Google Glass: Artificial Unconscious?

By Neuroskeptic | May 25, 2013 4:32 am

Google Glass is cool. But could it be philosophically dangerous?

60 years ago, Ludwig Wittgenstein famously wrote:

Where does this idea come from? It is like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at. It never occurs to us to take them off.

The “idea” in this case was a particular philosophical theory about language. Wittgenstein saying that other philosophers were making use of this idea without realizing it, unconsciously – so he chose the metaphor of glasses, which are always right before us, filtering what we see, even though we’re rarely aware of them.

Perhaps all technology so far has been an extension of the conscious parts of our mind. Computers let us to do the things we consciously choose to do, better. To talk over distances, remember more accurately, see and hear more stuff – on demand.

Google Glass and other smart glasses do all that as well, but I wonder if they’ll soon go one better: they could extend or modify our unconscious mental processes.

Consider, for example, some smart glasses set up to detect anything that looked like a spider in front of its camera, and overlay it with a red flashing box on the user’s display if spotted.

Now, I think this would make you obsessed with spiders. You’d notice them everywhere, and you’d find it hard to concentrate on anything else, so long as you were in front of one. You might like them or hate them, but you would be preoccupied with them, and if you were scared of them, this spider-focus would certainly make matters worse.

Or again, your glasses could analyze the facial expressions of people you meet, perhaps displaying the results (85% happy, etc…) floating above their heads. But what if the algorithm was poorly calibrated, so that it wrongly said that most people were angry at you? How would that affect you over the long run…?

I took these examples from recent psychological theories about the cognitive processes in spider phobia and depression (1,2). The original idea was that it’s some largely unconscious processes in the mind that are (mis)directing attention. But it seems to me that technology could produce the same kind of effects.

These examples are just for illustration. No-one’s going to install an app that does such obvious harm. They show, however, the way in which smart glasses could – unlike existing technology – not just change what we do, but how we see, and therefore how we think.

  • Peter

    It might be dangerous to the 0.000001% of people that will actually use it. Who cares? I’m not that worried about the wiring integrity on a Segway, either.

    • JonFrum

      This is becoming one of the most common comment memes on the Internet. “I don’t care about ‘X’ – it’s a waste of time.” When ‘X’ is Facebook, or Twitter, or a suddenly popular app or device. Yet the article is read, and the comment made.

      This is closely related to the “I’d never eat ‘X’ food’ comments that flood in whenever a fast food chain or particular product is mentioned. It seems that those who don’t consume the world’s most successful restaurant’s servings are the most inspired to comment on them on the Internet. While those millions who do never bother. Interesting.

  • Andy Callander

    Don’t be so limited in your definition of technology. Language is a technology! Writing is a technology. Reading is a technology. These technologies are also extensions of our unconscious mind. Technology has been changing how we think for millennia. In fact, every major advancement in technology has changed the way we think. This will be no different.

    • Fahd Ghodhbeni

      Technology is a new way that people create to facilitate their old way of doing something. So, language, writing and reading are technologies for ‘Neanderthal’ but not for us.

      • Andy Callander

        That’s incorrect. Technology, as defined by, is “the branch of knowledge that deals with the creation and use of technical means and their interrelation with life, society, and the environment, drawing upon such subjects as industrial arts, engineering, applied science, and pure science.”

  • Jose Luis

    Honestly, every tool we use on a day-to-day basis is an extension of both our physical and mental bodies. Buildings are to skin, cars are to legs, computers are to brains, microphones are to voices, I think the idea of Google Glass is ridiculous. It’s an extreme few people want to reach.

    • angelo78

      few people? i think your numbers will probably prove you wrong.

  • toostoned tocare

    The medium is the message? One sees what one believes and now we can get an App to do it!

  • infinidiv

    I think this is the same as the worries people have had with every new development. A newspaper article published around the invention of the radio also said that from then on no one would go outside anymore and society would break down.

    Things are changing faster now, and we have to learn to deal with these things, but in some way I think that the default will soon be change, and then new things like this will not affect new generations as much because instead of getting used to a new tech, they will get used to “newness”. Ok, thats also an “out there” hypothesis, but I see it as just as likely as all the dangers people see in new tech…

    • Neuroskeptic

      True. I’m not primarily worried, more interested in the ideas I proposed. You’ll notice I only ever called it “philosophically dangerous”, and as we all know, that is a kind of danger that doesn’t actually matter 😉

  • Franck Ramus

    Your example with facial expressions suggests how the same glasses could be used as a therapeutic aid: helping depressed people correctly interpreting others’ facial expressions, rather than seeing them excessively negatively (version 1); or even biasing them positively (version 2, more debatable).

    • Neuroskeptic

      Very true, and I was going to write about that in the post but dropped it to save space.

      There could be therapy apps that direct your attention away from threatening things. Once they integrate an eye-tracking system into the glasses, to measure the wearer’s gaze, it could even work out the extent of your cognitive biases and reward you for overcoming them, XBox Live style.

      “You have unlocked the ‘Arachnophile’ achievement for looking at a spider for 60 seconds. You are just 3 achievements away from full completion of Phobia No More (Spider DLC)”

  • Igimo

    I think the new Special Edition of Google Glass raises more concerns:

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  • Shane Milburn

    what do you mean “no-one’s going to install an app that does such obvious harm”? We’ve already seen how ineffective most of us are at multi-tasking, however we have chosen it, and it is ubiquitous.

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  • Chaorder Gradient

    “Maybe before we rush to adopt google glass we should stop to consider the consequences of blithely giving this technology such a central position in our lives.”



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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