When we hear the word “cyborg,” we think of an emotionless being that has completely lost or was never granted its individuality or right to privacy. We think of the worst kind of collectivist entrapment, a state of perpetual mindlessness that seeks only to follow directives passed down from some higher authority. We think of the Terminator, Robocop and Star Trek’s Seven of Nine.
That being said, the negative attitude we harbor toward the idea of cyborgs has led to a massive backlash against Google Glass, which many people feel is an assault on privacy and individuality. An advocacy group, Stop the Cyborgs, is in fact campaigning to limit the use of intrusive devices such as Google Glass with the intent to “stop a future in which privacy is impossible and central control total.” Likewise, some businesses have already banned it from being worn on their premises. The first such establishment, the 5 Point Cafe in Seattle — which describes Google Glass as a “new fad for the fanny-pack wearing never removing your bluetooth headset wearing crowd” — has now aligned itself with Star Wars’s droid-hating Mos Eisley Cantina.
It should be noted that the 5 Point Cafe’s banning of Google Glass is done somewhat out of respect for its patrons’ right to privacy, somewhat to be sardonic, somewhat to rabble-rouse and attract media attention — but mostly because the thing looks, well, dumb. Its faux-futuristic, Apple Store aesthetic doesn’t fit in with the cafe’s Seattle counterculture, hole-in-the-wall reputation. Their slogan, after all, is “Alcoholics serving alcoholics since 1929.”
The 5 Point Cafe’s disapproval of Google Glass also says a lot about the majority of Americans’ attitudes toward what they perceive as a gradual loss of privacy and individual freedoms due to technological intrusion. Smartphones are just as guilty of this as Google Glass, but the latter’s always-visible, always-on, always-pointed-at-you functionality crosses a line that makes many people uncomfortable. We just want to be left the hell alone. The idea of being secretly filmed — by any device, for any reason — makes us squirm, even though we’re knowingly caught on surveillance cameras dozens if not hundreds of times a day. We desire privacy and respect for what makes each of us unique, and when we don’t get it, we feel less-than-human. We feel as if we’re being treated like an animal.
Or worse, we feel as if we’re being treated like a cyborg, which is essentially a tool. And since tools don’t receive empathy or privacy, neither should a cyborg.
So maybe this is why the Mos Eisley Cantina’s barkeep gets all huffy when Luke tries to enter with his recently acquired droids. Although they appear to have emotions and personalities, C-3PO and R2-D2 are really cybernetic frauds, artificial charlatans trying vainly to pass themselves off as equals to other Cantina patrons. It’s an insult. To the surly proprietor, droids’ transparent mimicry of self-awareness and entitlement to certain rights sentient beings enjoy mocks the privilege of actually being a sentient being.
This repulsion toward androids and cyborgs can be described as the uncanny valley effect, first described by roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970. Simply put, when we are confronted with a robot that resembles a human but doesn’t get human behavior quite right — their eyes might not blink like ours or their movements might appear too jerky or calculated — it creeps us out.
And so it is with Google Glass. When we eventually start seeing people on the streets wearing Google Glass, it will surely give some observers unease and skepticism.
They might ask: What are they doing with that thing? Am I being recorded or filmed? When I speak to them, are they tuning me out by listening to music, watching a movie or checking the weather forecast? Are they mentally correcting my factual errors using Wikipedia without my knowledge? Are they using face-recognition technology to scan and analyze me? Do they know all about me — my name, my Social Security number, my past, my secrets?
What part of their humanity and uniqueness did they have to give up to enjoy the benefits of Google Glass?
As admirable as Stop the Cyborgs and 5 Point Cafe’s efforts may be, there’s little hope that the cyborg-ification of humans will stop. No child wants to grow up to be a cyborg, yet humanity is increasingly becoming cybernetic. Many people cannot reasonably function without the use of hearing aids, artificial hips, mind-controlled prosthetic limbs or computerized speech generators. These devices are necessities, and no one faults their users for taking advantage of them. Google Glass is admittedly a different beast altogether, as it is an elective tool and could be used to violate non-wearers’ privacy.
But right or wrong, it’s only the beginning. From retinal implants that perform the same tasks as Google Glass and more, to telekinetic tattoos and nanobots, we’ll be so hard-wired with tech that, as futurists such as Kurzweil predict, the line separating man and machine will blur.
