Consumer Behavior

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Google Glass is Going to Blind You: But Don't Worry

It's natural to worry about new technology

Two psychology professors, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris have made the headlines with their claim in the New York Times that Google Glass could ‘… inadvertently disrupt a crucial cognitive capacity, with potentially dangerous consequences.’  

Before I get to the three reasons that I don’t think people should be too concerned, I should make it clear that I absolutely agree with the nub of their argument.  I believe that it is extremely likely that wearers of Google Glass will have their cognitive capacity disrupted: inattentional blindness is a well-documented, potentially hazardous phenomenon. 

As it happens, the same people whose concerns about Google Glass have made headlines around the world are the ones who beguilingly demonstrated our capacity not to see something right in front of our eyes! Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris famously asked people to watch a video and count the number of passes of a basketball in a crowd of players.  Whilst viewers are concentrating on this task, they routinely fail to notice a person walking through the middle of the scene in a gorilla suit.

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It is easy to imagine how wearers of Google Glass might routinely be exposed to a conflict between what is going on around them and the additional information being displayed in their field of vision.

So why am I not echoing the concerns of the academics? 

There are three reasons: one empirical, one psychological and one technological.

Let’s start with the empirical.  The empiricist in me believes it is worth considering that almost every single new piece of technology that has ever been introduced has elicited voices of concern about how potentially dangerous it is. 

A university doctor stated that travelling by train would kill you (and because of the speed, not passenger over-crowding!).  The cell phone, the Large Hadron Collider, in-car satellite navigation, electricity (to name just three)… have also triggered warnings of impending harm.

I would encourage you to reflect for a moment on how few really dangerous things see the light of day.   And how few of the innovations that do are actually dangerous.

This leads me to my second, and related, point.  We have a very powerful innate sense of self-preservation; loss aversion has been shown to be a powerful unconscious force that means many of our decisions are based around minimizing the potential for future loss.

So I think that it’s likely that one ‘near-miss’ experience wearing Google Glass or, indeed, one account of someone coming to an untimely demise where ‘Glass distraction’ is identified as a cause, is likely to loom large in our thoughts and influence our behavior; we will quickly learn how to use Google Glass safely.

Most of us live with other potentially hazardous technology without concern.  For example: we could text and drive if we wanted to do so.  Fortunately most of us would regard doing so as foolhardy, so we don’t. 

Of course, it is because of our capacity for loss aversion that the academics have thought to issue their warning.  It’s also because of our receptiveness to such warnings that newspaper editors have latched onto the story.

So, yes it’s dangerous, but you will either quickly learn to use Google Glass safely, in the way that you have adapted to use your in-car GPS, or else you will restrict the times when you do use it to keep yourself safe.  Either way, I see little cause for us to worry.

I mentioned that there was a third, technological, reason why I believe people shouldn’t be too concerned. 

The way in which we interact with technology at the moment is extremely artificial: it doesn’t reflect the way we interact with each other.  This is because of how complex human interactions are: we may not realize it but, in order to understand what someone actually means when they talk to us, we’re doing incredibly complex processing.

However, having recently seen the capability of natural language platforms, like Next IT’s Alme, we won’t be at the Google Glass stage for long: soon more companies will adopt technology that means we can interact with no greater distraction than we would experience from speaking to a helpful assistant who is alongside us.

Any new technology has the capacity to distract us with disastrous consequences, and yet it’s hard to find examples of widespread damage to human kind from such innovation.  There will always be the occasional person who chooses to cross a busy road with headphones on; use a chainsaw in flip-flops or apply nail varnish whilst driving on a freeway. 

But we don’t need to be anxious about iPods, summer footwear or cosmetics; we need to worry about people who aren’t smart enough to assess the risks of using them inappropriately. 

Or perhaps evolution has it that we shouldn’t worry too much about these people either.   Some might argue that those who ignore the warnings and fail to take heed of their own near misses are simply illustrating Darwin’s natural selection at work.

Philip Graves is the author of Consumer.ology and a consumer behavior consultant to numerous international businesses.

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