The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Google Glass: The FOMO Device

FOMO. The acronym debuted following a 2011 survey (pdf). Fear Of Missing Out. If you're between 18-33 years old (and especially a guy, apparently), the phrase alone probably conjures a pang of anxiety. We’re all afraid of being on the outside. We’re all afraid of missing something important among the people we consider important. Whatever circle we want to be part of, we don’t want to miss anything. FOMO. The phenomenon isn’t anything new. CS Lewis talked about it implicitly in his 1944 lecture titled, “The Inner Ring” (link).  The 2011 survey read, “FOMO may be a social angst that’s always existed, but it’s going into overdrive thanks to real-time digital updates and to our constant companion, the smartphone.”

Megan Garber at The Atlantic interviewed a fourteen-year-old girl about how her iPhone shapes her friendships (link). Here’s what the girl said: “[A friend] wasn't in the group chat, so we stopped being friends with her. Not because we didn't like her, but we just weren't in contact with her. . . . [That friend] has a smartphone now, so that's what gets her in. We always loved her and she was always our good friend, but she was excluded—and she knew it, too—because she didn't have an iPhone."

The Inner Ring has become an concrete reality in the world of iPhones, text messages, and group chat. Who’s in and who’s out isn’t simply a social dynamic, it’s also a technological dynamic. And in this girl's social circle, exclusion was only technological.

So FOMO drives technological adoption. We don't want to miss out, so we adopt new technologies to keep up and keep in. To resist new technologies puts you outside the circle. Again, the Inner Ring isn’t a new phenomenon, but it’s one that is exacerbated by technology.

There’s also another human impulse driving technological adoption: productivity. Productivity is sometimes its own goal, but just as often it serves as the key to another door—the door to the inner ring. For the employee, productivity opens doors to new opportunities at work. If you have time to spare, then you have time for more responsibility, and responsibility can come with promotions and its financial incentives. Productivity opens those doors.

Hoping for things like this, people look for ways to multi-task. They constantly look for ways to accomplish more and more with less and less. They manage multiple projects, and now multiple computer programs, multiple computers, and multiple devices—all in an effort to multi-task. All in an effort to produce. So we have email on our phone, and we check it in the car. We respond at red lights or at 70 mph.

We forget why we do it exactly. We just get used to it. It’s becomes a habit. We do it because it’s what we’ve always done (especially when you're only 14). We do it because our devices have trained us to expect it.

But it isn’t only our devices that make us work this way—friends, family, and colleagues expect it from us. Our expectations have grown up around our instant technologies, like vines around a house. Our culture has re-landscaped around these newly installed technologies. The smartphone's instant text messaging cultivates an expectation of immediate responses. If you’re walking to your car, you might shoot off a quick text. But by the time to receive a response, you’re in traffic. And you still feel the pressure to respond right away. It’s easy to give in to that pressure.

Productivity, multi-tasking technology, and the new cultural landscape around it all converge on us. The push to multi-task leaves us in a culture of cell phone zombies—walking around (or driving, or running), oblivious to our surroundings and those around us.

Linda Stone coined the term for this cultural practice—this failed attempt to multitask: She calls it “continuous partial attention.” Stone recognizes the motive behind it: “We want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter” (link).

The intense drive to be connected actually results in the psychological suburbs we have all observed and experienced—disconnected, divested, oblivious. The smartphone problem. Our constant connection to our smartphones has resulted in feeling more connected to those who aren’t present, and less connected to those we’re sitting across from.

Feeling disconnected drives us, not surprisingly, back to our phones and to sites like Facebook—in other words, we are looking to these devices to fix the problem that they made worse in the first place: FOMO and continuous partial attention (pdf).

While Microsoft offered us “a phone to save us from our phones,” Google is offering an alternative to the smartphone and a new way to multi-task. Enter Google Glass.

Sergey Brin in a recent TED Talk positioned Google Glass as the solution to the smartphone problem. “We questioned whether you should be walking around looking down.” The answer is of course not. But is Google Glass the right solution to that problem. Does that problem need a solution in the first place?

Google Glass is presented as the solution to the problem of smartphones and how we’re required to use them. “Is this what you were meant to do with your body?” Brin asks. “You, just rubbing this featureless piece of glass [a smartphone]?” We’re forced to look down at a screen, disconnecting us from our surroundings. We’re also forced to use our hands. Google Glass wants to free our hands and lift our eyes up to the hills. From where does our help come? Our help comes from Google Glass. Freed up, we can now multi-task in this new way.

Google Glass may be a solution to the problem of smartphones—technology for technology—but it is not a solution to failed multi-tasking or to continuous partial attention. If anything, Google Glass is likely to make it worse. Glass puts information directly and constantly in our field of vision. As it offers us this information, we are forced to respond to it—by either acknowledging or ignoring it. Both options require a conscious decision. Ignoring it is not the same as not being interrupted in the first place. Google Glass pulls us out of the present to decide: “acknowledge” or “ignore.” We can’t actually ignore it; we must acknowledge that we want to ignore it. We must stop, think, and decide—and even if that takes only a split-second, our attention is still diverted.

Brin claims that Glass will help us to connect to friends and to information more easily. Here he’s tapping into the same impulses that Linda Stone recognizes: “We want to connect and be connected.” Now Google Glass does this for us, multi-tasking by automatically scanning for opportunities and optimizing the best opportunities, activities, and contacts in any given moment. Google Glass’s problem will not be that it shows you stuff you aren’t interested it—it won’t be filter failure. It will be filter success, as Nick Carr pointed out a few years ago (link). You’ll see only the stuff you’re interested in, and there will be too much. Google Glass will show you that there’s more to do than can ever be done.

Google Glass is FOMO outsourced to a device in the hope that it will optimize our lives. But because there’s too much good information, too many good opportunities, too many good people to connect with, optimization is not possible. You can make lots of good connections, but you can’t make them all.

Google Glass wants you to believe that you could, that your FOMO could disappear, that Google Glass makes it possible. That you can always be informed and never powerless. You never have to miss out again. The truth is, you will miss out, no matter how hard you try.

Even if Google Glass could optimize your world—what happens when you’re at the optimal party and Google Glass shows you that there’s still something you’re missing? In the world of FOMO alone, ignorance is bliss. In the world of Google Glass, ignorance is a luxury we no longer have.

Or even worse, what happens when you’re wearing Google Glass and nothing pops up? What happens when your life is completely optimized, and there’s nowhere else to be? What happens when Google Glass goes blank and that pang of fear still rises up in you? What happens when you realize that Google Glass did everything right and you still feel like your missing out?

“OK Glass,” you say . . . but you pause. What do you search for now?

C.S. Lewis concluded his King's College lecture “The Inner Ring” with this:

To a young person, just entering on adult life, the world seems full of “insides,” full of delightful intimacies and confidentialities, and he desires to enter them. But if he follows that desire he will reach no “inside” that is worth reaching. The true road lies in quite another direction.

FOMO is a legitimate fear, worth acknowledging and pondering and resolving. Google Glass, meanwhile, wants you to multi-task, and perhaps it can help do that. But to multi-task and to optimize your life in your attempt to overcome FOMO—that will only mask the fear and distract you a little longer. FOMO cannot be assuaged by giving in to it. The true road out of FOMO lies in quite another direction.

Update: "Facebook is the living dead: the most popular, least relevant social network where teenagers and adults alike gather out of fear of missing out on things that don't even make them happy." from Slate, reporting one new research from Pew Internet & American Life Project

Related Article: 
Google Glass and the Future of Friendship