End Of The Information Age? Google Glass Comes To MOCAD
The Google Glass demonstration hosted by MOCAD over the weekend felt like an open house at the hippest time-share resort ever. Walk into the art space and waiters serve small cups of hot cocoa. Someone offers to check your coat. A hostess, dressed smartly in designer jeans, flannel shirt, and riding boots, directs you through the release process…there is a spot open right here, she says with a sweeping gesture…please line up over here, she says with another sweeping gesture after you’ve signed away God knows what rights to Google. The crowd resembled what you’d expect: Self-described nerds and dorks and geeks. Self-described is the operative phase. Folks eager to check out Glass are nerds or dorks or geeks on the way Harvey Pekar described the heroes in "Revenge of the Nerds": “They're gonna get degrees, get good jobs, and they're gonna stop being nerds. The guys in that movie are not 27-year-old file clerks who live with their grandmother in an ethnic ghetto…They didn't get their computers by trading in a bunch of box tops at the supermarket.”
Once upon a time, “computer nerd” meant highly-intelligent but eccentric social outcasts like Pekar’s friend Toby Radloff, or prototypical hackers John “Captain Crunch” Draper or Josef “Whistler” Engressia. Today, “nerd” is just another Madison Avenue identity given to a lucrative and desirable market segment.
If you want to market consumer products once the province of nerds to a wider consumer base, convince everyone that nerd is an aspirational identity.
That the nerd/geek/dork moniker has been so co-opted is no real surprise. Pekar predicted as much decades ago. What is surprising, or at least interesting, about the Google Glass event isn't the marketing. It's that this product, believed by so many to be the Next Great Thing in information technology, may be the innovation that foretells the end of the information age.
Just as the agricultural age gave way to the industrial age around 1760, and just as the industrial age gave way to the information age around, let’s says, 1969 with the creation of ARPANET, the information age seems poised to give way to some other primary economic driver. Economics, like evolution, is telescopic. Each era is exponentially shorter than the last.
This idea will be misunderstood, so let me be clear as possible. I’m not suggesting that information technology will go away, or that there will be no future information technology innovations. What I am saying—what Google Glass proves—is that we’ve reached a point of such diminishing marginal utility from each advance that its effect is negligible.
The PC coupled with the World Wide Web brought a bottomless library of information into our homes and offices. The laptop coupled with WiFi made that library portable. Smartphones and tablets put all that information in our pockets. Once we experienced these innovations, we couldn’t imagine life without them anymore than we can imagine life without microwave ovens or central heating.
Google Glass was supposed to Change Everything...Again. But having experienced Glass Saturday, I can quite easily imagine life continuing on without it. To put it another way, what more do you want from your information technology? Ask that question at any point over the last 45 years and the answer would have likely predicted the next great innovation. Today, you’re likely to hear back ideas for small-scale refinements. That’s reflected in what we’re seeing out of Silicon Valley, not just Glass, but “disruptive” apps that deliver sandwiches and Peter Thiel’s caffeine spray.
Glass isn’t a bad product. It definitely could have practical uses. Doctors wearing Glass could reference medical charts while in the middle of surgery. For that matter, your average divorced dad might use Glass to read assembly instructions while building Ikea furniture.
The camera feature, which effectively turns your naked eye in to a lens, is also very cool. Of course, it’s just a more elegant variation of the GoPro wearable camera.
Glass is a new form factor for existing applications and, at least in this first iteration, the new form is rarely more functional than existing technology. Loading a website or GPS navigation on Glass isn’t any easier or more convenient than using a smartphone or tablet.
Glass is a smartphone strapped to your forehead. It takes a moment to orient oneself to the Glass display, especially while trying to walk around. It’s comparable to a 1980s projection TV system. In the right light, against the right backdrop, the Glass display is fine. A YouTube video was clear enough when Glass projected against MOCAD’s whitewashed interior walls.
However, using Glass while moving never felt natural or intuitive. Even the slightest glare made it difficult to see the projection. Glass as a real-time, wearable navigation device would be problematic. An oncoming headlight or an especially sunny day would be enough to render the display useless for drivers.
Both solutionists, who see Glass as a harbinger of a future where technology seamlessly integrates with the person, and dystopianists, who fear Glass as the first step toward the nightmare of the digital overtaking the human, are wrong. Google Glass could be a functional tool with specific, narrow utilities. It's doubtful it will be any more or less than that.
And that’s fine.
As industries mature, the pace of innovation slows down. A 2013 model Ford has more bells and whistles than a 1993 Taurus, but the average driver would be hard-pressed to find substantial differences between a well-maintained '93 Taurus and a new Ford on a road trip—save perhaps for the lack of USB port for one's phone.
Remember the first iPhone? It was different from anything else on the market. The second iPhone (the 3G) was cheaper, substantially faster, and came with apps. It was also a huge deal. Future iPhone generations are slightly faster, a little sleeker, and with better cameras. However, no one except the most die-hard tech enthusiast waits with bated breath for details about the next iPhone launch.
The information economy's era of creative destruction—of Netflix killing off Blockbuster, of travel sites killing travel agencies, of Microsoft Word putting typewriter repairmen and stenographers out of work—is mostly past.
Information technology innovation will take place at the margins now. That doesn't mean, obviously, that Apple or Google or Microsoft will go away. What it does mean is, as with agriculture and industry, information technology will become yet another complimentary piece of the economy rather than a prime mover.