here is something about technology that incites not only opinion, but angry, defensive posturing. People don't just prefer Android — they hate Apple. They don't just like PlayStation 4 — they find no redeeming value at all in the Xbox. Do you like Windows 8? You're an idiot and we'll prove our unyielding love for Windows 7 by pining for Microsoft's bankruptcy and liquidation.
So personal are these devices and programs that they now offer a new way of dividing people and creating tribes. And tribes are excellent vehicles for irrational hatred.
It's not really about the boxes of silicon, and it's not really about any vested personal interest in a product's success or failure. When otherwise reasonable people post unhinged and vaguely threatening comments over a writer's opinion of an operating system, I don't think the commenter is hoping for the kind of public reconsideration that might affect stock prices by a fraction of a point. Rather, the hostile division is about how, in a very real sense, others see the world. How others access and interpret information. The medium, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, is the message. How else to explain the intensity of feeling that some experience, and feel compelled to share (loudly), over what really amounts to one primate's preferred device for pushing around facial oils and manipulating colorful sprites?
Today, the mobile devices we use are supplements to the world around us, and in some small way, they shape our thinking and define our cognitive limitations. In that respect, there's a vaguely religious parallel, with Apple and Google standing as the world's major denominations. (Microsoft is relegated to the status of "weird cult.") Apple, with its so-called walled garden, and Google, with its creepy invasion of privacy; Apple with its fixation on beauty; Google, with its focus on power. Just as religion can frame the public understanding of events and the boundaries of what large groups of people are willing to accept, so too do our devices. What else but religion can explain the strange cultural animosity of technology enthusiasts, and to a growing extent, the larger public?
Google Glass will pose interesting new questions for consumers and society. In some ways, it will be like someone knocking at the door, literature in hand. Suddenly Google will not merely supplement a consumer's experience, but will, in fact, become an essential component. And so too will Glass bring everyone in eyesight and earshot into the fold. You are part of my Google experience, catalogued and processed and parsed and archived — forever. Yes, this is already possible with the devices available today, but it can be done only surreptitiously. I think most people would consider the idea of a friend recording and storing the entirety of an interaction to be invasive at best. Once Glass is perched on each of our noses, it's simply the new reality. Just before walking up, did your friend say, "OK Glass, start recording?" Or, assuming there is some kind of visual notification for others to know they're being recorded — a little red light, perhaps — how long before some enterprising app developer finds a way to disable the light and keep the cameras rolling? No walled gardens at Google. I'd guess a few days at most.
Privacy considerations aside, once these things become ubiquitous, the variation in experienced realities from one person to the next, from one device to the next, will be quite substantial. If the present angry computing enthusiast exists because of frustration with another consumer not seeing things his or her way, imagine what happens when someone quite literally doesn't see things the same way. Two people at the same concert will see entirely different performances depending on what Apple offers by way of supplement versus Google, and so on. It stands to reason that in the long run, so too will the experiences of rich versus poor vary wildly. (This assumes that the Apple information stream will be superior to the knock-off LG goggles.) While the wealthy user stares at the Lincoln Memorial and learns the history of its construction, its physical composition, the life of its sculptor, and the finer details of Lincoln's life, what might the poor user see? A bright green label that says "Lincoln Memorial"? (Or in the particularly cheap model, a dim green label that says "Washington Monument.")
This is all speculative, of course. But we won't need a time machine to get to that place. We need only wait a few years. Mobile computing has already redefined what it means to be social. It will soon redefine and entrench class and culture, and in the process, create new frictions and animosity. Our gadgets are lovely, yes. But soon enough our reality will be one presaged by Chuck Palahniuk: "The things you used to own, now they own you."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
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- Watch Zach Galifianakis get annoyed at President Obama on Between Two Ferns
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- The Daily Show has some fun mocking the CPAC power players
- What the collapse of the Ming Dynasty can tell us about American decline
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