Bieber-Vision? Google Glasses and the Ever-Weirder Future

Tom Scott on how new technologies affect our behavior.

Let’s get something out of the way first: I want a pair of the Google glasses. I know they’re just a concept, an idea brought to life in a well-produced YouTube clip. I still want them.

Past that: I want the display to be built into contact lenses, unobtrusively taking over for the parts of my brain that don’t work very well. For example, I’m terrible at remembering names and faces: I want the glasses to remind me who people are, where I’ve met them before, and how much money I currently owe them. In fact, let’s take it further: I want to subscribe to simulated, shared, augmented realities like those in Vernor Vinge’s novel Rainbows End.

Assuming that Google’s Project Glass becomes a real-world product, it’s safe to say that the first version won’t be quite as impressive as the concept video. It’s the social aspect of new technology that interests me, though: not just what it promises to do, but how it will affect our behavior.

Let’s put ourselves in a future where these glasses have hit the mainstream. Here are some headlines I reckon we’ll see:

Google Sued Following Heads-Up Display Accident: Never mind that you can be just as distracted by your book, your phone, or by an attractive person on the other side of the street: lawyers will be circling like vultures, waiting for the first face plant.

Justin Bieber Shares His Vision With Fans: Perhaps Bieber will be gone then; perhaps it’ll be whoever the next big thing is. These glasses have an always-on, forward-facing camera: with LTE networks offering enough bandwidth for a constant upload stream, livestreaming—currently an experimental hobby for a few—is going to take on a whole new popularity. It won’t be long until there’s a publicity stunt where fans can see the world through their idol’s eyes for a day or two.

Google Eye-Tracking Studies Give Advertisers New Insight: These glasses can see what you’re looking at, and whether you’re paying attention—which is a dream for advertisers. The data will be anonymized and aggregated, of course, and there may even be an opt-out available, but I’d bet it’ll be collected sooner or later. Combine that with the video-screen billboards that have already appeared in every major city, and the major advertising networks will be updating their content on the fly to get the best return on their investment. (Smaller companies will have to make do with regular, dumb paper, the same as they do now.)

Senator Resigns Following Lifelog Leak: If the glasses don’t have an always-recording mode in their first iteration, they will soon after—which means I give it less than a decade until lifelogging becomes mainstream. I’d bet most of those lifelogs will be protected only with a simple password, which means that identity theft is about to become a lot more interesting. Could you justify every word you’ve said for the past five years, if your political rivals were digging through it?

Supreme Court Rules on Augmented Human Memory: So now your memory is thoroughly indexed and easily accessible: everything you’ve said, everything you’ve bought, the face of every person you pass in the street. Suddenly “warrantless wiretapping” is the least of your worries: what about warrantless searches through your whole life? Is being compelled to hand over your lifelog unconstitutional? Or would these search requests just be sent straight to the companies storing the lifelogs—an extension of the copyright-protection subpoenas that have already been sent, and approved, by ISPs around the country?

And finally, Google Glass 2 Launched: Because there will always be a newer and shinier version, just around the corner.

Roy Amara famously said that “we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” Predicting the future is never an exact science: even if you’re lucky enough to guess which technologies will progress and be adopted, there’s no way you can simulate the entire world’'s reactions and social changes in your head.

After all, not long ago we were all looking forward to holidays on the moon. I’d trade in my Google glasses for that.