If you were to take the breathless, salivating technology press at their word, Google Glass is the next must-have gadget after the iPhone. The much-discussed "augmented reality" eyewear, which displays information on a tiny screen near the corner of your eye, seems to be destined to become the latest symbol of our ongoing fascination with digital things.
There are many reasons to disagree with the prediction, be they privacy concerns, or the simple fact that, well, it still looks all kinds of goofy. But there's another, perhaps more pressing motivation to be skeptical. The appeal of Google Glass is based entirely on the idea that we need more information, more quickly. But what if, instead of requiring more and more efficiently delivered news about our lives, what we actually need is less?
Though Google likes to claim that Glass is all about getting out of your way and letting you live your life, it's actually predicated on the idea of feeding you more stuff, ever more efficiently. Rather than pulling a smartphone out of your pocket or stopping to glance at a tablet, you need only glance up and to the right to see notifications of new texts, e-mails and other tidbits like tweets or Facebook messages. It's the promise of instant communication realized in its purest form yet.
Given that only a few years ago, checking your e-mail on the go seemed incredible, this increased immediacy seems not only inevitable, but good, too. The history of technology for the past several decades has been a steady march toward the more efficient delivery of data, from the telegraph, to the fax machine, to e-mails on a laptop, to now, a little icon flickering on one side of your field of vision. Glass can seem so compelling because, after the smartphone, it just feels like the next obvious step.
But it seems like few are considering one basic caveat: Maybe we've reached a point where we don't need information even more quickly. I don't mean this in the sense of the usual, mostly misguided cries that say "get off the computer and go outside!" Rather, many – even the most committed tech geeks – might be reaching a point in which they have too much information, and are bombarded with it too frequently. Even casual users of technology are now inundated with e-mails, breaking news alerts, Facebook notifications, Instagram pop-ups, Twitter messages and no end of other annoyances.
It's not that Google Glass won't have any compelling takes on these applications. Any activity that occupies your hands and in which you need to stay connected – like, say, riding a bike in a new part of town or filming a descent down a ski hill – will likely be made easier by Glass. But other than in unique cases like that, perhaps Google's latest represents a kind of tipping point: a moment in which we realize that our tech has gotten so good at letting us know what's going in the world, that what we need is ways to be less immersed in new data, rather than having it literally become part of how we see our lives.
If that sounds far fetched, consider the following: This week, Google announced a redesign of their popular Gmail service. Now, e-mails can be organized by labels so that you dismiss offers, rote updates and notes from people you don't know so you can focus on what's really important in your inbox, whether at home or on your smartphone. Put another way, it is the latest in a series of solutions to actually cut down and filter the amount of information we see. Strangely then, it's the exact opposite of what Google Glass is doing, which is meant to push information into your consciousness in as invasive a way as possible.
Perhaps that's why at the D Conference this week, Apple CEO Tim Cook suggested that Glass will never be mainstream: it's an ideal of technology that seemed noble just a few years ago, but that oddly, is already out of date.
Rather than being the logical thing that comes next, Google Glass may be the last thing that we need.