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Life through a lens: Will Google Glass turn us all into drones?

Google shows off Glass at SXSW

Google Glass was demonstrated at SXSW this week, prompting much debate about whether the tech giant's latest gadget will change how we see the world. But more than that, what effect will real-time, heads-up data have on our consciousness over time? Ed Castillo, head of planning at TBWA\Chiat\Day in New York, goes through the looking-glass...

The demonstration of Google Glass at SXSWi has aroused – or at least has coincided with – Twitter activity from technologists and ad types (Twechs and Twads?) about everything from hyper-practical concerns to thoughtful accounts of how this innovation might change the shape of public life.

Even a cursory look at the digital echo emanating from Monday’s demo reveals the disruptive promise of this innovation. Brushing aside knee-jerk criticisms (I remember thinking that SMS would n-e-v-e-r catch on when I first encountered it in Asia at the turn of the century) it is clear to me that there are novel, landmark issues likely to emerge around privacy, the role of long-term memory in everyday life…what “experience” even is as a consequence of Google Glass-like objects.

What follows is a surface contemplation of just a few of the issues that Google Glass use will raise, building toward a subtler, longer-time-horizon issue that I’ve not yet seen addressed by the Twechs and Twads…

A blurring of bodies and bits

From the merely convenient (e.g., pulling out your smartphone and entering a passcode in order to do a quick search) to the potentially critical (e.g., measuring your vital signs with your smartphone) it is clear that there is utility in bringing computers closer to our bodies and integrating them with our natural movements when possible. This is a potential boon for Google-Glass-like objects. Even detractors can agree with this.

I see, therefore I am

Mark Hurst, whose Bit Literacy (2007) alludes to the “lifebits” feature of Google Glass – wherein your ‘eyeppendage’ will record rich audio and video, from your perspective, upon verbal command – offers a fascinating account of how this data capture might integrate with other Google databases to radically alter interpersonal privacy expectations in public life. Hurst’s concern isn’t that the Google Glass user will withdraw from “normal” public life (ironically while in public) when capturing his POV for later consumption (and possibly distribution), but rather that he will be in the position to identify and reveal the identities and behaviors of anyone who comes within eyeshot.

You don’t need to be a privacy enthusiast, M-i-s-ter Anderson, to recognize that issues will be raised when every Google Glass user is potentially a surveillance drone.

Taking a closer look, however, it seems that no one is discussing the most interesting long-term issue (to me, at least)…

Sure, Google Glass will allow NASDAQ: GOOG to more seamlessly interact with our bodies and allow users a more convenient way to film our skydiving antics…but what effect will real-time, heads-up data have on our consciousness over time?

The Machine in the Ghost

As philosopher David Chalmers points out, consciousness is at once the most familiar and most mysterious thing in the world. There’s nothing we know better (and there’s nothing that we know less about). Every one of my experiences is intimately my own, and no one else can experience them the way I have (though I cannot explain to you why it is the case that I have experiences at all).

Setting aside the mystery of our being aware that we are aware, I see a potential for seismic shifts in what it means “to be conscious of the world” as a consequence of Google Glass use. Sure, technology is changing much, much faster than we are evolving, but neuroplasticity is no slouch. Consistently alter your perception of the world, and in a mere four days your brain will compensate (making the world seem “normal” again, even as you continue to alter your perceptual field).

How will normal stimulus response traits be altered over time by the addition of a heads-up display? How will I know that “my thoughts and perceptions” are actually mine as Google data streams become artificially intelligent? Will I wind up looking like everyone who wore Opti-Grabs in The Jerk??

I’m not an alarmist (contrary to what I’ve written here), so I’ll close with a comment from a YouTube video demo of Google Glass:

“Socrates actually thought the invention of writing was a bad idea because if people can just write things down, their brains will atrophy because they [wouldn’t] have to remember anything. It actually dramatically sped up our technological development.”

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