Picture me staring at Chrome and marveling that I’ve pushed it to the point where the tabs are barely big enough to fit the “X” and my Textedit page with so many “a hrefs” in it that I can’t even see the flow of paragraphs anymore. So yeah, sorry for all the links…
“If you look at the offline world, the real world in which we live, that information is not entirely online.” I remember reading these words — just a few paragraphs in to an enthusiastic piece about the future of Google Maps — and thinking, Understatement of the year! It was 2012. Google hadn’t sent a Street View camera to Dubai yet. Or to The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library. Or to subterranean Paris, Alcatraz, the Arabian desert, or The Great Pyramid. Now they have. It’s truly amazing where Google has gone and where you, too, can now go virtually, thanks to the cars, hikers, and even camels roaming the Earth with their SLAMtech. But even so, the information is not entirely online. Still. And depending upon how you choose to interpret the word “information,” it will never be. Not entirely.
Take my neck of the woods, for example. I can Street View-click my way from my front door to the entrance to the underground parking garage beneath my office. All 13.4 miles of my commute! No gaps. They’ve got the big, Calder-esque mobile I see every day, the random skyscraper in the middle of stripmall wasteland that always makes me feel like I’m driving through a SimCity glitch, the Blue Cross Blue Shield HQ (on the left) that looks like a big solar-panel shard or spaceship, Morehead Planetarium on UNC’s campus (Nerd alert! 11 of the 12 astronauts who walked on the Moon trained there!), one of the few comic shops left in the world — I bet my buddy Jason is in there right now, telling someone to read Manhattan Projects (hi, Jason!) — and Al’s Burger Shack, every Newfangleder’s favorite lunch spot! That all seems pretty neat, no? And it is! I mean, compared to unfolding a paper map, it’s got a million times more detail. But it’s not everything. And it’s not current, either. Just a few feet down from the burger shack is that barcade I told you about back in October. But Google still thinks it’s a place to buy wigs. They’re missing the dry cleaner that’s here now (although, hi Street View car!) and they’re missing the hot yoga place that’s here now. And, as I also noted back in October, Google’s Street View of my office building’s actual street address shows a vacant lot. That picture was taken in 2007. Seven years ago! A lot happens in cities in seven years. If I nudge the map just a bit further down the street — to an entirely different address — I time-travel five years forward. There’s my building. But still, two-and-a-half years ago. So yeah, the information is definitely not entirely online.
So my question is, how do we get from broken, spotty, temporal-rifty web maps to heads-up displays of the world that are even worth the humiliation of wearing something as dorky as Google Glass? Walking down the street today, my good old-fashioned birthday hardware offers me much more insight than any wearable tech would. I can see — with my naked eye — signs, addresses, and other bits of information just about everywhere. Google Glass can help me take a picture of them. If I want more than that, I can defer to my handheld device. Say I’m passing by a new restaurant, and I’m curious if it’s any good. I can unpocket my thing, type in its name + “reviews” and presto! I’ve learned that it’s “fine.” Actually, I don’t even need to bother with my thumbs. I can just ask Siri. That’s pretty darn convenient. But Google wants me to pass by New Restaurant and see a floating Yelp icon over its door with some kind of notification badge telling me how many reviews it has. Or even worse, the Google card, which in HUDspace is going to decorate the front of the restaurant with data like a truckstop Christmas tree. I’m talkin’ tinsel people. Tinsel. Sure, it might be helpful to see that a place has an average of five stars, or that it’s moderately priced — what does two dollar signs signify, exactly, anyway? — from a safe lurking distance across the street. But “SEE PHOTOS” and “SEE INSIDE”? How about I just go inside. Also, from this safe lurking distance, I’m getting HUD intelligence on this restaurant, and the one next to it, and the one next to it on the other side, and the bar next to that one, and the restaurant two doors down. And that’s just the restaurant info. But Google is going to have other stuff to tell me, isn’t it? That the Prius that just passed is an Uber car. Or, that there’s a dumb old-fashioned TAXI a block away if I want to take one of those… like an idiot. Who those four people are that just walked by and what they’re tweeting right now and whether they’re on Tinder. Oh and notifications for stuff that has nothing to do with this corner of the city. Texts. Emails. Shipment