Monday, July 2, 2012

Four eyes: 4 ways Google Glass might change the world

Samuel R. Delany's Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand was published in 1984, five or six years after my most ravenous period of devouring science fiction novels ended. Thinking of it the other day, then looking at its publication date, reminded me that I read it right around the dawn of the intertubes.

Why did I think of Stars in My Pocket... the other day?

Google Glass and Google Glasses, natch.

Google Glasses, if you weren't watching tech news last week, are eyeglasses with a bit of Google Glass mounted at the edge of a wearer's field of view. What's Google Glass, then? Here's how Reuters described it on Thursday:
Google Glass is a stamp-sized electronic screen mounted on the left side of a pair of eyeglass frames which can record video, access email and messages, and retrieve information from the Web. [...]

The glasses, which weigh less than some sunglasses, contain a wireless networking chip and essentially all the other technology found inside a typical smartphone - save for a cellular network radio - Google executives said.

The battery is smaller than a smartphone battery, but Google is working on ways to make the battery charge last for a full day.

[Google co-founder Sergei] Brin said he expects the glasses to be available to consumers less than a year after the developer version is available.

Google is still experimenting with various aspects of the glasses, including potentially providing directions on the screen and the ability to have the glasses speak out text messages, Brin said.
Fulfilling futurist vision

I've forgotten much of the detail of Delany's 1984 novel, in which (from the novel's dust jacket) "the Web [is] a shadowy organization that controls the flow of data between worlds." Still, I'm surprised by how frequently I continue to remember his description of the General Information service when I mull over the reach of our current web, and its ability to provide most any information one seeks, most any time, via some of the simplest and most useful interfaces you can load in a web browser: Google's home page, or Bing's or Baidu's (Yandex and Yahoo are more crowded and confusing, but their reach is analogous).

Delany's General Information service -- GI for short -- is a mode of hooking up, telepathically for all intents and purposes, to local nodes of massively cross-indexed data. The universe of Delany's novel is very very big, thousands of inhabited worlds across vast sectors of multiple galaxies; so "local nodes" refers to planetary, solar system, and star-sector sized aggregations of information. As in our actual, single-planet world, information has value. Access to it may be restricted. Here's how Delany portrayed his then-theoretical concept as it exists on a free-data transfer point called Kantor, somewhere in the fictional universe of Stars in My Pocket...:
GI on Kantor dwarfs any on any given world. To walk in the weak gravity by the great aluminum and ceramic banks in hot and cold storage is to walk past macro-encylopedias -- encyclopedias of encyclopedias! I recall my first time through, when I stood on a plane of scarlet glass under an array of floating light tubes and thought out: "What is the exact human population of the universe?" and was informed, for answer: "In a universe of c. six thousand two hundred inhabited worlds with human populations over two hundred and under five billion, 'population' itself becomes a fuzzy-edged concept. Over any moment there is a birth/death pulse of almost a billion. [...] Thus 'exactness' below five billion is not to be forthcoming. Here are some informative programs you may pursue that will allow you to ask your question in more meaningful terms..."

Does Free-Kantor or, indeed, any free-data transfer point contain all the information in the human universe? Far from it. On such a scale, data-quantity itself is even more fuzzy-edged than population. By in the way that an urban complex soon becomes a kind of intensified sampling of the products and produce of the geosector around it, so a free-data transfer point becomes a kind of partial city against the night, an image of the city without the city's substance, gaining what solidity in possesses from endlessly cross-filed data webs.

Google Glasses promise to go further toward delivering what Delany wrote about, speculatively, twenty-eight years ago, than humankind has ever gone before. Access to the hive mind, all the time, as background to one's everyday activity ... without even having to take a smartphone out of your pocket and poke it.

TMI: an oopsie-daisy scenario, with teeth

Developments like Google Glass naturally lead one to ask: is internet everywhere, all the time, a good thing? When Google Glass becomes available to Joe Consumer it will dramatically up the ante on those same questions.

One way to answer the questions is with parody, as in the video embedded below, posted a few months ago by Tom Scott as he followed the progress of Project Glass:

An amusing contrast, I'd say, to the Happy Happy Consumer View, that is, to Google's own description of Google Glass, also posted to YouTube.

But if Tom Scott gave us the "oops, sorry" sound-byte, consider another novelist's lengthier take on life in intertubelandia, this one on life lived with the net as we know it rather than as a speculative fiction.

Helen Schulman's This Beautiful Life (2011) gives an open-eyed view to where too much web access -- even the 'pedestrian' web already woven deep into the fabric of 21st century life -- can go wrong. From Schulman's dust-jacket blurb:
When the Bergamots move from a comfortable upstate college town to New York City, they're not quite sure how they'll adapt -- or what to make of  the strange new world of well-to-do Manhattan. [...]

