Slow glass

The day that Opera announced that it was changing its browser to use the WebKit rendering engine, I was contacted by .net magazine for my opinion on the move. My response was:

I have no opinion on this right now.

Frankly, I’m always quite amazed at how others can form opinions so quickly. Sometimes opinions are formed and set on technologies before they’re even out and about in the world: little printers, Apple watches, Google glasses…

The case against Google Glass seemed to be a done deal after Mark Hurst published The Google Glass feature no one is talking about:

The key experiential question of Google Glass isn’t what it’s like to wear them, it’s what it’s like to be around someone else who’s wearing them.

It’s a very persuasive piece of writing and it certainly gave me food for thought. Then Eric wrote Glasshouse:

Our youngest tends to wake up fairly early in the morning, at least as compared to his sisters, and since I need less sleep than Kat I’m usually the one who gets up with him. This morning, he put away a box he’d just emptied of toys and I told him, “Well done!” He turned to me, stuck his hand up in the air, and said with glee, “Hive!”

I gave him the requested high-five, of course, and then another for being proactive. It was the first time he’d ever asked for one. He could not have looked more pleased with himself.

And I suddenly realized that I wanted to be able to say to my glasses, “Okay, dump the last 30 seconds of livestream to permanent storage.”

Now I’ve got another interesting, persuasive perspective on the yet-to-be-released product.

Just as we can be very quick to label websites and social networks as dead (see Flickr), I worry if we’re often too quick to look for the worst aspects in any new technology.

Natalia has written a great piece called No, let’s not stop the cyborgs in reaction to the over-the-top Luddism of the Stop The Cyborgs movement:

Healthy criticism and skepticism towards technologies and their impact on society is necessary, but framing it in a way that discredits all people with body and sense enhancing technologies is othering.

Now we get in to the question of whether technology can be inherently “good” or “bad.” Kevin Kelly avoids such loaded terms, but he does ascribe some kind of biased trajectory to our tools in his book What Technology Wants.

Natalia writes:

It’s also important to remember that technologies themselves aren’t always ethically questionable. It’s what we do with them that can be positive or contribute to suffering and misery. Sometimes the same technology can be used to help people and to simultaneously ruin lives for profit.

A fair point, but one that is most commonly used by the pro-gun lobby—proponents of a technology that I personally find very hard to view as neutral.

But the point remains: we seem to have a natural impulse to immediately think of the worst that could happen with any new technology (though I’m just as impatient with techno-utopians as I am with techno-dystopians). I really enjoy watching Black Mirror but its central question grows wearisome after a while. That question is “What’s the worst that could happen?”

I am, once more, reminded of the danger of self-fulfilling prophesies when it comes to seeing the worst in technologies like Google Glass. As Matt Webb’s algorithm puts it:

It’s not the end of privacy because it’s all newly visible, it’s the end of privacy because it looks like it’s the end of privacy because it’s all newly visible.

I was chatting with fellow sci-fi fan Jon Tan about Kim Stanley Robinson, whose work I (shamefully) haven’t dived into yet. Jon told me that a good starting point would be the Three Californias trilogy. It consists of one utopia, one dystopia, and one apocalypse. I like the sound of that.

Those who take an anti-technology stance, or at least an overly-negative stance on technology, are often compared to the Amish. But as Stewart Brand is quick to point out, the Amish don’t reject technology—instead, they take their time in deciding whether a new technology will, on balance, be better or worse for their society in the long term:

The Amish seek to master technology rather than become its slave.

I think that techno-utopians and -dystopians alike can appreciate that.

Have you published a response to this? :