notification. Home Alone is available on Netflix! WARNING! BATTERY LOW! It’s going to be a mess. Data everywhere. I’m seeing more tinsel than tree is what I’m saying. What am I supposed to do, dismiss all this stuff? I’m envisioning that looking something like what Owen Wilson is doing here. What a nightmare. Oh, and that all assumes I’m standing still. What if I’m crossing the street? Initially, my thought was that the data of the HUDscape might obstruct my vision in inconvenient or even dangerous ways, introducing too much distraction into the many day-to-day unconscious acts of visual processing we do. Traffic light changed, OK to cross; man approaching, shift left; puddle ahead, step over it; etc. But any good wearable tech is going to know when you’re moving, so it would be easy to program the HUD to dim or shut off entirely while in motion. Although, standing still on a street corner isn’t exactly the safest thing to do while wrapped in data. You’ve still got a ton of visual processing to do even if you’re not in motion, because the rest of the world is. Jogger; step aside; couple with stroller, same thing; awning is dripping, don’t look up it’ll splash your GOOGLE GLASS; delivery guy opening the door behind you, HEY BUDDY GET OUT OF THE WAY! Oh, sorry, guy, I didn’t see you there. I was reading this bodega’s tweets. Surely, the gooey HUDscape is only going to distract us from the hard world around us, right? Well, it seems like people don’t take that problem very seriously. Instead, you hear that the big problem with things like Google Glass is that the hardware itself is creating blind spots. I get that, but it’s a temporary problem — the brain is good at filtering out things in the periphery that don’t change, which is why, even though it was awkward for the first few days, I can wear these thick black hipster frames and function in the world —and one that is worse now because Google hasn’t figured out how to make Glass look like a normal pair of glasses. But the floating stuff in front of us is going to have a much harder time being brain filtered, I think. It’s going to be in motion, glittering, and making a claim on our attention. That’s the whole reason it’s there! To be looked at. (Incidentally, it’s difficult to show what using Google Glass actually looks like, especially since taking digital images of its prism’s projections only captures one portion of what your brain actually sees. It would be as if you closed the eye on the opposite side of Google’s prism, leaving you with just a monocular signal. But with both eyes open, your brain processes a hybrid, binocular image of both what is in front of you and what the prism is projecting, which ultimately makes the prism’s image softer, less opaque, and theoretically, less obtrusive. But that’s because you’re getting the one prism’s little glowing rectangle that’s always up and to the right. What happens when the whole lens does what the prism does?) I’m just speculating here, of course. To know whether this is actually going to be a problem for us getting about in the world is going to require years of consistent Google Glass wearing. And who wants to do that? Thank goodness someone already went and made it impossible to be cool and wear Google Glass. Once you’ve squandered the fashion capital of wearable tech, you can forget about anyone actually wearing it.
Perhaps the Google Glass problem could be “solved” by hiding the tech… inside our bodies!
[obligatory Black Mirror digression]
…but then we’d have The Entire History of You, episode 3 of Black Mirror. Or in other words, the end of being a good person. I’ve seen a great many mentions of this episode online. Specifically, of how this might be the best of them. And while I found it to be an absolutely brilliant and beautifully visualized realization of a very possible future, I would have found the story more compelling if (spoiler alert) Liam was wrong. He still could have ended up bitter, alone, and self-surgerying — having torn his life apart with partial knowledge and compensatory suspicion — but without yet another confirmation of the male worldview that if you think she’s a lying whore, she probably is. In fact, that the all-seeing grain of truth is, in the end, as unreliable as our own subjective experience is exactly the conclusion this fable wants us to have. That life can be lived without an embedded HUD! Yet the narrative uses it as an arbiter of truth — as a 21st century detective’s magnifying glass so reliable that even a desperate last-minute purge of incriminating evidence can itself be captured by an onlooker, zoomed, enhanced, and prepped as Exhibit A, and successfully held up in the court of domestic disintegration. Ah well. The gender politics aren’t great on the show, but all the same, thank you, Charlie Brooker, for reminding us that some leaps forward are directly into the pit.
