This summer at its annual IO event, with much fanfare Google introduced us to Glass: the first truly wearable, perhaps even viable, head-mounted computing device. Patently sci-fi-inspired, the device hugs your face like some half-cocked visor, projecting tiny bits of relevant, contextual, real-time data into your field of vision as you go about your day.
Here's the thing: Glass doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of living up to its futuristic hype, but I understand why so many people want to believe it might. Somewhere deep down, you want to be a cyborg. We all do. In fact, most of us already are.
As long as man has roamed this world, we've sought and invented new means to augment our minds and bodies. Evolution is painstakingly slow, but in our DNA is writ of imagination and the will to be smarter, better, faster, stronger. Man has learned to define its own evolution by building. And the most elemental of the things we build are our tools.
The tools we create aren't simply a measure of our collective progress. They are actually the fundamental representation of our capabilities, and in being so define us -- and are defined by us -- as a people. Is it any wonder why primitive man's discovery of implements in Stanley Kubrick's 2001 is so indelible and iconic? Go far enough back and invention explains the survival and existence of our species.
As it happens, most of us have been alive to witness the single greatest revolution and expansion of individual capabilities man has ever known. Not even twenty years ago it was still unclear the role technology would play in our personal lives -- or if it would play one at all. After all, the "personal" in your personal computer was in reference to the fact that it didn't need to be housed in a university's mainframe complex. Otherwise there was simply nothing personal or individual about it.
Invention carries a unique sense of inevitability and optimism for the future, and we prepared, we waited. Surely Zork, spreadsheets, and desktop publishing weren't the upper boundaries of our technological achievement. Then suddenly, the Internet connected everything. And only a few years later everything changed again when the wireless Internet connected anything, anywhere. Our technology no longer lived in isolation, trapped at a desk, hardwired to the wall, narrowly defining the terms of its own use.
Finally, our greatest inventions were emancipated. Free to live with us in the world. Almost overnight, gadgets went from geeky curiosities to our most essential tools for living.
As our devices represent our capabilities, they also serve as metaphors for what we're doing and how we're experiencing the world. Television is our (admittedly one-sided) metaphor for presence. Your laptop, tablet, and cellphone are, as Steve Jobs once put it, “bicycles for your mind.” Even our cameras extend the resolution of our visual memory, enabling us to remember with perfect clarity and communicate visually as easily as we communicate verbally.
Our devices mediate our interactions and serve as an external representation of ourselves. When someone talks on the phone in public, we intuitively understand the hand to the head and the obnoxious single-sided dialogue -- just the same as we understand what a person sitting at a desk with a machine represents.
Granted, a phone or a camera won't improve the feeling I'll get when my wife gets home after a long trip, even though it might help me remember to be at the airport on time to pick her up, and to capture the moment with a photo. A Fitbit or my geo-tracker won't change the sense of accomplishment I have after a long run, even though it might help me understand where I did well, or how I might do better next time.
As we become increasingly engrossed in our tools the metaphor shifts inward, seemingly dissimilating us from the real world. The phone at the dinner table. The phone while we're walking. The phone all the time, always in your hand with your eyes looking down. We fear that our connectedness is also a wedge, driving us apart.
We're only just beginning to learn how our newly augmented lives will work within society, and our society will almost certainly spend the next decade or two adapting -- trying to stand on shifting sands as our technology paradoxically connects and detaches us from one another.
Anyone who claims to know how things will look in even five years is more than likely wrong, but at least two things seem certain: we are what we use, and we tend not to move backwards.
This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author's own.