We Love Screens, Not Glass

Maybe the opposition to Glass comes not just from privacy concerns or the face-Segway effect, but a profound love for the meta-medium of the screen on a device.
Screens glowing ( flickr/marc_smith )

After Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, wore a prototype to a charity event in San Francisco on April 5, 2012, there was a lot of buzz about Google Glass. Early in 2013, the buzz intensified as an “Explorer Edition” was made available to a few thousand testers and developers and a consumer version was promised for later the same year. But the din of anticipatory chatter, which fed for a while on first hand reports and video that captured user experience, has noticeably diminished. The release date for the commercial version has been pushed forward until sometime in 2014, but even that remains vague. Meanwhile, Google will make yet another Explorer Edition available to yet another cohort of selected testers and developers.

To an outside observer, it seems as if the opposition to Google Glass is strong. From the very beginning, people asked why anyone would want to sit across the table from a woman wearing Glass (not “pair of”) equipped with the Winky app, the one that allows her to start an invisible video recorder by blinking in a particular way? What about driving? A teenage boy could watch Louis C. K.’s latest stand-up rant hovering in the same field of vision as the road he is driving on. But should he?

As the tech-visionaries always say, however, it has ever been thus. The more radical the innovation, the more inevitable the prophesies of doom and the more severe the envisioned losses. And the radical aura of this particular innovation is undeniable, immediately apparent, akin in that way to the original potency of “moving pictures” and “tele-vision.”

With Glass, a developmental logic built into the very nature of representational technologies may be reaching an intrinsic limit. The contact lens version of Glass is already on the drawing boards and chips implanted in our brains that conjure up "screens" in our heads may some day be possible and a lot of people find these prospects deeply disconcerting. We are entitled to wonder if—this time—opposition to technological innovation may prove to be more stubbornly grounded than it has been in the past. Is the resistance to Glass qualitatively different and more profound than practical concerns about safety and privacy?

* * *

This might be a good time to step back a bit and ask what kind of medium a screen is: what are its particular effects? When Marshall Mcluhan popularized media theory in the 1960s, under the oft-cited (much misunderstood) slogan, “the medium is the message,” he was calling attention to the fact that kinds of media, quite apart from content, have significant psycho-social consequences. He argued that reading and writing, for example, condition the mind to move sequentially, to follow a train of thought to a conclusion, to notice causal order in the workings of the world, as scientists do, and to impose order as well, as technologists and administrators do. In effect, he claimed that print literacy was ultimately responsible for the rise of modernity because the written/printed word is a stable thing, abiding in space. The spoken words through which traditional societies communicate pass away as they are being born. Modern progress was made possible by stable representations of the way things are and were. In non-literate societies there was no record, so there was no plan. In such a society, people could argue over who should succeed a deceased king. But no one would ever ask: what do we need these kings for in the first place?

So what corresponds, under the regime of multi-media, to oral ephemerality and literate stability? A tricky question because multi-media, in their plenitude, defy categorical conception. People didn’t stop talking when they began writing and they didn’t stop writing when they began telephoning and we are still talking and writing even as we skype and tweet. Under those circumstances what medium could possibly qualify as constitutive across the spectrum? The obvious answer is screens: screens as screens, regardless of what’s on them. This is the age of multiple screens of every conceivable size and shape, lodged in every nook and cranny, upon every feasible surface—and now Google Glass proposes to fuse the very world with a personal screen.

The first and simplest thing to notice, perhaps ultimately the most important, may be this: people tend to watch. We have all felt it. No matter what’s on them, we are drawn to screens. There is something about the framing, entities contained, movement within, stillness without. Screens compel attention the way certain dollhouses do, or Joseph Cornell’s boxes. Upon screens we view worlds from beyond, as gods do.

Joseph Cornell's Object Roses des Vents. 

* * *

The screen is a meta-medium, which may be why it has so far eluded systematic treatment. It channels and filters other media. Speech and music, charts and maps, writing, pictures, film, video—the screen conveys them all. But the screen does have its own characteristics, its own meta-qualities. Above all, it displays. But, in displaying this, it hides that. Unknown treasures lurk perpetually just out of sight, clamoring sotto voce for your attention. What are you missing, at each moment, as the price of this display? Displaying, hiding—simultaneous effects constituting a quality for which there is as yet no word, but it is a quality that conditions the way we conceive and perceive of everything, the way we live now.

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Thomas de Zengotita is a contributing editor at Harper's. He teaches at the Dalton School.

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