Filtering Reality

How an emerging technology could threaten civility

Here’s a startling vision for the next decade: two familiar online phenomena converge in an emerging technological arena to strike a fatal blow to American civil society.

The emerging technology, called “Augmented Reality,” enables users to see location-specific data superimposed over their surroundings. Long a staple of science fiction, it’s trickling into the real world through the iPhone and similar ultrasmart mobile phones. With AR applications such as Layar, the smart phone displays what its camera sees, with information about nearby buildings and shops, travel directions, even notes and “tags” left by other users in that location. Although AR now relies on handheld devices, electronics makers like Sony are working on systems that you wear like sunglasses, making augmented vision more immersive.

Here’s where the first familiar online phenomenon shows up: spam. Nearly every communication method we invent eventually conveys unwanted commercial messages. AR systems will be used for spam too, whether via graffiti-like tags, ads that pop up when you look too long at a shop, or even abstract symbols stuck to a wall or worn on a shirt that, when viewed through an AR system, turn into 3-D animations.

Fortunately, just as Web browsers have pop-up blockers, AR systems will filter spam. Moreover, they’ll likely be able to filter out physical ads, too, such as billboards—a capability that many opponents of visual clutter will find deliriously attractive.

This technology will have plenty of social uses, of course. Facial-recognition technology is improving, and would be a welcome addition to a personal AR system. Imagine never forgetting a face, and always being able to recognize a friend-of-a-friend on the street. And because the systems are linked to the Internet, once AR recognized someone, you could easily pull up his or her online footprint, such as a Facebook page.

This brings us to the second familiar online phenomenon: political polarization. On the Internet, the stark division between Red America and Blue America is reflected in the political information each side chooses to consume. The social-network analyst Valdis Krebs discovered that people who buy political books on cluster into divergent camps, with little overlap in the books they read. That dynamic also applies to political blogs and news sites.

Conceivably, users could set AR spam filters to block any kind of unpalatable visual information, from political campaign signs to book covers. Parents might want to block sexual or violent images from their kids’ AR systems, and political activists and religious leaders might provide ideologically correct filters for their communities. The bad images get replaced by a red STOP, or perhaps by signs and pictures that reinforce the desired worldview.

Did I mention that the “wrong” people can get replaced too?

After California’s Prop 8 ban on gay marriage passed, opponents of the measure dug up public records of donors supporting the ban, and linked that data to an online map. Suddenly, you could find out which of your neighbors (or the businesses you frequent) were so opposed to gay marriage that they donated to the cause. Now imagine that instead of a map, those records were combined with an AR system able to identify faces.

You don’t want to see anybody who has donated to the Palin 2012 campaign? Gone, their faces covered up by black circles. You want to know who exactly gave money to the 2014 ban on SUVs? Easy—they now have green arrows pointing at their heads.

You want to block out any indication of viewpoints other than your own? Done.

This will not be a world conducive to political moderation, nor one where differing perspectives get along comfortably. It won’t take a majority of people using these filters to poison public discourse; imagine this summer’s town-hall screamers on constant alert, wherever they go. Yet this world will be the unintended consequence of otherwise desirable developments—spam filters, facial recognition, augmented reality—that many of us will find useful.

The knee-jerk answer would be to ban such reality filters, but a ban could be easily circumvented. The harder answer, but ultimately the correct one, would be to strengthen our society’s ability to tolerate diverse viewpoints—to encourage not muddy centrism, but a basic ability to hear out, and to see, fellow citizens with a measure of respect.