By then, will we even care about abstract liberties such as privacy and individuality?
It’s almost impossible to fathom now, but perhaps in the future we’ll look back and wonder why we cherished our individuality so much and resisted collectivism. After all, privacy as we now know it is a relatively modern phenomenon that we take for granted. Most of us wouldn’t be able to tolerate the constant physical togetherness and lack of solitude that defined a medieval European lifestyle. But since then we’ve readjusted our attitudes toward privacy and individuality, and chances are they will need to be readjusted again. Perhaps once most of us are wired to communicate telepathically and always be aware of each other’s locations and identities, we’ll find popular twentieth- and twenty-first-century depictions of cyborgs to be quaint, naïve and, yes, even a little offensive.
The Future Culturalist couldn’t help but chuckle when he saw the first promotional photos of everyday folk rocking Google Glass, which you’ll be able to purchase sometime this year so long as you can cobble together $1,500. Besides the fact that the device is even less fashionable than a Bluetooth headset — it makes the wearer unflatteringly resemble both Geordie La Forge and a member of the Borg Collective — Google Glass is outdated before it even hits store shelves.
The reason why it’s already outdated has nothing to do with what Google Glass is capable of. No doubt it allows you to perform any number of nifty tasks such as handlessly checking your email, Facebook News Feed and stocks; watching Game of Thrones while pretending to pay attention to your girlfriend; and recording every second of your dismally boring life.
Simply put, Google Glass is painfully outdated because in the year 2099, we won’t wear technology — we will be technology.
Very soon, within the next half-century, it will be rare for a middle- to upper-class human in Western society not to have some sort of cybernetic, prosthetic or other type of technological augmentation. Self-replicating nanobots will swim through our bloodstreams like so many microscopic tadpoles, optimizing our oxygen transfer rate and unclogging blocked arteries. Memory chips will boost our brainpower. Chemical dispensers might regulate our dopamine and serotonin levels, thereby eliminating or at least lessening the effects of anxiety and depression.
All of these augmentations, furthermore, will be able to communicate with each other, the Internet (or some future iteration of the Internet) and you. Your entire body will be humming with wi-fi signals. If a group of nanobots detects a cancerous cell, you’ll instantaneously be informed via cybernetic implants (telepathically, almost), similar to how your virus detection software informs you when it intercepts a malicious program. If a memory chip goes down, you’ll feel it as palpably as you feel hunger or a change in your mood.
Best of all, with retinal implants we’ll be able to accomplish much more than what Google Glass offers, without having to look as if we walked off the set of a low-budget sci-fi movie.
After so many years of wearing the hideous VISOR, Geordi La Forge was finally able to get his own retinal implants in Star Trek: First Contact. At the rate technology really improves, we need not wait as long as he did.
Below you can check out a promotional video for Google Glass.
According to the MIT Technology Review, futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil’s new job at Google entails designing and building a type of artificial intelligence that will serve as a super-sophisticated personal assistant — or what will eventually become humanity’s godlike overlord.
The details of the new AI system are frustratingly scarce. Presumably it will gather and analyze all available information in Google’s databases (in other words, the entirety of human knowledge) and even listen in on phone conversations and read emails.
No, we’re not making this up.
As fascinating as this ambitious project sounds, we can’t help but wonder if Kurzweil has ever seen 2001: A Space Odyssey or the Terminator series.
Both 2001 and Terminator resonate as cautionary tales of the dangers of unrestrained, sentient artificial intelligence. The two narratives tap into humanity’s unconscious and ancient apprehension of technology we don’t fully comprehend, a theme that can be traced at least as far back as the Jewish folktale of the Golem.
Of course, there are a few popular stories that convey the opposite theme, that artificial intelligence will be humanity’s salvation. A classic example is the Isaac Asimov short story “The Last Question,” which Asimov felt was his best work. (Seriously, if you haven’t already read it, do so now. We’ll wait.)
At this point, what Google and Kurzweil are up to is a bit unclear. Don’t most of us already have access to the full extent of human knowledge crammed in our pockets? Whether their adventures in AI will give us smartphones on steroids or spell the end of humanity, we’ll continue to feature more news along the way.