Data is increasingly dominating the experience of many people on the planet.
We spend much of our time connected to electronic systems: email, phone, text, GPS. Access cards, online banking, apps. Not to mention social media.
Historian Yuval Harari describes how we are expected these days to record our experiences electronically. Then to upload and share it all. The result is data flowing through us constantly as we absorb, process, produce and circulate electronic information.[i]
Enhancing or diminishing experience?
The original aim of this data flow was to enhance life: make things easier and better for ourselves, or let others know what we’re doing and give them something of the experience.
But obsession with technology in all domains of life can more often diminish than enhance our experience.
In the recent opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, around half of all athletes watched the event through their own phones as they walked out to represent their countries.
Glowing screens are a common sight at concerts and theatres. Actor Benedict Cumberbatch even appealed directly to audiences not to film his 2015 performances of Hamlet but instead to simply enjoy the experience and remember it in their minds.[ii]
Virtual Reality (VR) has grabbed a share of this ‘experience’ market. But the purpose of some uses has been called into question. For example, the VR ‘beach holiday’ you can get in Los Angeles – which has many beaches of its own – without leaving your hotel room.[iii] Or the VR rollercoaster at several US theme parks, worn on the ride itself.[iv]
But for all its hype, VR does not present the user with any new information beyond what TV and film can achieve.[v]
AR – Augmented Reality – technology promises to break through the constraints of VR, by adding information to our sensory inputs. This is largely in the form of text or graphic displays over our view of the real world.
However, AR development has faced significant obstacles. Firstly, what do you use it for? It was invented without clear purpose – illustrating Harari’s theory of today’s digital technology outpacing utility and consumer demand.[vi]
Simple incarnations of AR are found in computer games played on smartphones for entertainment purposes. But the story of Pokemon Go shows that these applications are susceptible to fads – the kind of boom and bust firms strive to avoid.
As anthropologist Jared Diamond notes, ‘invention is the mother of necessity’ and not the other way round.[vii] Once technology is there – often coming into existence by chance – people will try to find uses for it. AR at work is an obvious possibility, aiming to increase the efficiency with which employees manage factories or offices.[viii]
The launch of Google Glass in 2012 seemed to bring sci-fi to real life: AR-based wearable tech displaying information direct to your visual field as you navigate the environment. All you have to do is put on some glasses.
However, the product was withdrawn over a number of concerns. Appearance was key: people said wearers looked like cyborgs and they were quickly dubbed ‘glassholes’.[ix] Once the style issues are ironed out, AR glasses will proliferate for those who can afford them. More serious ethical and legal questions – such as covert recording of others by wearers in public spaces – will then need to be addressed.[x]
Facilitation or constraint?
But does this wearable AR tech enhance and facilitate, or constrain? The answer will probably depend on what it’s used for, and how it’s set up. Further ethical decisions need to be made. For example, will marketing algorithms direct us only to specific outlets? Would political censorship make certain places appear non-existent? Would a data-driven view of the world optimising our activity in fact reduce our human contact and ability to experience?
In the future AR is likely to become a normal part of everyday life. Its impact on our experience of the world, however, is less clear.
AR might change the way that we interact socially. If AR is presenting a stream of information to our eyes in public and social situations, our attention to people is necessarily limited. What does this mean for the spontaneity of our encounters with others?
A development from this is the role of Augmented Humans (AH) – AR featuring people in its display – in our social worlds. Researchers are already working out how to make our social contact with AH seem more ‘real’.[xi] This suggests the experience of authentic social contact is something we desire. But could the presence of AH ultimately decrease the quality of our social experiences by rendering them artificial?
Another possible consequence is a reduction in our ability to be in the moment. To be alive to opportunity, serendipity. To experience the world in five senses and notice what’s going on around us. This ‘mindful’ approach to the environment – associated with greater wellbeing[xii] – could be threatened by AR technology.
Tech firms such as Laforge argue that AR glasses help you experience more of your environment, because you’re looking up and around rather than down at a phone screen.[xiii]
But who is choosing what information is presented to you? And what does that data stop you from doing – what is it making you miss?
[i] Harari, Y. N. (2016). Yuval Noah Harari on big data, Google and the end of free will. Financial Times, August 26. Retrieved September 6, 2016 from: https://www.ft.com/content/50bb4830-6a4c-11e6-ae5b-a7cc5dd5a28c
[ii] Denham, J. (2015). Hamlet: Watch Benedict Cumberbatch wage war on camera phones in special message to fans. The Independent, August 9. Retrieved September 19, 2016 from: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/news/hamlet-benedict-cumberbatch-wages-war-on-camera-phones-in-stage-door-message-to-fans-10447232.html
[iii] Rubin, P. (2014). The future of travel has arrived: Virtual-reality beach vacations. Wired, September 18. Retrieved September 19, 2016 from: https://www.wired.com/2014/09/marriott-vr-teleporter/#slide-1
[iv] Lawson, B. (2016). Virtual Reality on Six Flags roller coasters seems a little pointless. Newsy, March 3. Retrieved September 19, 2016 from: http://www.newsy.com/videos/virtual-reality-on-six-flags-roller-coasters-seems-a-little-pointless/
[v] Schkolne, S. (2016). What nobody will tell you about Virtual Reality. Huffington Post, February 24, 2016. Retrieved October 5, 2016 from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-schkolne/what-nobody-will-tell-you_b_9312026.html
[vi] Harari, Y. N. (2016). Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. London: Harvill Secker.
[vii] Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years. London: Vintage.
[viii] Cass, S., & Choi, C. Q. (2015). Google Glass, HoloLens and the real future of Augmented Reality. IEEE Spectrum, February 27, 2015. Retrieved October 5, 2016, from: http://spectrum.ieee.org/consumer-electronics/audiovideo/google-glass-hololens-and-the-real-future-of-augmented-reality
[ix] Lazzaro, S. (2016). Forget Google Glass – this startup is making AR glasses you’ll actually want to wear. Observer Business & Tech, June 23, 2016. Retrieved October 5, 2016, from: http://observer.com/2016/06/forget-google-glass-this-startup-is-making-ar-glasses-youll-actually-want-to-wear/
[x] McGoogan, C. (2016). Snapchat to build Google Glass-style augmented reality headset. The Telegraph, September 6. Retrieved October 5, 2016 from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2016/09/06/snapchat-to-build-google-glass-style-augmented-reality-headset/
[xi] Kim, K., & Welch, G. (2015). Maintaining and enhancing human-surrogate presence in Augmented Reality. IEEE Xplore, Mixed and Augmented Reality Workshops conference. Retrieved October 5, 2016 from: https://www.cs.unc.edu/~welch/media/pdf/Kim2015ab.pdf
[xii] Garland, E. L., Farb, N. A., Goldin, P. R., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2015). Mindfulness broadens awareness and builds eudaemonic meaning: A process model of mindful positive emotion regulation. Psychological Inquiry, 26(4), 293-314.
[xiii] Lazzaro (2016). Ibid.