Google has Distractions Glass-Backwards

Mobile May 05, 2013 No Comments


As the first wave of images flow onto the internet featuring the elite and lucky few who have gotten their Explorer Editions of Google Glass, much of the discourse over Glass has focused on the intrusiveness and awkwardness of wearing the product. Is privacy an issue if you don’t know if people are recording? Is it really going to be socially advisable to wear this ridiculous piece of electronics above your eye? These are appropriate questions to ask, but they also sidestep the larger question of what Glass is and why you want it. Has Google ever explained why they think this is a viable product that people should want? Is this reason compelling or even accurate?

It turns out that they have. In all of Google’s marketing material and in speeches from their top executives, one theme has definitely emerged as their selling point for Glass. It isn’t necessarily a smartphone replacement but rather a new way to experience and capture the world without the distractions that come with looking down at a phone. By putting the screen at the top of your line of sight, along with a camera, Google believes that you can experience the world with fewer distractions. Check your text messages without looking down. Record what you’re seeing without fishing for your phone.

A central tenant for why Google believes this will be less distracting seems to be rooted in their belief that reducing friction between you and your device is the secret to being less distracted. On the face of it (every pun intended), it seems to make sense, but a few moments of historical reflection show that they are incredibly misguided in their messaging.

If taking more effort to check your notifications equals more distraction, we should be able to look a little further back in our technological ancestry to test this hypothesis.   Prior to the smartphone revolution, the PC was the primary mode of computing. Everything that came in from and went out to the Internet flowed through that box. Originally, it was a stationary computer that say in one room of the house. Later, it turned into a mobile device that could be transported throughout the house and even outside the house. If requiring more effort to check your messages equals more distraction, one would expect the desktop computer to be the ultimate form of distraction. You had to actually go into a specific room take care of your computing needs. Sure, there was a chorus of parents who complained about their children being on the computer too long, but these complaints were hardly in the “everyone is always distracted” vein. When laptops became more prominent, we started to see the first examples of people in the living room and kitchen being distracted by having a screen in front of them while people were trying to talk or watch TV.

The shift from desktops to laptops wasn’t especially momentous in terms of distractions. The Internet was still growing into a dominant force in our lives and the change in form factor was not especially big. The real dramatic change came with the smartphone revolution (read: iPhone revolution in 2007). All of a sudden, people had access to the Internet everywhere.  It was always within reach, just a pocket or purse away. Now, maybe my memory is faulty, but I don’t remember the rash of articles and complaints about constant distractions prior to the ubiquity of iPhones and Android devices. Having a smartphone always accessible was absolutely responsible for creating a culture of people standing in line, absorbed in their own world.

In other words, the lack of friction between you and your device actually increases the level of distraction to everyday life. A computer that’s out of sight does nothing to draw you in and distract you. A smartphone is far worse in that regard, but leaving it in your pocket or bag and not checking it is a clear sign that you’re engaged with the world around you. How does one keep the information flow from Glass at arm’s length? It’s right in front of your face all the time. How can you easily guarantee the person you’re speaking to that you won’t be distracted the second something comes in?

There may be plenty of reasons to use Google Glass that have nothing to do with the issue of distractions. Some of the camera features seem compelling. Perhaps navigation will prove to be easier as well. What is very clear, however, is that this possibility of Glass being less distracting, less disruptive to your life is anything but true. If Glass is the next paradigm of computing, it will also continue down the path of technology being more intrusive, pervasive and, yes, distracting. Google’s messaging could not be more off-base or disingenuous in this respect.

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