Monday, March 10, 2014

Play the Game

A friend of mine has been part of the Google Glass Explorer program for the past six months.  You know about Google Glass, right?  It’s “wearable tech,” in other words, a holographic smartphone screen that’s projected from a pair of glasses.

He was invited to be part of this beta program last year.  He’s one of the 8,000 people world-wide who were invited to spend $1,500 to wear Glass for a year, as Google explains it, “to help shape the future of Glass.”  That is, to help prepare the market – that’s us – to accept and want this product when it is released for public sale next year.

I met this man 25 years ago.  I hired him out of a temporary secretarial firm, where he had landed as he was trying to break into the professional world in my mid-size, West Coast city. I hired him because he was articulate, because he was willing to change himself to fit into a system until he could figure out how to change the system, because he was a cheerful problem solver who could get along with anybody, and because there was not one grammatical or punctuation error in his cover letter or resume. 

John is a funny, energetic guy who, upon learning that he’d been accepted into Stanford’s MBA program, did a back flip into my office, narrowly missing a display of antique tea cups.    And yes, as you would expect a Silicon Valley venture capitalist to be, he’s brilliant.  Not as much as some software designers I know who can’t talk to people with IQs less than 140.    His brilliance lies in his ability to think sideways, and he doesn’t see the boundaries and limitations that most of us accept as really there.

The other thing that is unusual about John, at least in my experience with techno-geeks, is that personal connections are important to him.   Even though we haven’t seen each other in a quarter of a century, he was happy to schedule two hours out of a busy day of changing the world to talk to his old boss.

And I trust him enough that I’m willing to entertain his point of view, even when it runs entirely counter to my most closely held opinions and beliefs.

I had asked to meet with him because I had just gone to a conference in Portland, Oregon where leaders in industry, education and regional governments were meeting to talk about how to solve the problems posed by global warming, and I’m interested in that.  I had signed up – as a spectator, not a participant – for a session on how to get the word out on global warming, so grass-roots groups (I guess Intel and the Trailblazers and the local governments in the Pacific Northwest counts as grass-roots) can help to get some traction on this world-wide problem.

As I listened, I was struck by a disconnect that nobody else seemed to notice.  One panel participant had said, “It’s a question of how to get the data out there.”  I thought about my computer screen and how, every time I go to Facebook or YouTube or Amazon, I’m slowed down by pop-up ads for Disneyland and Star Trek memorabilia and classes in Italian, and suggestions that I click on this article about sustainability or that article about education.  And I thought about how my very conservative aunt complains about getting pop-up ads for resorts in the Bahamas and suggestions that she click on this article about how 90% of the scientists in the world are involved in a hoax to make us all believe in global warming.  She sees a very different version of the world than I do.

When the facilitator asked if there were any questions, I got up and walked to the microphone.  There were probably 500 people in the ballroom, but I was an opera singer in a previous life so this didn’t bother me.  This was my question.

“Every time I use my computer, marketing algorithms make sure that I see things that reflect what I’m interested in and beliefs I already hold.  My aunt, also, is presented with information that reflects what she’s interested in and beliefs that she holds.  I’m a liberal who’s worried about global warming and thinks universal health care is a great idea.  She’s a Tea Partier who thinks global warming is a hoax and that poor people have brought their problems on themselves.  We see entirely different versions of the world.  Because of how the use of the Internet has evolved in the last few years, each of us now sees the contents of our brains amplified and reflected back to us, reinforcing what we already think and connecting us only to people who think the way we do.  It’s polarizing.  Until you solve this problem, it doesn’t matter if you get the data out there, because most people either won’t understand it, or believe it.  And worse, this fragmentation of information makes it impossible for us to have the rational, educated discourse that we need to solve global problems.  What’s being done about this?”

The room went absolutely silent.  The silence lasted for a few seconds.  Then the facilitator said, “That’s a good question.  Does anyone have an answer?”

More silence.  Finally the head of the Trailblazers said something about sports being an experience that could help people find some common ground.  An interesting idea that I hadn’t thought about, since I’m not a sports person, but not really the answer I was looking for.

So I had flown to Palo Alto, mostly to ask John this question, and incidentally to talk to him about Google Glass, since I’d recently learned that he had a pair.

His answer wasn’t comforting.  “Essentially, people pay attention to whatever media choices they want to.  It’s deeply ingrained.  It’s comes down to democracy, freedom of speech…and you know, no matter if we’re liberal or conservative, we’re going to go to a black and white answer to minimize the time we spend being uncertain.  We’re more comfortable with dualities.   The answer is fixing the education system.”  He looked at me wryly. He knows I’m a former educator.

