Heart of Glass
Everybody’s talking about Google Glass. (Not in the plural, obviously, as this would mark you out as a real person, which would clearly never do.)
One of the hottest topics of discussion is whether our brains will be able to cope with the distraction of all the new data, that will flow before our eyes, as we go about our daily lives. It’s an interesting question, but history suggests it’s the wrong one.
Fifty two years ago, an American scientist called Irwin Moon invented his own unusual set of spectacles. The quirk was that they turned images upside down. Now, this happens naturally, of course: as light rays pass through the cornea, they are inverted onto the retina, and it’s the brain (the visual cortex, to be exact) which turns them the right way up again. So by flipping the image before it entered the eye, these glasses effectively fooled the brain into turning it upside down.
Confused? Well, the interesting thing was that the visual cortex wasn’t – at least not for long. At first, admittedly, wearers felt nauseous and found it virtually impossible to carry out the simplest tasks. But after about 8 days of constant usage, their brains adjusted to the problem and simply processed the images without inverting them, leaving everything the right way up again.
So what’s this got to do with Google Glass? Well to me, it speaks volumes for the human brain’s ability to adapt. One of the great breakthroughs of modern medicine has been to recognise our most complex organ as a highly malleable entity, which changes – either superficially or even physically – to cope with new stimuli. This neuroplasticity explains how we’ve coped with an avalanche of new technology in recent years and why we’re no more likely to be fazed by a pair of souped-up glasses than we were by the first space invaders.
But this still leaves some real issues about how people will feel about devices like Google Glass. Will wearers feel self-conscious or in control? Perhaps more importantly, will non-wearers feel under-surveillance or full of envy and aspiration? Will we all feel liberated by the closer fusion of technology with our bodies – or will we feel shackled by it?
To me, these are the bigger questions which we should be asking ourselves. For history suggests that our brains will cope just fine with whatever we throw at them: as ever, this battle will be won or lost in our hearts, rather than in our minds.