Google Glass and the tradeoffs we make

I recently read a provocative article entitled “Your body does not want to be an interface.” The author makes the point that because our bodies are the way we experience the world,  it would be wrong to enmesh ourselves in an an always-on, full-body interface, for fear of detaching ourselves from “real” experience. The author draws a distinction between two kinds of tools. The first kind of tool is those immediately able to be used without thought, and termed ‘ready-to-hand’ – tools like a hammer. He contrasts this with a tool that requires interpretation and thinking about as ‘present-at-hand.’ He says that a cellphone is such a tool and suggests that Google Glass would be too. His argument continues that converting our whole body to a ‘present-at-hand’ tool like this is a step further than we’ve gone in the past and represents a step too far. These two distinctions represent points on a continuous spectrum of ‘toolness.’ We’ve already embraced much more invasive technologies than Google Glass in the past – and to great positive benefit.

What do you think we’ve been doing  all this time?

While there are a lot of very real problems with Google Glass, altering the perception of the wearer isn’t one of them. We make trade-offs like this all of the time, and anything, even the most impossibly unnatural actions, can become second nature eventually. I can speak from fresh experience in that regard because I’m learning to drive at the moment. I’m pretty old to be starting on that path, and because of that I can see the alienness of the task at hand.  All tasks are, before you learn how to do them. It’s just that when no-one has ever has learned about a task or technology before, society sees them as impossible or undesirable to learn.

Won’t using Google Glass suck, though?

I’m not going to argue that there are no down-sides to a future where people stare to select an item and slide their tongue to select it – I think it’s clear that these kinds of systems have the potential to harm our sense of experiencing the present. I just think that it’s not the first time we’ve made that kind of trade-off, and it won’t be the last. There’s another significant, Faustian bargain we’ve made already that has both massive advantages and significant disadvantages: Reading.

What’s so crazy about reading?

Reading is like training your eyes to listen to a special kind of speech someone said for hundreds of people to hear. That speech that can hang in the air for thousands of years. Stanislas Dehaene has measured activity in an area of the brain he calls the Visual Word Form Area while showing people human faces, and found that illiterate people have stronger brain activity in that area than people who have learned to read. It seems as though illiterates can ‘read’ more in a face than people who have dedicated this area of their brain to reading text.  

It seems obvious to us now that the benefits of reading text probably outweigh the cost of losing out in facial recognition. (A more in-depth explanation of Dehaene’s research can be found here.)

Better the devil you know

So we know that the difference between ready-to-hand tools and present-at-hand tools is simply one of degree. That’s good – and we can see from the case of reading, our brain function has already been substantially altered by the technologies and tools that we use. We accommodate those changes, though, and eventually forget that any trade-off has been made at all. What determines whether a trade-off is worth it remains the same – what we lose, and what we gain.  

Ultimately, technologies like Google Glass are going to open up new worlds of possibility, at the same time as they close other worlds off. It’s up to us to decide which world(s) we want to live in.