The strange leap here is that we’ve gone from incomplete maps — vacant lots where buildings are! — to overcrowded HUDs. How’d that happen? It happened because we’re committed to having the technology, regardless of whether the information is useful. We know that all the world’s information is never going to be entirely online. A one-to-one correspondence would be so mind-bogglingly over the top that we’d need datacenters just for the Street View tours of our datacenters. But without that, we’re happy to validate something like Google Glass by decorating the world with our digital trivia and visually wading through it all the time. And we already have a problem with that. The Fitbit, for example, offers me more data than I could ever need about my body moving through the world, but the icing on the cake is that it offers me a second tier of alerts. A soft buzzing on my wrist for only those priority alerts from my phone — so that it can remain in my pocket and not interrupt me at dinner. Which sounds great, but this is classic tech barnicling! It’s tech made to solve problems that other tech creates. Not problems that other tech creates as a ripple effect of their existence, but problems that tech creates that only exist while that tech exists. Like whiteout. No typewriters, no whiteout. No smartphones, no Fitbit alerts. And, really, no commitment to being connected all the time, no alerts. That’s the real issue isn’t it? Fitbit will capitalize on the fact that when I am looking at it I think, maybe this thing can help me restore some peace and quiet in my life. But then I think, or maybe I could just make some rules about looking at my phone less. Isn’t it amazing that it’s easier to spend $150 on a new object than build a new habit around restraint? One thing that was remarkable about the film, Her, is that it portrayed another option on the future — one uncluttered with visual information. Instead, Her’s tech layer was sonic. That’s an option. It sure doesn’t look very likely right now, but it is an option. That’s the important point. These futures are of our making. Do we want a glassy future or not? If not, then let’s not make one. Let’s make something different.
On the nightstand: The greatest science-fiction book of all time might just be a psychiatrist’s account of conducting hypnotic past-life regressions on hundreds of patients over the course of his fifty-year career. Journey of Souls includes page after page of transcripts of his sessions, in which he hears from patients as they leave their bodies, return to the spirit world, reconnect with their soul groups, describe what souls look like, retrace their lives, and plan for future ones. Oh, and nurture newly created souls, play soul-tag, learn to travel to other worlds, terraform them, create new life forms, slip into other dimensions, and climb the metaphysical ladder beyond bodily incarnation. Good lord I’m leaving a lot out. Like vast libraries of life books that can be inhabited like a holodeck for replaying choices and experimenting with new ones. Suffice it to say that I’m currently obsessed with this stuff, and am already just about finished with it’s sequel, Destiny of Souls. Yes, I’ve got tabs and tabs of critical takes on hypnotic regression, and I’m gonna read them. But dammit if an epic space adventure of body-leaping soul evolution and world-making across millennia isn’t just way more fun. You’re welcome.
Heavy Rotation: I’m listening to Alvvays, the self-titled debut from Alvvays, over and over again this week like it’s December, 1997. Something about this record sounds so nineties to me. I adore it. But then midway through the week, NPR Music tweeted a 2014 mixtape and like a child with no attention span I immediately switched over to listening to that. Good news! I saw a dog today!
Recent Tabs: Ok, so this iPad drummer is pretty good and all, but “sickest”? Nah. In apocalyptic news, 2038 is the new Y2K. That gives future residents of 56 leonard a good 22 years until the big Jenga! “This is the story of how a bootstrapped startup with a funny name and no initial ties to the tech scene outlasted better-funded competitors, survived founder drama, endured tensions with its parent company and later navigated life as a standalone business — all in order to build the front page of the Internet.” The 85 most disruptive ideas in our history, wherein Twitter ranks higher than Singapore and the smartphone and high-frequency trading and the friggin’ barcode. Which is to say, the list makes no sense. You can 3D print a laptop now. So. “One World Trade is symmetrical to a fault, stunted at its peak, its heavy corners the opposite of immaterial. There’s no mystery, no unraveling of light, no metamorphosis over time, nothing to hold your gaze.” 1 World Trade is a cautionary tale. Speaking of cautionary tales, there were 5,520 secret U.S. patents granted this year, more than any other year in the last twenty. Like father like SUN. Cat watching Slayer. Close calls.