Google caused a stir by demoing Google Glass at work. Since then I’ve been thinking about it more than I should, and I want to find out why.
I’m interested in debates surrounding security concerns of wearable augmented reality technology – dystopian visions of misuse are easy to envision; on the flip side, the possibilities of AR technology used for good are equally far reaching. I’m reluctant to take sides in the ‘is AR good or bad’ debate.
Instead, when confronted by new technology – following Marshall McLuhan – I ask: what parts of ourselves do we replace by inventing new technology?
McLuhan provides a useful framework1 for thinking about technological newness. He argues that the invention of new technology is our nervous system’s attempt to ‘amputate’ parts of our bodies experiencing stress:
In the physical stress of super stimulation of various kinds, the central nervous system acts to protect itself by a strategy of amputation or isolation of the offending organ, sense, or function. Thus, the stimulus to new invention is the stress of acceleration of pace and increase of load.
We invented the wheel as a ‘kind of autoamputation’ of our feet when pace in relation to load became unbearable. In the context of ‘acceleration of pace and increase of load’ in the information age, what in us are we externalising by inventing the internet? He writes that our physical organs are no longer ‘protective buffers against the slings and arrows of outrageous mechanism’.
Stepping back and looking at Google Glass again, it becomes an ‘outrageous mechanism’ in itself. An object 2 amputated by, and from, our nervous systems acting as a buffer to an external ‘irritant’ (load of advantage gained by interpreting joined up information in real-time). It becomes an image of ourselves, and by ‘continuously embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms’. In the process we’re not only enslaved but we also become ‘the sex organs of the machine world’ and by the sweat of our labour, and the dedication of our non-reflective service, we allow technology ‘to evolve to ever new forms’.
It’s a lot to take in … but there’s more: human behaviour and the choices we make now enter the frame. McLuhan writes that the ‘machine world reciprocates man’s love by expediting his wishes and desires, namely, in providing him with wealth’. And the love of technology – love of ourselves – with the promise of wealth, lures us into a state of numbness, we become a closed system, deaf as Narcissus to Echo’s calls.
Stepping back and looking at Google Glass yet again: is it a reciprocation of someone else’s desire? And what does it mean for those – framed in its gaze – whose desire it is not?3
Google Glass represents a physical object and also a process. I’m reflecting on it here mainly as an object, but the (hidden) processes it forms part of, and enables, suggest other meanings. ↩
I urge anyone interested in these topics to read Chapter 4, I’ve only scratched the surface of its riches. I use it as a buffer (and reflective space) against the acceleration of pace and increase of load. ↩