“The more we elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate.” – J. B. Priestley

I don’t care about Google Glass. When I say this I mean I’m neutral about the impact it will have on me or culture at large. Google Glass does not solve a single problem that bothers me. My life will not improve because I can more easily take photos or do web searches, as those things are almost too easy to do today given how often I see people doing them.

Every important attribute of my life will remain unaffected whether I have a Google Glass or not. I will not love my family more or less. I won’t have more or less friends. My dreams won’t be more or less likely to come true. And the amount of time I spend doing things I love, or being with people I care about will remain the same.

The consumer fallacy the tech-sector surrounds us with is that the progress we need comes in upgrades, upgrades made by corporations designed for profit. While I don’t regret the clean water that comes to my house or the WiFi I’m using to publish this missive, technological progress has diminishing returns for many dimensions of modern life. If you tripled the water pressure to my home or quadrupled the WiFi speed, as impressive as those leaps sound, it would have zero impact on my ability to drink water, or write and read posts. But technological progress is easier to measure than any other kind (spiritual, personal, social, metaphysical) so we measure it, and obsess about it, and allow it to distract us from more worthy improvements to modern life.

I enjoy doing one thing at a time. I become more efficient and proficient the more time I can spend doing one thing, not less (See Attention And Sex). I have little interest in machines and devices that compress more simultaneous activities and experiences into a single moment. My ability to enjoy life fades the more distracted I am. And it fades the more time I spend with people who are distracted. I like putting my phone in my pocket and having to choose to take it out, keeping myself aware of the personal and social interruptions it creates. I use my phone often, but I’m just as happy not to use it at all if I’m doing something important, or spending time with important people, two activities I want as much of as possible before I die.

I don’t care about Google Glass in the same way I don’t care about a pencil with stronger graphite, or a car with more powerful air conditioning. It’s a kind of progress that has almost no meaning for my quality of my life.

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40 Responses to “The Meaninglessness of Google Glass”

  1. Phil Simon |

    I hear you, Scott, but EMTs and military personnel could certainly benefit from this type of wearable tech.

    Reply
    • Scott |

      Benefit in what way? What important problem would it solve for them?

      Like doubling the water pressure for your home, improved technology can have no tangible impact on results.

      EMT might benefit from a teleporter, increasing the speed they can get to injured people and the speed of getting them to hospitals. That’s likely the most significant problem they have. Nearly anything else is not a technological problem (of course my knowledge of EMTs is based on TV so I’m guessing).

      Military personnel is (possibly) a similar story. PTSD, brain trauma injuries and suicide rates are among their largest issues. Having a heads-up display has negligible effects on any of them.

      If anyone reading has actual expertise on EMTs or Military personel, please correct my assumptions.

      Reply
      • Phil Simon |

        Well, I’m no EMT, but what if Glass could link to someone’s medical data? What if it helped the EMTs determine what’s wrong with someone–and what to do about it?

        Reply
        • Emiel Jans |

          What if everyone would be able to give first aid in case of emergency with Glass guiding them step by step? Check out this website for 123 ideas.

          Reply
        • Andy |

          There could be some limited use for Google Glass to industry, medical professionals, etc, but to the average person on the street I think it’s unnecessary. New technology may bring advantages, but there will always be a downside to it. For example, if EMTs come to rely on Glass to provide medical information over and above an older, put perhaps more reliable system, then what happens when Glass doesn’t work, or there isn’t sufficient mobile/wifi coverage for it to pick up that information? Could it have been used effectively on 9/11 for example, when mobile networks were completely jammed.

          As for military personnel, making combat appear even more like a computer game by overlaying fancy graphics onto the real world is not a good idea.

          Reply
  2. Dennis |

    I think you’re right about the personal impact, but I’m not so sure about the cultural impact. I think many people can relate to “My ability to enjoy life fades the more distracted I am.” Yet devices like this contribute to our always-on obsession. Many of us are seduced by the latest device and its demand for attention.

    Doesn’t that make glass, and other similar products something other than neutral?

    Reply
  3. Yan |

    For sure I agree with your overall sentiment – man lived for millions of years without anything we would consider technology…and we’re here so they must have done ok… It’s easy to get caught in the shallow upgrade cycle and subsequently realise not only is more technology not adding anything to life but actually detracting from it. Only to fall foul of it again a week later when something new and shiny comes out!

