Accept it, Ubiquitous Computing is Here to Stay

I have to admit I’m pretty excited about Google Glass. It’s a big step forward for lifelogging, for augmented reality, and for ubiquitous computing of all kinds. I haven’t gotten my hands on Glass personally, but it really feels like there’s good reason to be excited. Tech blogger Robert Scoble recently wrote:

I will never live a day of my life from now on without it (or a competitor). It’s that significant.

I can imagine dozens of ways to make life better with a device like this, and I’ve only just begun thinking about the possibilities.

I also have my concerns. Concerns about how well it will work, about intrusiveness, about privacy, and about platform lock-in. But I continue to be amazed by the amount of abject fear and hatred being aimed at Google Glass. We’ve hardly even seen what it is (let alone what it can be), and already there’s panic. We’ve seen violence threatened against Glass wearers and we’ve seen anti-Glass political organizations emerge.

Some of this might be incumbency backlash, but mostly this is just good old-fashioned fear. And not necessarily Luddite fear either–there’s no need for name-calling or dismissiveness–the things these people are afraid of are often legitimate concerns. Make no bones about it, there will be problems. There will be challenges. Privacy will have to explored, re-defined. There will be questions of legality. Social problems–gaps will emerge between the have and have-nots. And last but not least, questions of human happiness.

But it’s only truly scary in a kind of short-sighted vacuum where technology runs amok and there’s no one there to stop it. The truth is that once we let these kinds of technologies spread their wings, social protocols will develop. (They always do.) Laws will come into force as needed. Human decency will have its say. Privacy doesn’t happen because “invasive” technologies are banned, it happens because we agree not to use them against each other in disagreeable ways.

We need to see these technologies for what they are–the natural advancement of our species. Man is not just his body, he’s also his tools. We couldn’t have made it this far without them. They’re a part of us. Our identity is defined by our interaction with tools, just as much as it’s defined by behaviors like our curiosity for life or our affection for each other.

Yes, these tools are going to bring problems, but they’re new problems. They’re the next level of problems. And they come with benefits. Harnessing fire brought conflagrations. Working steel brought weapons and wars. Navigation brought conquest. Mathematics brought artillery. Medicine brought malpractice and biological warfare. Atomic science brought nuclear bombs. Advanced agriculture brought obesity. But should we hope to undo all of these things? Should we reject technologies before we know what they are or what they can do?

Technologies don’t always end up being good, but they are good more often than bad. And all the progress we’ve made in improving the quality of life on this planet from shivering, starving, disease-plagued, ignorant, violent, uncomfortable cavemen who barely lived twenty years, up to the lives we have today–we have technology to thank for it. As well as the people who took the plunge, fought back the fear, and declared that they didn’t want the problems of their parents and would boldly face a new set of problems. Technology is how we grow as a species–it is a part of us in the most real sense.

The rapid adoption rates of smart phones show that we want technology as close to us as we can get it. And we don’t just want to have a device available–it’s not one smart phone or tablet per home–we want it to be our own. It’s a personal technological device. It’s an extension of ourselves. The logical next step is to strap it to bodies. And the step after that? Into our bodies.

And the thing is, Google Glass won’t be the winner. Despite all the impotent rage and all the exuberant hopes, it’s a stepping-stone; it’s a start. But it’s the next step. And Google’s humble attitude of experimentation and admission that ‘we don’t know what it is yet’ might just be the perfect way to start out.

Maybe people aren’t ready (yet) to wear technology on their faces. Maybe an iBracelet / iWatch (if such a thing is even in the works) might be more palatable to consumers, even if it ultimately turns out to be an intermediate step to something more like Glass.

But whatever it is, rather than rejecting what we fear, let’s shape what’s to come. Let’s try it out, see what it can do, and then share with our fellow man what we think is good and what we think is bad. At the end of the day there’s no stopping it–only guiding it. This is the natural next step in an unbroken procession that started when a primate first picked up a stick to poke at something. Let’s embrace a new set of problems–together.