"More than machinery, we need humanity."

7 Questions for New Technology (Part 1)

Our hands have become very full of late. I mean this in a very literal sense. When I ride the subway in the morning it seems that almost every person I see is clutching something: a Smartphone, a tablet, an e-reader, the newspaper, a snack, and even the occasional book (this list is not exhaustive).

Those who are holding and manipulating digital devices need their hands available so that they can a) hold, and b) manipulate that device (though many a device may be stored in a pocket or bag when not in use). This presents something of a challenge to those whose profits depend on the sale of such devices: people can only use so many of these devices at once, and from this might conclude that they only need a handful of them (though there are certainly many people who own a computer, tablet [or e-reader], and a Smartphone).

Thus it should come as little surprise that the next moves in our technological society seem to be headed towards devices that leave a user’s hands free (conceivably so that they can hold other devices). Devices that are referred to in some areas as “wearable computing.” In recent weeks/months there has been more and more attention devoted towards two upcoming device developments: the Apple iWatch (not what it is actually called) and Google’s Glasses (kind of what it is actually called).

Apple and Google have both been important and hefty forces when it comes to Smartphones and tablets (though Google’s Nexus devices arrived well after Apple had staked out a fair amount of turf). While both companies continue to do well off of the handheld computing market (Smartphones, tablets) each company seems to sense that they need to expand into new areas of consumer electronics. Or more accurately, onto new consumer body parts, namely your wrist (in the case of Apple) and your face (in the case of Google).

Sound good? Apple and Google hope you think so. In fact they’re depending on you thinking so. After all: are these not bold technological advances!?

At moments like this I find myself pondering a slightly different (if related) question: WWNPA? What Would Neil Postman Ask. And luckily (as I discussed in a previous blog post here) Postman left an excellent set of questions to ask of new pieces of technology, which I shall now direct at these devices (though the questions will be split up into multiple posts).

Before I begin it should be noted that neither of these devices has become truly available yet (and the iWatch seems more shrouded in speculation than anything real [so far]), which can make it fairly difficult to truly criticize them just yet. Nevertheless, Postman’s questions are worth asking before you look down at your iWatch through your pair of Google Glasses.

Question 1 – What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?

iWatch – The iWatch will introduce a bold new era in which a person can look at their wrist and see what time it is. This will solve the problem of people not being able to easily tell what time it is. Or…they could just get a wristwatch (which will probably be cheaper). But telling time is probably not the problem to which the iWatch seeks to be the solution.

Without knowing the full range of functions that it will (or might) offer, it can be hard to know exactly what problems the iWatch may attempt to solve. As far as we know the iWatch might permanently sense your pulse keeping you informed at all times of your heart rate, and it might be able to let out a beep should your pulse become irregular. It might do that, but that is not the problem to which the iWatch seeks to be the technological solution. Some of the early information about the iWatch suggests that it will be a sort of flexible glass display that is used as a touch display. Nick Bilton (at the New York Times Bits Blog) compared it to the trackpad mouses found on most contemporary Apple laptops, and thus it can be thought of as a slim computer for your wrist. But back to the real question, for the problem is not “there is nothing that I can wear on my wrist.”

While the size of the iWatch (again, this is somewhat speculative) will likely be large enough that it could conceivably hold music in the way that the smallest Ipods do, it seems doubtful that this is what Apple plans for the device (as this is a problem that Apple has tried to already solve – with the Ipod Shuffle and Nano). While the iWatch may replicate the functionality of other Apple devices it will likely be more than simply a replacement for other Apple products. Indeed it seems likely that the iWatch will function in concert with a user’s other Apple devices. Thus an iWatch will connect with an iPhone and will (potentially) alert a user when they have an incoming call, or text message, or when it’s their turn to play a word in some game. Similarly it might have additional controls so that a person can tap their wrist to skip a song (again on a connected device) or to adjust volume. The iWatch may also (conceivably) feature voice command functions (such as Siri), or other programming that allows a user to better control their Apple products through a few taps on the wrist.

It is likely that the iWatch will have some impressive functions that are different from other “I” devices, but it will likely do many of the same things that those other “I” devices do. Thus the iWatch will probably not even aim to solve the various problems that the iPhone or iPad tried to solve, rather the iWatch will probably just make it easier to solve the problems that Apple’s other devices sought to solve (phone calls, music, text messaging, etc…). And thus…the problem seems to come into focus. The problem to which the iWatch is the solution is the problem of taking your iPhone or iPod or iPad out of your bag or pocket. This is certainly a problem for some people, and for those who want to not have to hold onto their “I” thing it may be quite convenient to be able to free up a hand by putting the controller on a wrist instead. But was this a problem that really needed to be solved?

Well…this may not be the real problem here, but more on that later…

Google Glasses –  Imagine if you could look at your wrist and by doing that see what time it is. Not because you are wearing a watch, but because your glasses know that glancing at your wrist means you want to know the time. GGlasses (as I will call them [any Dan Savage fans out there?]) might not display the time on your wrist…but they might be able to.

GGlasses are not yet available to one and all but they are certainly getting closer. Of late several videos have been posted that purport to show what the world might look like through GGlasses (one of these videos can be found at the bottom of this link: here [go watch it, I’ll wait]). From this video we can see that GGlasses will: remind us what our schedule is, tell us the weather, pass messages on to us, let us send messages, warn us of subway delays, give us directions, guide us through those directions, let us meet dogs, let us remind ourselves to buy tickets later, find directions (in bookstores [how retro]), let us find out where our friends are, let us have friends who wear glasses and scarves, let us “check in,” let us take a photo and share it, let us listen to music, let us video chat, let us walk around giving commands to our glasses, let us serenade somebody with the ukulele while looking at a sunset = because GGlasses make you romantic like that.  Granted the person in this ad is a really hep cat, but conceivably the GGlasses would still work if you don’t play the ukulele while looking at the sunset (or meet friends who wear scarves while getting food truck coffee).

Credit must be given to the GGlasses as they are depicted in this video, as the advertisement is constructed in a way that genuinely says: you have a problem this is how you will solve it once you have GGlasses. True, there are many things that the glasses seem to do (like take pictures) that other devices do, but the GGlasses can solve some other problems (we are told). Subway delays are annoying (really) and the glasses would solve that problem by warning you. People get lost and the glasses would solve that problem by giving you directions. A person might not know where in a bookstore the music section is, and the glasses know! Indeed the GGlasses seem to solve a few very pressing problems: remembering to call somebody at 6:30, having to write reminders down (or remember them), or having to ask another human being for directions (though there are people in bookstores who will tell you where the music section is [really {it’s crazy!}]).

GGlasses solve the problem of having to consult another device or having to consult a human being. Both of those things can be problems, true, but were they really problems that required a new technological solution? In the first shot of the GGlasses ad the wearer looks at a table on which a laptop sits open (an Apple, no less)…could not this person have checked the weather there? Could they not have checked for train delays (and directions) there? Sure, they could have. And they could have sent a message without the glasses, but then they would have had to put down their sandwich.

And that would be a big problem…

Wrapping up Question 1

The iWatch and GGlasses both address some real problems. I do not want to suggest that they do not. Yet at risk of being cynical (note: I am being cynical), I think that the real problem that both of these devices seek to answer is the problem of how Apple and Google can make more money. But I shall discuss that further when I get to Question 2.

Coming soon…


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

2 comments on “7 Questions for New Technology (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Will Technological Critique Emerge with Emerging Technology Librarians? | LibrarianShipwreck

  2. Pingback: So, you’re going to library school… | LibrarianShipwreck

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