Jennifer Pelland lives outside Boston with an Andy, three cats, an impractical amount of books, and an ever-growing collection of belly dance gear and radio theater scripts. She’s garnered two Nebula nominations, and many of her short stories were collected in Unwelcome Bodies, put out by Apex in 2008. Her debut novel, Machine has just been published.
Back in 2004, I started work on a novel that I jokingly pitched as my “Google on your glasses” novel. After years of rewriting and shopping it around, Machine finally came out earlier this year. Now I hear that Google is talking about doing just that — putting your browser right in front of your face. Damn, I should have patented the idea back when I had the chance.
Seriously, though, this is an idea that we should have all seen coming. I already walk around every day with a hand-sized device that makes phone calls, takes pictures and video, plays games, and lets me connect to the internet to look up any damned thing I please. Long gone are the days of drawn-out arguments in the car over who’s right about some obnoxious fact. All the passenger needs to do is whip out her phone, look the obnoxious fact up, and crow over her victory (why yes, I’m the passenger in this scenario). Of course the next step is to turn this same device into something more wearable and omnipresent. And, of course, it’ll bring about some interesting societal changes along with it.
Did I say “interesting”? I probably meant to say “disturbing.” Or maybe I meant equal parts of both. Because while it will be awfully cool to have instant access to a literal world of data, it also means the death of privacy.
Instant access is a gimme. We’re already racing towards it with our smartphones, as I mentioned above. A study out of Columbia University (“Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips,” by Betsy Sparrow, published in Science magazine, July 2011) purports that our current levels of connectivity have already changed how our minds work. Per the abstract:
“The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.”
Sound familiar? Now imagine a future where that access was perched right on the bridge of your nose. Why bother memorizing anything? Yes, I know, there’s the standard argument of “but what happens if the power goes out?” That hasn’t stopped us from relying on refrigeration for our food, and it sure as hell won’t stop us from relying on our glasses to be our back-up brain. And with glasses, it’ll be easier than ever to look things up. My phone already lets me take a picture of something and do a web search on it, and there are several programs that will listen to a song and identify it for you. Glasses? All you’ll need to do is look at something and helpful links will start popping up before your eyes whether you want them to or not.
And all this information at your fingertips (eyetips?) won’t just stop with Web 1.0. It’ll move right into Web 2.0. You think Twitter is hard to keep up with now — imagine when something like it is constantly scrolling along at the edge of your vision, nudging you for attention. You think your aunt’s Facebook posts are boring now — just wait until she’s using the camera on her glasses to post constant photo updates to the world.
Right, did I mention the cameras on the glasses? We’ve got them on our phones, so we’re sure as hell going to have them on our Google glasses. This future will make upskirt videos look downright quaint. Any time you’re in the presence of another person who’s wearing glasses, there’ll be the real chance that they’ll be recording you and uploading it to SpecsNet, along with GPS coordinates of where the recording took place. Even if they don’t know your name, facial recognition software (that’s already being used on Facebook) will be able to identify you, and voila, your mother, rabbi, the TSA, and the HR department at the company you’re interviewing with next week discover that you’re a Furry.
Don’t think it can get any worse? Oh, how wrong you are. Because if you think advertising is bad now, just imagine how bad it will be when it’s popping up right in your face. Information may want to be free, but information providers like to get paid, and since subscription models won’t work any better then than they do now, they’ll get their money through advertising. And cookies of the future will make today’s cookies look like, well, their delicious namesake. Many of us already have phones that keep track of where we’ve been at all times. Now combine that with a saved trail of internet searches, phone calls, blog posts, coupon downloads, songs listened to, the brand of toothpaste you used when you brushed your teeth with your glasses on…
I could keep going, but the thought of that future actively creeps me out, and I’d like to stop now.
But then again, the thought of being a teenager in today’s world also creeps me out. Bad enough I had to deal with actual bullies, but cyberbullies? Ugh. No thank you. And words cannot express how glad I am that blogs didn’t exist when I was a teen, because the self-indulgent twaddle I would have posted back then would have haunted me forever. Bad enough I had the Usenet when I was in my early 20s. Still, teens today are doing just as well in this Web 2.0 world as they did back in my day, which is to say that they’re just as screwed up as we were. And teens in the Web X.0 world I describe will embrace that technology and do just as well as today’s teens are doing. Why wouldn’t they? This terrifying new world I describe will just be “the world” to them.
Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s some other crazy shit in my novel that I want to run off and patent before Google gets their paws on it.