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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Signing Up for Google's Glasses Is Like Signing Up for a Mental Illness

Are you prepared to manage the distractions inherent in a portal to the Internet that you literally can’t avoid?

  • June 27, 2012

In the July/August issue of this publication, Farhad Manjoo makes a plausible case that, by replacing every other device in our pockets, laps and desktops, Google’s new augmented reality glasses, known as Project Glass, could lead to a less distracting computing experience. This notion is inherently appealing: rather than checking out of a conversation by looking down at our phones, we can simply get in and out of our computing environment without even turning our heads. (Google even illustrated this point in today’s keynote… in a way that doesn’t exactly make their case.)

Finally, a way to accessorize that bluetooth headset (From today’s keynote on Google Glasses)

But here’s where human behavior comes in. We are really bad at ignoring distractions that are at hand. And the more accessible they are, the more addictive and distracting they can become.

Already, the computers on which we work are so good at bombarding us with distractions that the savviest users deploy apps like Self Control and Freedom in order to switch off social media, email and other distractions. Certainly, we could deploy such aides on Google’s Glass. But I’ll bet the majority of us won’t.

The argument over whether always-on connectivity is a net positive in our lives was perhaps most succinctly summed up by The Oatmeal. We all know that we should disconnect more often; there’s an entire sub-genre of self-help books devoted to the subject. (See: Better Off, Hamlet’s Blackberry, #Hooked and others.)

Let’s take all those distractions and put them on our face. Directly in our line of sight. I don’t know about you, but when I want to avoid distractions, I often have to physically avoid them. Out of sight, out of mind isn’t just a cliché – it’s a commentary on the narrow spotlight of human attention and the limits of our ability to manage the cognitive load of having something ever-present in our field of view.

Google Glass is a camera, headphones and a display all in one. Do you find it unnerving when the person standing next to you at the grocery store is having a conversation with him or herself, and at first you don’t realize it’s because they’re speaking into a phone headset? Now imagine they’re also having full-blown visual hallucinations. And that you no longer know whether or not someone is taking your picture, because, hey man! it’s just glasses!

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been writing about augmented reality for years and I find the prospect tantalizing. I’m just not sure we yet know how to manage the ways in which it’s going to impact our interpersonal relations.

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