But the upper-class cocoon in which they have enveloped themselves is ripped apart when [fifteen-year-old] Jake wakes up one morning after an unchaparoned party and finds an e-mail in his in-box from an eighth-grade admirer. Attached is a sexually explicit video she has made for him. Shocked, stunned, maybe a little proud, and scared -- a jumble of adolescent emotion -- he forwards the video to a friend, who then forwards it to a friend. Within hours it's gone viral, all over the school, the city, the world.
The ensuing scandal threatens to shatter the Bergamots' sense of security and identity, and, ultimately, their happiness. They are a good family faced with bad choices, and how they choose to react, individually and at one another's behest, places everything they hold dear in jeopardy.
It's true that a novel of Upper West Side manners depicts a far different, far more sheltered sensibility than that of Delany's work, in which sexual expression and mores are treated way outside the mainstream. After all, a centerpiece of Stars in My Pocket... is the relationship between Marq Dyeth and Rat Korga, two fellows whose synaptic maps have been analyzed such that the shadowy organization that is The Web has discovered "Korga happens to be your [Dyeth's] perfect erotic object -- out to about seven decimal places [...] More to the point [...] out to about nine decimal places, you happen to be Rat's." Delany's fictions extrapolate from even more remote byways of the real world we know than New York's Upper West Side.

But it's not hard for anybody with a webcam -- let alone anybody with a child who has a webcam -- to imagine how easily damage might be done.

Do the names Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi ring any bells?

Lost in space

Have you ever looked around a restaurant, a subway car, a classroom, or a sidewalk and wondered at the proportion of people paying more attention to their devices -- smartphones, iPods, laptops -- than to their surroundings?

Might developments like Google Glass tempt us to forget altogether that there's a real world out there?

Here's James Temple with a few thoughtful words on the larger frame, if you will, of Google Glasses, in the SF Chronicle of  late last week:
To me it seems the real point is to make the Internet and technology a more pervasive force in our lives. In fact, it feels like a half step toward a bionic future, where we pump up our cognitive and physical abilities with the aid of ever present computers.

Now, whether that sounds like a techno utopia or electronic hell depends a lot on your general attitude toward technology. As I joked with a colleague earlier in the day: the reaction to the glasses has been roughly divided between those who think affixing a computer to your face is crazy — and people who watch Star Trek.

I certainly see the appeal, but I fear what we sacrifice along the way. Google Glass may add some capabilities or convenience, but it’s also a filter that sits between our eyes and the real world.

I might never again miss an opportunity to record a precious life moment, but I might miss an opportunity to experience it.

Two to four million closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in the U.K. Remotely-operated microphones that pinpoint the occurrence of urban gunfire in sixty cities around the U.S. Policing of everyday commerce through massive data mining operations run by government bureaucracies like the National Security Branch Analysis Center.

The Christian Science Monitor, in Report: London no safer for all its CCTV cameras, published this lede in February 2012:
London is considered the most spied-on city in the world, courtesy of its ubiquitous CCTV cameras, purportedly there to reduce crime. But according to a recent report, there's been little or no change in London's crime rates since they were more widely installed in the mid 1980s.

Privacy activists are worried that Britain will become the bleak totalitarian society George Orwell painted in his classic novel 1984, where citizens were spied on and personal freedom sacrificed for the benefit of an all-powerful state.

"We are sleepwalking into a surveillance society where we’re watched from control rooms by anonymous people," says Emma Carr of the BBW. "The worrying thing is that we don’t actually know how many CCTV cameras there are out there."
Imagine, then, a world in which you're surrounded by people wearing Google Glasses or the equivalent.

Which of them is piping every one of your unguarded gestures and utterances into cyberspace? How many have accepted 'special terms' on discounted glasses that required 'only' agreement that their data stream be uploaded, 24/7, to "OmniWatch Corporation," which reserves a fine-print right to direct certain data, at their sole discretion, to ambiguously defined 'security partners'?

When was the last time you read the fine print on your Facebook privacy agreement, or your cell phone contract, or that terms-and-conditions-on-tissue-paper pamphlet issued with your credit card?

Are Google Glass and its spawn going to be good clean fun? Or are we talking instruments of social control?

* * *

I don't know which world Google Glass and its descendents will usher in. Maybe it will be a world of lives shattered by spontaneous oversharing of adolescent impulse-porn. Maybe it'll be a world of algorithmically enhanced hook-ups. Might it be a matrixed world of electronically simulated experience? Or a world in which police agencies evaluate everything each of us does, says, spends ... and even looks at?

Perhaps a better question would be in what order and with what attendant chaos will technologies like those Samuel Delany visualized -- technologies like today's, whose disruptive effect Helen Schulman portrayed and Dharun Ravi thoughtlessly abused -- transform current human behavior and relations in ways we don't yet imagine?

Time will tell, I suppose.

Delany must have loved PC Magazine's headline on the Google Glasses demo, dated 28 June 2012: Porn on Google's Project Glass Is Inevitable.

Of that, I suppose, we can be certain.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Google Translate, AI, and Searle's Chinese Room
Google everything: technology in our times
Weather? Climate? Change?
A speculative-fiction spectrum: Clifford D. Simak to David Mitchell

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