, Twitter, and the internet at large, what are you taking your focus away from?
Give and take
You could say that being very focused on one thing means you're choosing not to focus on a thousand other things. Someone who's considered a genius at work might be a terrible husband or father because he isn't focusing on the basics at home. Likewise, you could say that neglecting something really just means you're placing your focus somewhere else. A neglectful husband is ignoring his marriage, but maybe he's putting his focus on, say, work or his new girlfriend. You get the picture.
So if Glass lets you focus that easily and often on Google, social media, and cyberspace in general, then is there something else that it's taking your attention away from? To paraphrase John Lennon, are you disconnecting from the life that happens while you're busy making other plans? Or does that life just live less often in your physical environment and more often in bits of data floating through the air?
After using Glass for a few weeks, I think the answer to that is really going to depend on how you use it. Glass definitely has the potential to turn you into a disconnected zombie who ignores the world around him. But, then again, so do smartphones. The only differences with Glass are that a) you don't have to bother taking anything out of your pocket, and b) the people around you might not have a clue that you aren't paying attention to them.
You could argue that because Glass sits just above your line of sight, you're actually more focused on the world around you. You aren't constantly checking your phone for messages and, when you do read an incoming text or email, you can do it without looking away from whatever is sitting in front of you – whether that's the road, your office, or your date.
I don't, however, subscribe to that line of thinking. Just because something is still in your field of vision doesn't mean it's any more a part of your experience than if you were staring down at a smartphone screen. When you're actively using Glass, everything but Glass becomes background blur.
So while all of this is technically in your field of vision:
... my experience, while using Glass, is typically more like this:
Glass doesn't completely zap us out of our surroundings. But it does continue the trend of check-out periods. I'm here with you, now I'm with my inbox, now I'm back with you. I'm with you for a few more minutes, now I'm with a Facebook message, now I'm back with you. To some degree this is the story of smartphones, but it's even more the story of Google Glass.
The question, then, is how much more of that intermittent dropping-out we're willing to incorporate into our lives? And whether we'll still tolerate that dropping-out when it can be done much more stealthily?
You're a part of me
It seems a little far-fetched to compare wearing Google Glass to transforming into a cyborg, but, as I've touched on before, I really think it's a first step in that direction. There's something about the hands-free, on-your-head nature of Glass that makes it feel like more than a tech product. It starts to feel like an extension of you. A much more connected, Borg-like version of you.
One example: when I'm not wearing Glass, I'll sometimes catch myself starting to wink to take a picture (a feature added in the last Glass update). There's actually a part of me that begins to feel like that's something I can do, a natural human ability of mine, as opposed to something that this tech product allows me to do.
It's a bit like wearing contact lenses. I don't go through my day thinking "I can see things perfectly because of these silicone saucers sitting on my eyes." No, I just enjoy seeing things in 20/20 vision. And even though I intellectually understand that it's because of this wonderful optical enhancement, in the moment it feels like a natural ability. It's as if my vision never went south in the first place.
That's the direction that Glass can take you ... only replace 20/20 vision with the internet. It's like our brains have restored their natural ability to instantly tap into any information, instantly connect with anyone, and instantly be entertained by anything. Of course the key difference is that, unlike excellent vision, none of us were ever born with those abilities. We aren't restoring something natural that degraded; we're adding something completely new.
Though Glass is every bit as removable as a contact lens, wear it enough and it starts to feel just as much like an integrated – almost necessary – part of you. Is that an amazing thing, a frightening thing, or just the next thing? Well, I guess it depends on whether you think technology can merely improve your life – or whether it can actually improve you.
We're going to keep rolling with our series on Glass, so keep a cyborg's eye out for our full Google Glass review and other random musings on the search giant's smart specs.