I know that John and others are incredibly excited about Google’s Project Glass (Google’s new project to put the Internet into a pair of eyeglasses). And, to a certain extent, I share in that excitement. But, aside from the fact that if and when Google Glasses become popular people are going to be driving cars with screens in front of their faces, I see further potential drawbacks to the increasingly digital existence that the product could bring (I’ll go ahead and point out the irony of illustrating my concerns via a blog post up front).
As I wrote for the Kenyon Observer earlier, Project Glass reminds me of a book I read in middle school. And not in a good way. The book is M.T. Anderson’s Feed, published in 2004, which illustrates a future in which everyone has chips planted in their heads at birth. The chips, or “feeds” do everything the Internet currently does and more: it’s a search engine, instant messenger and online shopping mall. But, as I point out in my Observer post, your feed has a more important function:
…it constantly accumulates, aggregates and sells your personal information to corporations, which build up databases of buyer histories that help them tailor advertisements on an individual level. In one scene the main character, Titus, is picking out a hovercar and immediately receives competing advertisements for the two models he’s considering: the ad for the smaller, sportier one shows him and his girlfriend on a romantic getaway; the ad for the larger one shows him taking all of his friends to a party. Both companies have access to Titus’ mind to the point where they can literally construct dreams in his head about how the world could, and should, be for him.
Throughout the book, Titus and his cadre of shallow friends are gleeful participants in an empty, entertainment-driven culture featuring the hit sitcom “Oh? Wow! Thing!” and the constant message of “buy, buy, buy” in the background, personalized to fit their immediate desires. Not to spoil the ending, but when Titus’ girlfriend’s feed malfunctions, damaging her brain, the corporations in charge are unwilling to help her because she isn’t a prolific shopper; helping her isn’t worth it.
So why does this book have anything to do with Project Glass? Because securing the Internet to the front of your face is as close as you can come to putting it inside your head. The idea makes Google’s famous “Don’t be evil” mantra seem increasingly Orwellian:
I read [Feed] before things like Amazon.com’s “customers who bought this also bought…” feature became really big, so the concept of personalized ads seemed plausible but nevertheless somewhat alien. Only a few years later my email, Facebook and Youtube accounts are all bombarding me with a combination of advertisements geared to suit me and me alone (in case I need a reminder that I’m young and single, I have my own lineup of Jewish dating, ab workout and college-themed clothing sites only one click away). This form of advertising, made possible by a massive network of data-mining and information-selling, is now so ubiquitous that companies don’t even feel the need to hide the fact that they’re doing it.
Don’t get me wrong, there are uses for personalized advertising. As unlikely as I am to buy anything off of the Internet, I’m far more likely to buy something that is based on my search history than a product shown at random. But are the benefits of assimilating technology with my brain worth the costs?
[When] I saw the video promoting Project Glass, Feed was naturally the first thing that came to mind. How else could I interpret a systematic attempt to eliminate the ever-shrinking (and beneficial) gap between person and computer? While unlimited and instantaneous information has its uses, there is still a reason we go outside: to look at something other than a screen. The product is, without a doubt, incredibly cool. However, I worry that we have become complacent, and even excited, about a world that looks increasingly like this.