Ubiquity vs. Access

Blog | March 1st, 2013

Sergey Brin thinks that touchscreens are emasculating, that you’re “just rubbing this featureless piece of glass” and that Google Glass is the answer. He’s completely wrong.

It’s not that he’s wrong about touchscreens being featureless and two-dimensional, or that there aren’t some significant issues with how we use technology, it’s that he’s convinced that strapping a screen to your head is the answer. Without a longer explanation, I’ll have to assume that what Sergey means is that touchscreens make us feel ineffectual because the interface we’re pawing at isn’t actually tactile. We’re given the concept of real things, but prevented from actually using them like real things. We can’t flip them over, smell them, weigh them in our hands. We’re kids in a museum and there’s plexiglass everywhere.

Google Glass, as an alternative, seems to tackle absolutely none of these problems. It’s primarily (though not entirely) controlled by one’s voice, so instead of reaching out and directly manipulating virtual objects with our hands—the most intuitive and obvious way of interacting—we ask politely for some information and hope it gets delivered to us sans source, context, or alternative. Sure, that’s way less emasculating. Just trust them, it’ll all work out.

Really, though, when is the last time you didn’t have your phone in your pocket when you wanted to look something up? How long does it really take to reach down, fish it out, and swipe to unlock? How far away is your computer if—gasp—your phone isn’t nearby? Our devices aren’t strapped to our faces, but it’s not like that’s usually a problem for anyone. That goes for the rumored iWatch too: ubiquity isn’t the thing that’s missing. We’re not frustrated by how long it takes to open a new tab in our web browser, or how slow our internet connection is (most of the time). Our devices are ubiquitous enough, and anything more is going to continue to erode our ability to breathe, concentrate, or enjoy the world around us.

What we do need, though, is better access. Access to the actual information we’re looking for when we’re looking for it. I’m fascinated by technology that learns from me, adapts to my habits, and makes the things I’m interested in available sooner, just in case I actually want to pursue them. It’s not about putting things in front of my face, it’s about using information to decipher patterns and make using technology more efficient. It’s caching. It’s transparent, passive, and has absolutely nothing to do with selling ads.

If we’re ready to seek out information that’s new and unpredictable, we’ll do what we’ve always done: we’ll find authors and companies with websites that resonate with us, and we’ll pay attention to them because we develop trust that they’ll be able to curate wisely and connect us with information that we may never have seen otherwise but that we’re likely to find interesting. Sometimes we just want to challenge ourselves.

And when I’m walking in the park, I won’t need something telling me every forty seconds what temperature it is outside. That will be ready for me if and when I choose to ask, but not until then. My direct, unfettered, whole and personal engagement with the world is worth far more than seeing my website’s live stats, the latest sports scores, or my Twitter feed. The assumption that this information should always be hovering over me, that’s what’s emasculating.