Monkey See
3:11 pm
Thu April 5, 2012

Google's New Glasses And The War On Serendipity

Originally published on Thu April 5, 2012 10:54 am

I love my smartphone. I love my Kindle, my DVR, my friends on Twitter and Facebook, and YouTube videos where kids say "Thumbs up for rock and roll!" Connected culture generally delights me and enriches my life, and I've stood up for it against a host of variations on, "What will happen when we don't lean over the fence to our neighbors and exchange pies anymore?"

That's why I found myself surprised at my own reaction to the teaser for Google's new project (still at the design/study phase, it seems), Project Glass, which is designed to give you a pair of goggles that will project things at you all day, contextually, anticipating your needs before you even think of them.

That reaction: an icy chill of horror.

Not because of technology itself (though I admit it creeps me out a little to strap this much electronic doodadery directly to my skull) and not because it looks like it could make people even less inclined to do things for themselves than they already are (though I admit it does seem to have that quality). And not even because it seems like it would fill my day with so many distractions that I would do nothing but scream for quiet (though it does and I would).

No, it's creepy because it seems designed to eliminate all the parts of life that are effectively games of chance. It's designed to make you 100 percent efficient — and therefore about half as happy.

Granted, there are games of chance we could all stand not to play — I have this thought every day when I cross Massachusetts Avenue at rush hour, because wow, people cannot drive. But an element of chance carries with it the possibility of serendipitous blasts of good fortune, both big and small, that you never thought to seek out. Convenience is one thing, but I'm not looking for technology to reduce risk to the point where nothing can ever happen to me except the things I've already thought of.

Inefficiency exists for a reason. I don't want to know before I leave exactly when to arrive somewhere so that I don't have to stand in line, because when I stand in line, I might talk to people. I might take three minutes and think about nothing at all. I might actually look around.

I don't want to be able to track my friends through their GPS devices so I know how far away they are when they're coming to meet me, because then they won't send me funny texts about why they're held up, and I don't want them to track me through their GPS devices, because I might want to stop along the way and get them a box of truffles, and I don't want them to be wondering why I'm stopping at the truffle place. I don't want to be asked all the time where I am, what I'm doing, whether I want to talk. Not all the time.

I don't want my glasses to remind me, "See Jess tonight 6:30." I want to suddenly remember that I'm meeting Jess at 6:30 and have it make me smile — "Oh, hey, this is the night I'm hanging out with Jess!" If I am at the point where I cannot remember that I'm meeting Jess at 6:30 without having it literally flashed in front of my face, then I want to remember how to recognize that I may need to do fewer things.

I love my friends, but I don't want their faces to go "Bing!" in my eye while I'm eating breakfast. It's enough for them to text me, isn't it? Are there people sitting there thinking, "What I really need is to not have to take my hands off my sandwich long enough to reply to my friends, because I only have so much time, and I can't eat breakfast and type 'Meet me at Strand Books at 2'?" I don't want my voice to echo around my kitchen while I talk to nobody.

And when I meet my friends at a bookstore, you'd better believe I expect them to take their electronic goggles off while I'm talking to them, because I will not carry on a conversation with you while I think you're looking at me through e-mail notifications. One must draw the line somewhere.

And then there's the practical side: I don't want people to bump into me because they're texting each other and reading about subway delays while walking. I don't want to get to work and have somebody say, "Did you see the guy in the clown suit juggling fireballs outside the building?" and have to say, "No, I never noticed that. I was in my glasses at the time."

And I hope it does not require elaboration when I say that if I am to serenade anyone — or to be serenaded — on the top of a building with a lovely song played on a ukulele (although presumably some other painfully hip instrument will be popular by the time Project Glass bears pretend fruit), I would like this to happen while I and this person are in the same place for crying out loud what is wrong with people?

Frankly, as much as I love my far-off friends, until I can be in the same place with that person, I'm actually okay being on that roof by myself, at least sometimes. My time there may be unstructured and unplanned, but it is not inefficient. It is very efficient, in fact, at reducing whatever chemicals are the ones that pound through your brain saying WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS INSTEAD OF MANAGING YOUR TO-DO LIST?

There is a weird sense in which this technology treats everything unintended as if it is unwelcome: It is fundamentally opposed to the idea of figuring anything out for yourself. It advances the notion that we are entitled to a noncorporeal, completely nonpersonal presence we talk to like a person ("Where's the music section?") so we don't have to expend the mental energy to suffer the indignity and inconvenience of potentially taking a wrong turn in a bookstore. We're not talking here about turn-by-turn navigation that keeps you from heading for Boston and winding up in Charlotte. We're talking about stamping out every trace of inefficiency in pursuit of a life where every right turn that would most directly have been a left becomes a problem to be solved.

I must admit that while I try to stay out of philosophical debates about technology and the implications of futuristic tchotchkes, this one makes me uneasy. Practically everything important that's ever happened to me has started with a wrong, or at least an unplanned, turn. That's certainly true in big ways — I wanted one kind of job, then another kind of job, and I met this important person or that one unexpectedly at just the right moment.

But it's true in little ways, too. Watching people out of the corner of your eye on the train because you're not 100 percent absorbed in what you're reading, going the wrong way and noticing a store you've never seen before, flicking through your cable channels and hitting the wrong button ... I sense that unplanned moments are supposed to be there; they provide for happenstance and oxygen.

I'm not sure I intend to have a life that's quite as frictionless as Project Glass envisions. I don't mind getting lost, and I don't mind messing up, and I don't mind walking into the business section instead of the music section, even if it does turn out to be a lot of how-to books by guys with big teeth. I'm not looking for the end of unpredictability.

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