    But I would encourage you to consider that although a specific piece of technology may not be life enhancing or problem solving right now, perhaps it might lead to something which will be? Perhaps in the future something that spawns from Google Glass will allow you to virtually participate in an important family occasion when you’re stuck someplace else in the world? Or to capture a moment that would have been lost by the time you’ve got your phone out and activated the camera?

    For me, this would be technology that would enhance the quality of my life (albeit, in a small way…and assuming it didn’t have any downsides…)

    Reply
    • Scott |

      > Perhaps in the future something that spawns
      > from Google Glass

      That is entirely possible. But the same argument can be made for any change in the world at all. Your car engine could die on your way home from work, forcing you to walk home, and on the way you meet someone you never would have met otherwise who becomes your best friend. Is lousy car engine the cause of the friendship? Hard to say – which is the same thing I’d say about hoping a technology leads to some other beneficial thing.

      My point was quality of life rarely has much to do with technology. You won’t be on your deathbed wishing you’d upgraded to this or bought that phone instead of this one. Technology is always a means, but we confuse it with ends.

      Reply
      • Myles |

        Finding value in new technology or being ecstatic about the possible future and benefits of technology is not the same as becoming obsessed with the next iPhone model.

        Your argument that technology provides no quality of life improvements is misguided. Medical technology? An ambulance is technology. Fire is technology. Nanobots in our bloodstreams keeping us healthy are technology. Artificial limbs, pacemakers, electro-pulse implants for pain reduction, cochlear implants for hearing, artificial hearts.

        Reply
  4. Lucy |

    We consume and use a lot of things that are needless or meaningless. It’s the advertisers’ job to make us think something we could possibly want is something we really need. But I disagree with the quote you used to start your post. To a certain degree. I mean, yes, if I was developing a social network site then I’d have less time to focus on communicating with my social circle. But this is true for anything you do. The more time you spend on something, the less time you have for something else. Personally I think improvements in the means we communicate have allowed me to expand my communication circles and that in turn encourages that circle to share with me. If my internet was painfully slow, I really doubt I’d go out of my way to develop all my vacation pictures and personally show them to all my friends and family.

    Reply
  5. John |

    I made a similar argument around smart phones right as the iPhone was coming out. I didn’t get one for years because I didn’t see how it could change my life.

    Reply
    • Scott |

      Let me ask you the question a different way: can you imagine any technology in your life reaching a point where further progress was meaningless? My answer is yes, and for many things that day is today.

      For you the answer might be no. You might believe there is great importance in the progression of any and all technology. Ok. I’d mention the dubious utility of infinite life shoelaces or a jacket zipper that moved at warp speed, but the view of technological optimism is common enough.

      In the case of the iPhone: you’re inability to predict the future value of one device has limited bearing on your ability to predict the future value of other devices. Simply because you were wrong about one doesn’t mean all products in the future will have similar impacts.

      More to my point: Having an iPhone is absolutely convenient. I agree. But convenience isn’t necessarily meaningful, which is part of my point. Having a marriage or children or friends or responsibilities are often inconvenient, but those are often the most important and meaningful things we have.

      Reply
  6. Mike Nitabach |

    I think Google Glass is actually going to adversely affect public life.

    You know how you are walking around and some asshole is looking right at you and talking at you and you’re all like, “What the fuck is that asshole talking to me about?” And then you realize the stupid motherfucker is just talking into his earpiece on the phone?

    Now imagine all these Glass-wearing motherfuckers walking around and appearing like normal people who are actually looking at what’s going on in front of their eyes, but really they’re looking at some fucking shit on the little eyepiece screens.

    As I see it, Google Glass is far from a neutral technological advance: rather, it is deeply odious.

    Reply
    • Scott |

      Mike: I’ve had the same thought. I’m annoyed by other people’s cell phones. But then I notice I’m probably annoying people sometimes when I’m on mine. It’s hard to measure the net annoyance of at all, since most of us participate in it in some way.

      I feel the same way about the privacy argument. When I’m out in public I don’t have strong expectations of privacy, certainly not when it comes to photos at bars or restaurants. I’d have to think more about it to have a strong opinion about whether I should care more about privacy or not, but relative to the pervasive phones I don’t see something like google likely changing the issues very much.

