Friday, February 22, 2013

Between My Face and Your Face

Years ago, I wrote a children's novel.  It was in my third year at U.Va., and involved many an early morning working vigorously in the computer lab, a Super Big Gulp full of Coca-Cola and Mountain Dew surreptitiously fueling my muse.

Wickersnides, it was called.

I'm old, so this was pre-Internet, and pre-cell phone.  The novel lived on a couple of five and a quarter inch floppy disks, one primary, one backup.  It's a silly thing, a story of a boy trapped in a vast store run by an oligarch who has cornered the market on everything.  That oligarch's final plan for world domination: a screen that showed you whatever you want to see.  You could even wear it like glasses.  In doing so, it subjugated you, bending you to desire whatever you were told to desire.

It also involved giant talking waterfowl.

I self-published the critter a year or so back, as part of a promise to my 1989 self.  It's sold exactly the way you'd expect a self-published, semi-edited, unmarketed eBook to sell.  Meaning, it didn't.  Is cool.

What matters is that I had the chance to read it to my boys when they were little, and they loved it.  And I shared it with friends, who, being friends, told me they loved it.

But life has caught up with it.  Looking at Google Glass, the marvelous and utterly desirable wearable contraption that augments your reality and makes the hearts of Google stockholders go pitter pat, I find myself suddenly reminded of that old story.  It's a wearable screen.  You can talk to it.  It can show you whatever you want.

On the one hand, neat.  I want one.  Scrolling my sermon on the HUD would mean never having to look down again.   I'd be Rev. Locutus of Borg, baby.  Seriously awesome.

On the other, well, I don't know.  How will this deepen our connection to the place we are?  Already, human beings with smartphones tend to drift, distracted, through the reality they inhabit.   Smartphone addiction is a real thing, that gnawing sense that something must be...hold on in that vast neural net we inhabit.

If it's right there, every moment, does that help?  Or would it be just a more effective delivery mechanism, the difference between snorting cocaine and crack, the difference between smoking opium and shooting up heroin?

It's not even going to be in your pocket.   It will be your reality.   Or, rather, it will be in between you and reality.

That's the challenge with all interactive and social media.  On the one hand, media can connect us with others and open our eyes.  It can deepen our experience of those we might otherwise not encounter.  It can change things for the good, as it did when those images of peaceful civil rights demonstrators being brutalized in the South poured out of America's televisions in the 1960s.

Or it can stand between us.

And that makes me think of that injunction, the one offered to Moses on Mount Sinai.  "You shall have no other gods before me."   Literally, the Hebrew of that passage tells us that we should put no other gods between us and the face of God.  "Let your experience of me be unmediated," said our Maker.

That's the danger of all media, and all mediating structures.  It can become the thing that does not augment, but distracts.  It can become not a path, but a wall.  It doesn't connect, but divides and shatters.