“And good luck with that,” I said, equally wry.  The problem I see with this is, as big-brained primates, it takes at least twenty years to educate us enough to be functional adults, and another ten years or so to mature enough to make wise decisions.  Meanwhile, the technology that gives people the power to control what we think we know is changing monthly. 

Technology is literally changing the physical structure of our brains.  More than that, it is changing how we communicate, and what information we receive, and how we engage in the world – the “real” world, that is, as opposed to the “virtual” world. 

In his excellent book The Shallows:  What The Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr explains that technology rewires how we think.  He pointed out that autopsies on the bodies of London cabdrivers showed that the spatial part of their brains was bigger than most people’s.  They needed it to navigate London.  When you rely upon GPS to get everywhere, the part of the brain that learns directions and navigational skills is pruned – your brain doesn’t waste energy maintaining unneeded systems.  Socrates didn’t embrace the new technology of written language because he thought humans would lose the ability to store memories.  Well, he was right – cultures that rely upon oral tradition do have what we would interpret as unusual abilities to store memory.

Technology changes how we engage with our fellow humans, too.  My friend Marcia went to live in Shanghai, China, some years ago.  She comes back to visit once a year, and looks to me to interpret the changes she’s seen since her last visit.  Two years ago, as we sat over tea, she asked, “I see people staring into their palms all the time, at some glowing thing.”  She pantomimed thumbing a smartphone.  “What are they doing?”

“They’re communicating.  At least, that’s what they think they’re doing.  They’re texting.  Sending short bursts of conversations back and forth to their friends.”

“But I’m their friend.  And I’m sitting right there.”

Well, yeah…

Our relationship with the Internet is changing us, individually and as a society, profoundly, maybe too rapidly for us to be aware of the difference most of the time.

For instance.

A friend of mine is the IT guy for a health clinic.  Turns out Comcast changed their IP address suddenly, in the middle of the business day.  Poof!  This clinic suddenly lost its online presence. It took him a day to find out what had happened and to talk Comcast into changing the IP address back.  Until then, they were frantic.  As far as most people were concerned, the clinic didn’t exist until he got the web site back up.

Another example.  A startling number of airline pilots don’t do the right thing if the onboard computer navigation system crashes, because they are only used to controlling the plane for a few minutes per flight and they don’t have the built-in reflexes to do the right thing automatically anymore.

In ten years, the percentage of young people who had read at least one book in a year dropped from 53% to 43%.  That’s a lot of people losing the attention span necessary to follow a long or complex argument. And according to Google researchers, if a YouTube video is longer than 3.5 minutes, on average – it’s too long.  Most viewers don’t have the patience for anything longer.

Okay, geek disclosure.  I watch a lot of Star Trek, and I remember an episode called “The Game,” where everyone on the Enterprise wore a device that looked a lot like Google Glass.  It was a wearable video game that shot a beam of light into your eyes when you made a point, and directly stimulated the pleasure center of the brain.  Highly addictive, as you may expect.

Science fiction?  Not really.  Anyone who’s gotten hooked on on-line solitaire knows that you can lose two hours just hoping for a fireworks display.  My twenty-year-old son thinks this is absolutely pathetic.  But I notice that he plays Assassin’s Creed for hours on end.  Behaviorism works, people.  Reinforce that positive behavior!

Just remember how positive behavior is defined, and who defines it.  Because the people deciding what you’re going to see on your screen define positive behavior as “Buy my product,” or, “Believe what I want you to believe.”

And what happens when the system goes down?  Someone hacks into Facebook and Gmail and ADP, the system that controls our paychecks, or the GPS system, and all of a sudden you can’t talk or get your money or find where you’re going?  Remember the classic Star Trek episode where everyone was controlled by a computer?  “Llandru, guide us!”  I grew up in the sixties and I know what I’m talking about. 

And then I lived through the 1990s, when Wesley Crusher got hooked on Google Glass – sorry, playing the game on Star Trek Next Gen.

So there I was in California on a November afternoon to talk to John, wanting to do an expose on Google Glass and how it’s going to take down Western Civilization.  And even though he’s a big proponent of Glass, somehow I’ll talk him into helping me do it. 

I waited to meet him in a California-Mex restaurant on a subdued, elegant Palo Alto Street, Teslas and Priuses parked outside.  John walked in the door and I instantly knew it was him, not just because he was the only one on the restaurant wearing Glass.  It had been a quarter of a century since I’d seen him but I told myself that neither of us had changed that much.  John grinned at me.  We started to shake hands, but then hugged.  I led him to our table where guacamole and chips awaited.  He took off his Glass, put on his reading glasses (Google hasn’t rolled out the prescription model yet) to look at the menu and order, and then left his glasses on the table.  I took off my glasses, too.

