With any new technology that we adopt it’s wise to ask ourselves not only what we gain but what we lose, both as individuals and as a society. For the Google Glasses, the full answers to these questions will remain elusive until the (fun!) experiments begin, and especially after use becomes normalized. But here are a few things I imagine might be issues of concern as we integrate augmented reality (AR) glasses into our lives. Some of these are intensified versions of existing concerns, while others will be totally new:
1) Privacy—When the Internet is worn on the face and used throughout waking hours, when you and others are impulsively recording your actions and immediately uploading them to the cloud, the issue of privacy protection from states, businesses, and others with an interest in your data (aka your personal life) is likely to become even more important than it is today.
2) Relationships—If adopted as an everyday technology, how will Google Glasses change how we relate to others, both those in our physical vicinity and those far away? We will soon have the ability to experience, in a much more intimate and sustained way, our waking hours with a loved one across the world, or across town. What will this mean for people directly in front of us? As we think about the next commands to send to Glass, and as our attention is interrupted by new information appearing on the tiny screens in front of our eyes, we risk becoming more experientially detached from our immediate physical world. When facial recognition technology—which already exists—gets added to AR glasses, which it eventually will, we’ll have to deal with a whole new set of privacy concerns. For example, whatever information exists about people on the web today will be available in real time, as we interact with each other. We can expect to know much more about new friends, acquaintances, and colleagues than we do now. Nameless strangers on the street will start to be googled. (Can you say, "OK glass, google that person?")
3) The End of Loneliness?—New media technology is changing how people experience loneliness. Soon people will have the ability to remain continually connected to their online social network from the time they wake up to the time they fall asleep. It’s possible this may not be a good thing.
4) Mental Health—How will the ability for constant online connection through the visual field affect cognition, emotional experience, psychopathology including anxiety and depression, and child development? As we become expert web surfers—as when we do anything repeatedly—our amazing brains physiologically rewire themselves to adapt to the specific demands of the new behavior; we both gain and lose certain capabilities. Scientific research already shows that the simple availability of modern digital distractions negatively affects memory, comprehension, attention, and concentration. When we become expert Glass users, our brains will likewise rewire themselves and we will gain and lose other capabilities. Exactly what will be gained and what will be lost remains to be seen.
5) Information Overload—If you already feel overwhelmed by information, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
I’m still trying to decide whether this product appears more awesome or more scary overall. Does it present a kind of landmark, a technological fork in the road where (for the minority on the planet who can afford them) some of us will decide to move that much closer to physical merger with gadgets, while others will choose to stay with traditional notions of being human? Maybe it’s too early for that conversation (it’s coming eventually, and possibly sooner than you think). What we can say for sure is that if AR glasses are adopted on a scale wide enough to turn them into a cultural phenomenon, they will—like other major media technologies—change society and individuals in unpredictable ways.
Copyright 2013, Yosef Brody Ph.D.