      Reply
      • Mike Nitabach |

        I’m not concerned about the privacy part, but rather about dipshits ramming into me on the sidewalk.

        Reply
    • Myles |

      Little too much anger for people on cellphones…little too much pessimism.

      Reply
  7. Lisa |

    I just went to Google Glass because I wasn’t really sure what it was (nerd alert).

    I would stab myself in the eye if I had to wear those things. Whatever happened to experiencing something *not* through a lens?

    Reply
  8. Sean Crawford |

    It’s strange how technology users seem to have the moral high ground at first—like the smokers of tobacco or pot back in my youth. But then it wears off—like how once cell phone users could raise their voices in public, or use their phones in their cars, but then their entitlement faded. I remember when it was very hard to pass a “distracted driver law” …not now, of course, but it sure took a while for the rest of us to Just Say No.

    Come to think of it, these “early adopters” are the same ones whom I don’t see as having any sustained thoughts on distraction versus meaning. No, I wouldn’t start up such a topic while conversing with them.

    It’s strange, like I said, and I don’t have any answers.

    Reply
  9. Brett Nordquist |

    We often focus merely on the conveniences of such devices like the iPhone, without considering the many downsides. It wasn’t long ago that I sat on the couch with my kids and watched and laughed at a show together. That’s getting more difficult with iPods and iPhones sitting around just waiting to disrupt the now for what might be, while the might be is usually of little importance.

    Remember the Outlook “toast” reminder for new mail? Yep, that was fun for a week or until you realized what a massive disruption it was on your day. I feel the same way with all these devices, popping up at every moment to take away our attention from the beauty of the now.

    Reply
    • Scott |

      Brett: good thoughts. It’s always good to see all technology as double edged – there are always positives and negatives and it’s often hard to identify them all beforehand.

      Reply
  10. Linda Merker |

    i hadn’t heard of google glass, either so i checked out their website. I think this will have an even more isolating effect on people. Who needs other people when you can talk to these screens in front of your eyes. The glasses reminded me of the Borg on Star Trek Next Generation.
    Imagine all the car accidents from people using these while driving. I think techonology sucks the meaning out of life, but I still use it and like it. Thanks for reminding me of that, Scott. Good article.

    Reply
  11. Scott |

    “All of our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end.”

    -Thoreau

    Reply
  12. David Wood |

    You have just been admitted to A&E after collapsing with a heart problem! You are taken streight into surgery but only Manuel the newly qualified surgery graduate is the only person available because its 3 am. Manuel asks Glass to call up his Professor who watches his work and advises on his proceedure. – I think that’s life changing and might just save your life.

    Reply
    • Alter Ego |

      You’re not a surgeon, are you? And perhaps not familiar with the supervision models already in place?

      And returning to Scott’s point, maybe the money spent wiring up your hypothetical incompetent surgical graduate could be better spent on providing clean water to somewhere that might make a serious dent in the 3.4 million people per year dying because of water related disease … and might a few hundred of their lives be more consequential than the single life of an entitled westerner dying because of his lifestyle choices?

      Reply
      • David Wood |

        I’m not a surgeon but I do review papers for a medical journal where quality is being improved, so I know that the proceedure always have room for improvement.
        In so far as invention and water improvements let me refer you to this TED video http://youtu.be/rXepkIWPhFQ

        Reply
  13. Nnamdi Iroham |

    I would say this piece did spark an interest i’ve had over the course of some years on the negative impact these tech updates are constantly shifting the mode of communication towards extinction due to the simple fact of easy access to texting or video teleconferencing. Now, some of these advancement are neccessary in things that add to our quality of life, but when grown individuals camp out on black friday night to get a peek of a device that’s worth less than the price tag; now the question now becomes who’s really smarter; Man or Machine?

    Reply
    • David Wood |

      Some early adopters will undoubtingly be paying that higher price to be first in the race to find that seemingly illusive purpose or purposes – I feel sure there were the same voices of questioning when ex ray was first invented (also the wheel, the phone, TV, aircraft flight and so on).

      Reply
  14. Leopold |

    The most important thing that hasn’t been worked out with Google Glass is the interface. You have to talk to it. That could lead to massive consumer rejection of the device.

