As a cadre of Google executives took turns touting Google's newest products at a conference in California on Wednesday, they also described how they were working toward a future in which technology would disappear.
That might sound like a bizarre mission for a tech company. Yet they promised that by fading into the background of our lives, technology would become easier to use, more intuitive, more efficient and more anticipatory, even allowing people to speak to Google like it were a person, rather than a piece of software. Google would usher in this new world with tools that would bring web services into every crevice of our lives, from maps that know where we'll go next, to Google Glass, eyewear that puts the Internet mere millimeters away from our eyeballs.
But Google's professed goal of making technology "get out of the way" masks what's truly taking place. By making technology invisible, Google is also making it omnipresent. As software and gadgets become less in-your-face, they also become more pervasive and more influential, as we in turn become more dependent on them, more accepting of their presence in our lives and less critical of them. After all, how can someone scrutinize what they can't see?
When Google says it's working on technology that will go away, it really means the opposite: It's after technology that gets into our heads and takes over.
"The idea of getting technology out of the way is a loose and fast way of saying we want to control more of your life, we just don't want you thinking that we have that level of control and mediation while we exert it," said Evan Selinger, an associate professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology. "It's like the perfect black box -- I don't need to think about it, I just hope for the best."
In Wednesday's three-and-a-half hour keynote kicking off Google's three-day developer conference, Google I/O, engineers from multiple parts of the company discussed more than a dozen new offerings. Vic Gundotra, Google's senior vice president of engineering, unveiled a new messaging app that would "finally allow technology to get out of the way." By stitching together texts, photos and video into a single service accessible on any device, Gundotra promised, "technology can just go away and people can focus on what makes them the happiest."
Next, Google software engineer Ahmit Singhal demonstrated how people could speak their queries to Google Now, a Siri-like virtual assistant that anticipates people's questions even before they've been asked. It would allow people to "ask Google like you'd ask a friend," Singhal said, and bring the world closer to omniscient Star Trek-like devices that converse easily.
Google chief executive Larry Page concluded by discussing his dream of "really being able to get computers out of the way and really focused on what people really need."
Or, put more explicitly: Page and company aren't imagining computers that "get out of the way" because they're gone. Instead, they disappear because they've been fused with us.
Consider Google Glass, Google's wearable computing device slated for public release sometime next year. Glass' tagline boasts it's "getting technology out of the way" -- yet it's also a device people are expected to wear at virtually all times, mounted on their foreheads with a screen suspended over their right eye.
That may be modest by comparison with what Google has in store. Google co-founder Sergey Brin offered a vision of just how far the company might go when he mused, in 2005, "Perhaps in the future, we can attach a little version of Google that you just plug into your brain."
Allowing technology -- whether Google Now or Google Glass, Facebook or the iPhone -- to recede into the background of our lives may make us both more reliant on it and less critical of it, ultimately ensuring we're even more susceptible to its suggestions. At the same time, Google gains dedicated customers forking over ever more data -- and dollars -- that it can use to attract the advertisers who still account for the lion's share of its revenues.
A service like Google Now that's automatic, omniscient and omnipresent, whispering to us from our Glass headsets or speaking to us from our smartphones, could ultimately allow Google to access us so easily and intimately, its suggestions could feel like they're coming from our own subconscious. Over time, we might be less inclined to question them, or to unplug Google from our lives.
"The hope is that we begin to live much more mediated by algorithms, but we don't pay attention to them. They become invisible, almost like thoughts in our head," Selinger noted. "It allows a company like this to exert a profound influence, while making it harder to detect the impact of that influence."
When technology "goes away," so too does our ability our ability to analyze it objectively, argues Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.
"If we think that the technology is invisible and seamless, then Google can do anything they want and we lose our ability to be skeptical of what these devices do," said Jackson. "We need to retain the visibility of these gadgets to be skeptical of these gadgets."
In demonstrating the latest version of Google Now, Singhal noted it offered "a new interface -- or as I call it, 'no interface.'" That "no interface" opens up a direct pathway between our minds and Google Now's suggestions, from where to eat to when to leave for work.
But perhaps, with Google as our interface with the world, we'll be able to work with the tech giant to exert control over the version of the world Google delivers up. We could see only what we want to see, and excise the rest. Seemingly a part of our subconscious, Google could offer a kind of algorithmic anti-depressant, where not only avoid bad restaurants and traffic, but we can block unhappy articles, excise annoying people and hear only the songs that make us happy.
Get ready to see the world through rose-colored Google Glasses.
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