In the wake of the Guardian article on conscious computing I've had a couple interesting conversations with people about Google Glass and whether it-- and more generally wearables-- will increase or decrease digital distraction.
Since I haven't yet worn them, I can't really say much about Google Glass, though my reflex is to be skeptical of any technology Robert Scoble showers with. However, if it prevents him doing this--
--that'll be a win.
It's certainly notable that Google itself sees Glass as a tool that can help reduce the amount of technology-driven distraction in your life. As Google Glass product director Steve Lee told Joshua Topolsky,
"A big problem right now are the distractions that technology causes. If you’re a parent — let’s say your child’s performance, watching them do a soccer game or a musical. Often friends will be holding a camera to capture that moment. Guess what? It’s gone. You just missed that amazing game." [Industrial designer] Isabelle Olsson chimes in, "Did you see that Louis C.K. stand up when he was telling parents, ‘your kids are better resolution in real life?’" Everyone laughs, but the point is made....
Steve goes on. "We wondered, what if we brought technology closer to your senses? Would that allow you to more quickly get information and connect with other people but do so in a way — with a design — that gets out of your way when you’re not interacting with technology? That’s sort of what led us to Glass." I can’t stop looking at the lens above his right eye. "It’s a new wearable technology. It’s a very ambitious way to tackle this problem, but that’s really sort of the underpinning of why we worked on Glass."
I get it. We’re all distracted. No one can pay attention. We’re missing all of life’s moments. Sure, it’s a problem, but it’s a new problem, and this isn’t the first time we’ve been distracted by a new technology. Hell, they used to think car radios would send drivers careening off of the highways. We’ll figure out how to manage our distraction, right?
Maybe, but obviously the Glass team doesn’t want to wait to find out. Isabelle tells me about the moment the concept clicked for her. "One day, I went to work — I live in SF and I have to commute to Mountain View and there are these shuttles — I went to the shuttle stop and I saw a line of not 10 people but 15 people standing in a row like this," she puts her head down and mimics someone poking at a smartphone. "I don’t want to do that, you know? I don’t want to be that person. That’s when it dawned on me that, OK, we have to make this work. It’s bold. It’s crazy. But we think that we can do something cool with it."
Now, I have serious questions [ironic link] about whether they'll succeed, and some people who are a lot smarter about issues in interface design challenge the whole concept of a natural interface and the body as UI, but it's very interesting that Google is wrapping this kind of language around Glass. (While we might think of it as mere marketing fluff, one of the things I discovered when writing my book is that the language we use for describing technologies can have an effect on how we think about and use those technologies. One of the reasons Zenware is powerful is that users are influenced by the Zen marketing language.)
But there's a problem buried in the explanation I just quoted. It seems to start with the idea that connectivity and constant automatic sharing are not in themselves problematic, but only that the hardware we use is at issue.
In other words, the problem isn't that your boss assumes that you should be always-available because your smartphone is always-on; or that we get into the bad habit of thinking that we're missing out on cool stuff if we don't check Twitter every few minutes; or that companies aren't working hard to capture, monetize and resell our attention.
To me, though, the problem isn't that I can't access my digital stream fast enough, it's that that stream is already too fast, filled with too much noise, and is created by people who demand too much of my attention. Free, frictionless communication that has huge indirect costs isn't as good a deal as it looks.
Or, as my 11 year-old son put it when we were talking about Google Glass, "I don't think I want to be walking down the street and see dumb stuff like 'I am having a sandwich' or 'I am in Arizona.'"
So a device that makes it easier for our digital streams to place themselves in our view isn't obviously going to make our lives better.
Now, if you can control the technology well enough to exclude all that, then we're getting somewhere; but it remains to be seen how much control we'll have over our wearables, and whether they can be like wristwatches-- present but unobtrusive-- or like digital flies buzzing around us.
So I can imagine designing a tool like Glass, or other wearables, so that they do ultimately feel unobtrusive and out-of-the-way. But I think part of that will depend on how good a job those wearables do of protecting me from distractions and letting me determine who or what gets into my field of attention, as they do in delivering information or simplifying interactions.