“John, you just took off your glasses,” I said.

He shook his head.  “I don’t like to wear glasses when I’m talking to people.”

“Me too!” I said, surprised.  “I always take my glasses off.  I’d rather have you be a little blurry than see you through plastic.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “I’m making a big sacrifice to wear these as part of the program.  If I’m in an intense social situation, I don’t want it in the way.  It can be distracting.  I think it’s a little disrespectful to wear it, actually.”

We chatted, catching up, and gave the waiter our orders.  We discovered that he’s interested in the Singularity and that I’m a big Vernor Vinge fan.  Then I asked, “If you have to wear computer glasses at work, and you don’t like to wear glasses when you talk to people…how much do you really wear Glass?”

He looked thoughtful.  “Well, when I’m out and about.  I was excited to wear it traveling…people will come up and ask me questions.  It’s not for introverts at this stage.”

The waiter arrived with our drinks and burritos.  I checked my list of questions.  “Why did you want to be part of the Glass Explorer program?” I asked.

John laughed.  “I wasn’t sure I wanted to be.  I applied, but $1,500 seemed like a lot of money.  Then I thought, Oh!  Why am I even pausing?  I grew up on science fiction, and then realized that things didn’t move along as fast as I wanted them to.  Here I can buy into a magical, unique experience!  I’m not buying into Glass.  I’m getting to experience the future before everyone else does.”

“Tell me something.  What’s the point of Glass?”

He put down his marguerita.  “It’s just a smartphone that you don’t need to hold.”

Huh. That’s all it is.  That doesn’t seem so bad.  “How do you control it then?”

“It’s voice activated.  You can say, Glass, take a picture.  Or, Glass, show me where the Stanford campus is, and it’ll show me a map and directions. You can do Google searches and that’s awesome. Or you can set it up for a feed.  I figured out how to get my Twitter stuff piped to it, so now every few minutes a little bit of the world comes to me, and that’s a game changer.”

“Cool.”  That could come in really handy, I thought.  Except that…

I thought of the QWERTY keyboard.  Technology that was made intentionally clumsy, to slow us down.  Recently, our ability to miniaturize our devices has been limited, not by our technology, but by the size of our thumbs.  When you take that limitation away, you remove another barrier between yourself and the Internet and whoever is deciding what information you should see.  Would that always be a good thing? 

“So will we see Google Glass contacts in five years?”

He shook his head.  “No.  More like ten.  You see, this…” and he tapped the thick part of what we think of as the earpiece leading from the glasses to what hooks over the ears.  “…is the computer.  The battery fits behind the ear.  We won’t be able to make it that much smaller for awhile yet.”

And I thought, small enough to implant behind the skin behind your ear so it’s just hooked directly into your brain.  I didn’t ask how far away that technology is. 

And I thought about the Google ad for Glass.  Happy people on roller coasters, riding in hot air balloons, watching kids blow bubbles.  Only why would anybody do these real world things when it’s much more interesting to sit in front of a screen?

And now you don’t need the screen.  The computer that you must go to a desk to sit in front of became a lap-top, then a netbook, then a smartphone.  Now it’s attached to your face.

“I have to go in a couple of minutes,” he said.  “Do you have anything else you want to ask me?”

“No,” I said, getting out my wallet to pay the check.  “I really appreciate you giving me so much of your time.”

“This was great.  Let’s not wait another 25 years before we have lunch again, okay?”

“Deal.”  I started to put my wallet back into my purse.  

Then he tapped the Glass, which was still sitting there among a few shards of tortilla chips, almost hidden beside a bowl of browning guacamole.  “Don’t you want to try it on?”

I thought of Shakespeare’s wonderful quote from Hamlet.  “The devil has the power to assume a pleasing shape.”  I thought of Wesley playing the game.  I even think of the pilot of Sherlock, when the evil cab driver tries to get Benedict Cumberbatch to take the poison by saying, “You’ll do anything to keep from being bored.  Come on.  Play the game.”

I shook my head.  “That’s okay.”

“You mean you flew all the way down here to talk to me about Glass, and you’re not even going to try it on.”

Well, that would be stupid.  I picked up the Glass and put it on. I looked directly at John, who was smiling.  “I don’t see anything.”

“Look up and to the right.”

I looked up.   There, floating in space, was a little screen.  It informed me that the temperature in Palo Alto was 72 degrees and that the traffic on highway 101 was light.  There was a little picture of a beach behind that information.

I said, “Oh.  Wow.”

“I want one.”