The Man With the Google Glasses
By ROSS DOUTHAT
Published: April 14, 2012
A MAN wakes up in a New York apartment, brews coffee and goes out into the world, and everything that can appear on a smartphone or iPad appears before his eyes instead: weather reports, calendar reminders, messages from friends, walking maps of New York, his girlfriend’s smiling face.
This is the promise of Google’s Project Glass, which released the video I’ve just described earlier this month, as a preview of a still-percolating project that aspires to implant the equivalent of an iPhone into a pair of science-fiction spectacles.
Even if the project itself never comes to fruition, though, the video deserves a life of its own, as a window into what our era promises and what it threatens to take away. If modernity’s mix of achievement and alienation was once embodied by the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, now it’s embodied by the Man in the Google Glasses.
On the one hand, the video is a testament to modern technology’s extraordinary feats — not only instant communication across blocks or continents, but also an almost god-like access to information about the world around us. The Man in the Google Glasses can find his way effortlessly through the mazes of Manhattan; he can photograph anything he sees; he can make an impulse purchase from any corner of the world.
But the video also captures the sense of isolation that coexists with our technological mastery. The Man in the Google Glasses lives alone, in a drab, impersonal apartment. He meets a friend for coffee, but the video cuts away from this live interaction, leaping ahead to the moment when he snaps a photo of some “cool” graffiti and shares it online. He has a significant other, but she’s far enough away that when sunset arrives, he climbs up on a roof and shares it with her via video, while she grins from a window at the bottom of his field of vision.
He is, in other words, a characteristic 21st-century American, more electronically networked but more personally isolated than ever before. As the N.Y.U. sociologist Eric Klinenberg notes in “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone,” there are now more Americans living by themselves than there are Americans in intact nuclear-family households. Children are much more likely to grow up with only a single parent in the home; adults marry less and divorce relatively frequently; seniors are more likely to face old age alone. And friendship, too, seems to be attenuating: a 2006 Duke University study found that Americans reported having, on average, three people with whom they discussed important issues in 1985, but just two by the mid-2000s.
The question hanging over the future of American social life, then, is whether all the possibilities of virtual community — the connections forged by Facebook and Twitter; the back alleys of the Internet where fans of “A Dance to the Music of Time” or “Ren & Stimpy” can find one another; the hum of virtual conversation that’s available any hour of the day — can make up for the weakening of flesh-and-blood ties and the decline of traditional communal institutions.
The optimists say yes. If you believe writers like Clay Shirky, author of 2008’s “Here Comes Everybody,” the buzzing hive mind of the Internet is well on its way to generating a kind of “cognitive surplus,” which promises to make group interactions even more effective and enriching than they were before the Web.
The pessimists, on the other hand, worry that online life offers only a simulacrum of community. In “Alone Together” (2011), Sherry Turkle argues that the lure of Internet relationships, constantly available but inherently superficial, might make both genuine connection and genuine solitude impossible.
Seeing the world through the eyes of the Man in the Google Glasses, though, suggests a more political reason for pessimism. In his classic 1953 work, “The Quest for Community,” the sociologist Robert Nisbet argued that in eras of intense individualism and weak communal ties, the human need for belonging tends to empower central governments as never before. An atomized, rootless population is more likely to embrace authoritarian ideologies, and more likely to seek the protection of an omnicompetent state.
The kind of totalitarianism, fascist and Marxist, that shadowed Nisbet’s writing isn’t likely to come back. But a kinder, gentler kind of authoritarianism — what the blogger James Poulos has dubbed “the pink police state,” which is officially tolerant while scrutinizing your every move — remains a live possibility.
Today, social media are hailed for empowering dissidents and undercutting tyrannies around the world. Yet it’s hard not to watch the Google video and agree with Forbes’s Kashmir Hill when she suggests that such a technology could ultimately “accelerate the arrival of the persistent and pervasive citizen surveillance state,” in which everything you see and do can be recorded, reported, subpoenaed ... you name it.
In this kind of world, the Man in the Google Glasses might feel like a king of infinite space. But he’d actually be inhabiting a comfortable, full-service cage.