    I remember a cell phone provider had a phone that could work as a cell phone, or also as a walkie talkie. It would go “beep beep” when the other person finished talking. I thought “who is going to use that ‘feature’?” It never caught on. I can talk quietly to someone in a restaurant on my cell phone (not all do, buy MANY do), but would I want this thing going “beep beep” every time one party finished what they were saying? And broadcast it on speakerphone for everyone? I can’t imagine any scenario where I would want this. This died with good reason.

    Fast forward to Google Glass. There are those people who have no sense of social decorum and will be yelling out “OK, Glass, do this” everywhere. But for those of us who live more private lives, I won’t be doing this. I won’t be announcing to everyone what I’m doing. I think the majority of people feel the same way.

    Like Siri, which has also not achieved widespread acceptance, it is technology a driver might use when driving a car (because it is hands-free), but little else. In a business meeting, I can look up something quietly on my smart-phone, but I’m sure not going to start talking to my Google Glass. Nor will I start talking to Siri to look up the information.

    That’s the main problem with Glass. The technology to allow us to give voice commands to devices has existed for a while now. But where is the demand for voice command televisions? Where is the demand for voice command computers? These things exist, but existence and acceptance are two entirely different matters.

    Google has paved the way with a “neat idea”. It will likely be up to someone else to perfect the user interface. iGlass, anyone?

    Reply
  15. Snorkasaurus |

    There are plenty of products that *could* be very beneficial to people in general… but I believe that Glass (like many before it) will be used generally for frivolous personal entertainment instead of practical benefit for the masses. For example, it isn’t hard to imagine many very beneficial uses for an iPad in the hands of a doctor, or a police officer, or even a supervisor in a manufacturing plant. Unfortunately it is all too often the case that iPads end up in the hands of people like my mother who uses hers to play Hay Day and video slots. It isn’t terribly reasonable to say that a product like Glass will be good or bad, the practical level of “goodness” will be determined by the people who get them.

    Reply
  16. Stephen Powell |

    I agree about the dubious value that Glass brings to our day to day lives.

    But there are some compelling commercial applications of Google Glass technology. The youtube video link below shows a vision of warehouse pickers doing their jobs with great improvements in safety, productivity and quality.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Wv9k_ssLcI

    Ironically they aren’t using Google Glass, but another brand of augmented reality glasses. Perhaps Google should take a leaf out of their book and develop applications that show genuine enrichment!

    Reply
    • Scott |

      I’m sure there are specialized uses and I’m glad something is being invented to improve those things. My problem is about the perception that somehow our lives would improve dramatically if only we had an upgrade. It’s a special kind of consumerist faith and it’s problematic.

      Reply
      • Stephen Powell |

        Heads Up Displays (the commercial forebear of Google Glass) were developed to reduce information overload of pilots during critical moments in flight. The same philosophy is now starting to be seen in cars, helping drivers keep their eyes on the road.

        The irony of Google Glass is that rather than reduce information overload there is a risk of adding to it. There needs to be clear and compelling applications as to why consumers need to carry around yet another screen (all be it very small).

        Reply
  17. Ameya |

    Google Glass may not. its a technology demonstrator. for now. but technology makes a huge difference. Its naive to say that an ‘x’ technology will not make a difference in my life. it changes lives (am not talking quality here). Look at mobile phones on how they are empowering and changing lives in developing nations. Farmers in India get an SMS every day that gives them agri information. farmers, a whole lot of them, commit suicide in India due to debts.. An SMS may help save lives and it probably already has.

    Reply
  18. Dave |

    I think we should all walk around with one of the oldest technologies on the planet, a carton of eggs. And when some dipstick on a train or other public place starts going off (we can include loud cell phone talkers here as well), we can all just toss an egg in their direction. I firmly believe that would quickly solve the impending problem.

    Reply
  19. Daniel J Woolridge |

    I respectfully disagree, I think augmented reality will revolutionise all aspects of our lives the way phones have. It will be interesting to see how this plays out

    Reply
    • Scott |

      Hi Daniel. I don’t think smartphones have revolutionized most of the important things in my life. Yes they are amazingly convenient and fun, but my life was pretty convenient and fun beforehand.

      To put it another way I don’t see technology doing much to improve marriages, friendships, people’s ability to find meaning and joy. Technology is a tool and nothing more.

      Of course if what you value most in life is convenience and computing power you should be thrilled about Google glass or even the next generation of smartphones. I simply don’t believe the largest contributors to a fulfilling life depend on technology at all.

      Reply

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