Why are tech companies trying to take over my face?

[commentary] Google Glass and Oculus Rift may be the future, but they aren’t about connecting me to a better world. They want me to believe computers are better than the world.

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Deep dive into despair? Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

I imagine that if a government tour guide were to take me around North Korea, I wouldn't get to see much of North Korea.

I'd get to see specially constructed artifices, designed to make me believe North Korea was a dynamic, happy place, one of which I should be envious. It would be an attempt to make me believe in and prefer a world that isn't real for the sake of those who would rather keep reality to themselves.

For some odd reason, this is how I feel when I see the alleged future of wearable technology.

When I look at Google's Glass and Facebook's new purchase, Oculus Rift, I see an intention to persuade me that the world I see just isn't worth looking at.

Why bother to stare at the grimy buildings, the harrowed faces, and the knock-off designer clothes on bulging bodies, when I can be staring into a screen that's strapped to my face? Inside that screen would be news, games, and people that aren't necessarily real but are supposedly far more fascinating and colorful.

I've never understood the advantage of wearing something on your face. Yes, it frees your hands. But it also places a weight on your nose or a squeeze on your head. I wear glasses, and that's bad enough. The idea of wearing something more cumbersome and attention-seizing in order to get out of my current reality doesn't exactly make my heart want to goosestep and sing the Marseillaise.

At the heart, though, of this tech trend is the notion that a computer is simply more interesting than the outside world. It seems as if some tech types have always thought this. Now, they can foist that belief on to us.

It may well be that Mark Zuckerberg speculatively imagines that social networking will, in some bright future, be conducted entirely through divers' masks with Facebook logos on them. Let's face it, humanity has shown itself to be so spectacularly gullible that it might play along until it's too late. We're good at that.

But it's odd to imagine a life in which we've been persuaded that the physical world around us -- the live humans, the vibrant smells, the defecating pigeons, and the chugging noise of public transport -- should all be set aside in favor of a cartoon show happening in and on our heads.

There's a possibility that if screens are permanently perched on our noses, their ultimate role will be to screen us from what we thought we liked doing and summon us to a world that demands our constant time and attention.

It's a technologist's dream world, rather than a real human being's.

Google has begun to see the limitations. In suddenly realizing how some real people are beginning to react to Glass. It may be that these people are Luddites. It may also be that they're merely human.

In publishing a slightly defensive guide to how not to be an annoying nincompoop wearing Glass, the company tacitly acknowledged that not everyone shares its view of an appropriate future.

I fancy that human needs have stayed constant for a long time. It's easy to imagine, though, that several of our newest technological creators believe that those needs can be fulfilled by a computer. For that, though, some tech creators believe they need to take over our faces.

I know that sometimes we put paper bags over our heads when our teams are playing very badly. It's sometimes tempting to believe that computers are some engineers' paper bags, a kind of protection from the real world. But do we really want to live inside some engineer's paper bag for all our lives?

 

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