Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Google Glass and Our Sci-Fi Present, Part I: Molly’s Got a Rider

Headphone earbuds reminiscent of Bradbury's "thimble radios"
Kevin P. Trovini     (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)
Although, by its very nature, science fiction is speculative writing, it is not necessarily predictive. Sometimes, however, new technologies resemble fictional inventions in ways that make authors seem remarkably prescient. Witness the iPad, which bears striking resemblance to the PADDs long featured in Star Trek series (and can even mimic its fictional display iconography) and headphone earbuds, a concept which Ray Bradbury envisioned as “thimble radios” in his 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451. Now, Google Glass is among the latest technologies to make seeming prophets of science fiction writers.

One such technological clairvoyant is William Gibson, whose 1984 novel Neuromancer is the seminal work of cyberpunk fiction—the subgenre of science fiction writing typically set in a gritty, urban, post-apocalyptic world and concerned with how ubiquitous cybernetic and information technologies shift relationships—and blur distinctions—between corporations and governments, crime and legality, man and machine.

The winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards, the novel is best known for popularizing the term cyberspace. A virtual "representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system" in Gibson's fictional universe, the word has entered common parlance as a synonym for "the Internet." Gibson also refers to this network as "the matrix," influencing the development of the film of the same name some fifteen years later.

It is in this sense that Gibson is typically seen as having been an augur of our digital present. While his conception of cyberspace, with its virtual reality representation of data accessed by users who "jack in" to the system via head-mounted "dermatrodes," remains a fantastic fictional technology far more sophisticated than today's simple 2-D, non-immersive internet, there are many ways in which the former is still seen by many as having portended the latter. Cyberspace is described as a network of computers used "daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation," and our modern Internet sure fits the bill. Gibson even foresaw the advent of black-hat hackers; the protagonist of the novel is an anti-hero named Case who works as a cyberspace "cowboy"—a thief—using customized equipment and software to "penetrate the bright walls of corporate systems, opening windows into rich fields of data" (5).

However, Gibson and other science fiction writers rarely view themselves as engaging in divination when they practice their craft. Thomas Jones writes in a 2011 article in The Guardian that "Gibson is widely credited with having predicted the rise of the internet, but doesn't himself have any delusions about his prophetic powers." The novelist quips in a 2008 interview that the title of "Visionnary (sic) writer is OK. Prophet is just not true." Likewise, renowned SF author Ursula K. LeGuin has famously noted that "Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive," writing that "Prediction [...] is not the business of novelists. A novelist's business is lying."

Nevertheless, real technologies sometimes have a way of resembling their fictional antecedents, and Google Glass might also, in part, be said to have been prefigured by devices described in Neuromancer and its sequels (collectively known as the "Sprawl" trilogy). The newest hardware from the company made famous by its search algorithms, Glass combines elements of at least three fictional techs depicted in Gibson's magnum opus: optic implants, microsofts, and simstim.

Closeup of a human eye by SheLovesGhosts (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Photo credit: SheLovesGhosts     (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Visual enhancement figures prominently in the novel, as the streetwise character Molly gets her signature look from implanted mirrored shades: “the glasses were surgically inset, sealing her sockets. The silver lenses seemed to grow from smooth pale skin above her cheekbones” (25). In a twist, Molly's shades are lenses minus the frame, while Glass is frame minus the lenses (although a sunglass attachment is available for the Google device). No mere fashion statement, this body modification augments her vision in several ways.

Molly's first visual enhancement takes the form of night vision, a feature most definitely absent from Glass. She tells her partner, the hacker named Case, "I can see in the dark [thanks to] microchannel image-amps in my glasses" (32), an accessory she activates by pressing on her front teeth with her tongue. Additionally, Molly can receive alphanumeric data via “a readout chipped into [her] optic nerve.” This array, intended to display the time, is capped at nine characters. In this regard, the Glass screen is more advanced, as it can display both text and images and is far less limited in its data presentation capacity, although it does lack the kind of information density of a traditional computer screen. Google's user interface guidelines for program developers indicate that content is best kept to "a few lines of text" and that images should target a 640x360 resolution—pedestrian by the standards of today's HD-conscious consumer but easily surpassing the quality of Gibson's imaginative tech. 

Pull quote
Another implantation technology showcased in Neuromancer consists of "carbon sockets implanted just behind the left ear," into which users slot "slivers of microsoft, angular fragments of colored silicon" (55-6). These cranial implants allow technofetishists to directly access information and abilities granted by the various microsoft modules, much as a photographer might expand the memory of her digital camera by inserting an SD card. Similarly, most of the hardware components in Glass sit near the user's right ear; though not utilizing a physically-penetrative interface like Gibson's microsoft sockets, Glass permits users near-instantaneous access to information and abilities that would be otherwise unavailable.

One last electronic marvel in Gibson's fictional universe that Google's wearable computing device evokes is "simstim," whereby the sensorium of one individual is accessed by another (think of the  eccentric film Being John Malkovich). The stimuli perceived by a person outfitted with a "broadcast rig" are simulated in another, allowing the recipient to experience someone else's vision, hearing, smell, pain, and tactile sensations. Like all technologies released to the public at large, it becomes used for purposes both nefarious and benign. In Neuromancer, Case uses a simstim device to access Molly's sensorium as she interacts with a shady character named Larry, with whom she hopes to initiate a back-alley transaction. Like a criminal wary of an undercover agent wearing a wire,  he uses counterespionage gear to check her for kinks. Selecting a special "glossy black chip" (56) to insert in the cranial socket behind his ear, he gains the ability to detect her simstim broadcast. "Molly's got a rider," he declares, his eyes narrowing.

While such imagery is reminiscent of the sensationalized, fear-mongering press Google Glass has received as a potential threat to privacy (despite its clear unsuitability to serious covert surveillance), Gibson also offers a glimpse of the more commercially bland applications of such devices. As hinted at in Neuromancer and developed more fully in the other novels in the Sprawl trilogy, simstim is the reality TV of the future; audience members very much live vicariously through their favorite stars. While Glass is limited to transmitting sight and sound, its forward-facing camera permits family and friends to experience what its wearer does through a first-person POV; by initiating a Google Hangout, the user can share his or her experiences through a perspective unrivaled by smartphones, which require at least one free hand to operate and take away from the immediacy of the experience. Potential applications envisioned by Glass Explorers include enabling aging or handicapped veterans to visit their national memorials through virtual tours and teaching physics students from the inside of the Large Hadron Collider.

While clearly an imprecise comparison, Glass hearkens back, in both form and function, to elements of these fictional technologies from a book published nearly thirty years ago. Appropriately enough, then, William Gibson had an opportunity to test the Google device at an event at the New York Public Library, tweeting that he was "faintly annoyed at just how interesting [he] found the experience." He may not have intended his writing as prognostication; nevertheless, with the advent of Google Glass, it's easy to credit Gibson with a measure of fortune-telling prowess.

We need not look to fiction alone for futuristic devices that inspire awe, curiosity, and "what if?" amazement—in this multimedia-rich, social-network-intensive digital age, we may all soon be able to experience such technological wizardry in our own sci-fi present.

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Augmented Me is a blog about cyberculture written by a Google Glass Explorer.

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