A video released by Google earlier this month serves as an introduction to their Project Glass, which aims at putting smartphone apps on a pair of voice controlled glasses. You can watch the clip now or at the end of this post. I suggest you invest the 2 1/2 minutes upfront, since the clip is kind of wild and provides the context for the rest of the article.
I discovered Project Glass in a New York Times op ed piece, “The Man With the Google Glasses,” by Ross Douthat, published April 14. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/opinion/sunday/douthat-the-man-with-the-google-glasses.html?_r=4
Douthat says that regardless of whether the project comes to fruition, this video speaks volumes about our collective condition – a mix of unbelievable technical expertise and ever-deeper alienation. As a writer, I couldn’t construct a better illustration of this than the final scene in the youTube clip. Our protagonist can video chat and share a gorgeous sunset with his girlfriend, and he has to – she’s nowhere near the apartment where he lives. In a digital world, “sharing a sunset” has more than one meaning!
Douthat quotes an NYU sociologist who says that more Americans now live alone than in nuclear families. Similar stats tell us similar things that we already know or sense. Douthat presents both optimistic and pessimistic assessments of the impact of online media on our social connections or lack thereof.
He also adds a note of caution about the political ramifications of the trend. He quotes sociologist, Robert Nisbet who believed that “in eras of intense individualism and weak communal ties, the human need for belonging tends to empower central governments as never before.” Douthat suggests that old time totalitarianism is not a likely prospect, but says that “what the blogger James Poulos has dubbed “the pink police state” which is officially tolerant while scrutinizing your every move — remains a live possibility.”
In truth, I’m not too paranoid on that score, since the average evening at our house is so quiet the spies would go to sleep.
What stays with me from the video is the sense that the Google glasses turn the entire world into a version of my computer screen, where the world “out there” is wallpaper for the applications I’m running. The phrase these days is “virtualization,” though in one sense, it’s nothing new.
Various artists, philosophers, and spiritual masters have told us “reality” is more like a dream than we know. Physicists teach nothing is really solid. Biologists explains that we don’t see rocks or trees “out there.” What we see are photons striking the rods and cones in our retinas. Behavioral psychologists have established that at a certain level, our brains do not know the difference between “real” and imagined events. As James Hillman put it, “Every experience has to begin as a psychic event in order to happen at all.” In this sense, the human mind and senses perform the fundamental act of virtualization and have done so for millennia.
Does this mean I’m going to sign up for a pair of smart glasses when they hit the market? Nope. They’re a bit far along the nerd scale, even for me, and actually, the prototype is more than a little creepy. It’s not hard to imagine surreal scenes on the street with smart-glassed pedestrians trying to navigate around each other, and even worse, smart-glassed drivers reading and responding to their emails.
All kidding aside, once this idea hits the streets in some refined, future incarnation, it will likely be one more seductive technological tool/toy to learn to use in a way that serves us and not the other way around.