The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Google Glass and the Future of Friendship

I drove to my friend Mike’s place in the city a few weeks ago. We’ve been friends for quite a few years now. This wasn’t the first time. I’ve been there repeatedly. But when I made plans to go again, I realized I didn’t actually know how to get there.

Now I’m pretty good with directions, and I had a general sense of which highways I would take. But I didn’t know which exit to take or which streets to turn on. Then I realized why: I’d been using a GPS.

What bothered me was not that I couldn’t get there. My GPS could help me with that again. Rather, what bothered me was that between my house and his, there was a path that connected us, but I knew it not. Somehow I felt farther away at that point—physically, yes, but somehow also emotionally. Lacking an internal map left me disconnected.

We often dismiss a “feeling” like this simply because it can’t be substantiated or quantified, but such dismissiveness seems narrow-minded. Humans are much more complex than any yardstick could measure. Knowing those streets mattered. Often, when we leave, knowing that we can still return is what gives us the confidence to leave in the first place. We need maps, and we need this inside us, not just in an atlas.

Maps are nothing new, though. They have been around for thousands of years. But geographic maps are only one kind of map. Tables of Contents are maps to a book. Sheet music is a map to a song. Wiring schematics are maps to electrical circuits. IKEA how-to manuals are maps to building furniture. And now we can add another map to our list: Facebook.

Facebook is a map to you and to me—to our personalities. Our profiles, just like maps, help others to explore us. And just like maps, they include only selected information. Facebook constructs these maps using every point we plot on them. Just like the route of a river, we post status updates that define perimeters to our personalities. Just like hills, valleys, and mountains, we post photos and tag ourselves and our friends. Just like roads, we “like” brands and books and restaurants and celebrities. We are making maps of ourselves.

And so, over time, our Facebook profiles become maps that others can use. People can look at our Facebook maps and get a sense of how to navigate us. You like Johnny Cash or Justin Timberlake? Topic of conversation. You went to a Cubs game or your nephew’s indoor soccer match? I saw your photos on Facebook. You just had a baby or got married? I really enjoyed hearing your thoughts about that. We use Facebook to navigate people.

For now, we’re okay with this, although perhaps some will feel uneasy at the idea that Facebook is a map. But let’s take the next step: Remember the GPS?

Just as Garmin and Google turned paper maps into GPS tools, will Facebook ever turn its profile maps into something more dynamic? Will we ever have a GPS for people? If Facebook Home is any indication, the answer is yes.

To explore just what that could mean, let me suggest another analogy for what Facebook is.
I’ve written elsewhere about how our clothing can change the way we think. Not just what we think, but also how (link). Put on a doctor’s white lab coat and you will be more attentive to the task in front of you. But sometimes we take clothing to a whole new level and call it a costume. Writing about Las Vegas (link), Jesse Elias Spafford describes the various costumes that tourists put on while visiting the city. And costumes need not only be clothing. Spafford describes alcohol as a sort of “liquid costume.” Apart from alcohol’s physical effects, people with drinks in hand, actually act more drunk than they really are, just by holding the beverage. Like I said, humans are complex.

Flickr: delgrosso
In light of all this, I would suggest that, with Facebook, we have a new kind of clothing: the “digital costume.” We put on our profiles and wear them for others. Not only online, but also offline. Facebook profiles are not discrete segments set apart from our “real lives.” Two weeks ago, a newly minted Facebook friend said to me, “When you become friends with someone on Facebook, you see this whole other side of them. You get to know them better.” Our Facebook posts shape how people see us offline as well. The two worlds are connected. Our online profiles are now our digital costumes.

Perhaps calling Facebook “a digital costume” seems a bit far fetched, but it may not be for long. Google is pushing its Glass project quite hard. Some are skeptical about whether it will succeed, but some version of it probably will. This is Google we’re talking about. Whatever version we end up with, imagine the day when Facebook is integrated into it; all the profile data available from Facebook will suddenly pop up around each object—i.e., person—in  Google Glass’s visual field. You’ll no longer simply see people wearing clothes; you’ll see people wearing data. Data will be the new dress code. Once others see us dressed up in it, data will become a new fashion statement. Big data gurus will be the new Ralph Laurens. The runways of Paris will pass through Silicon Valley.

When Google Glass integrates Facebook profiles visually, we will finally see Facebook for what it is: a digital costume. It is that already, but we will need Google Glasses to see it.

If you have your doubts about just how much data Facebook could outfit you with, consider this: Cambridge researchers analyzed the “likes” of 58,000 U.S. users—just “likes,” nothing else (link). Using a psychometric toolkit, these researchers reliably predicted other, seemingly unrelated personality details. For example, “liking” curly fries was linked to having a higher IQ. (After this news came out, there was a surge in “liking” curly fries.)

What if a similar toolkit became an app integrated into Google Glasses? Imagine walking into a bar. Everyone would turn and look, and your data accessories might include things like this:
Republican—85% probability 
Muslim—82% probability 
Single—65% probability 
Gay—88% probability 
Substance abuse—73% probability 
Divorced parents—60% probability
The Cambridge researchers described these inferences as reliable enough to be “worthwhile for advertisers.” But what about when you go to that party where you don’t know anyone? What about the job interview you’re preparing for? And when your friend asks what you’re wearing to the wedding, what will you tell her?

If you think this is far-fetched, consider this imagined future, written by advocates for things like Google Glass (link):
Think about this scenario: You see someone at a party you like; his social profile is immediately projected onto your retina--great, a 92% match. By staring at him for two seconds, you trigger a pairing protocol. He knows you want to pair, because you are now glowing slightly red in his retina screen. Then you slide your tongue over your left incisor and press gently. This makes his left incisor tingle slightly. He responds by touching it. The pairing protocol is completed.

This leads us back to Facebook as a map. In the same way that we will wear our data, our Facebook profiles will be the maps for navigating the social scene. Integrated with Facebook, Google Glass could eventually provide on-the-go social navigation. We’ll be able to learn about people on the fly—like GPS does now. You will plug in your destination, and Google Glass will help you get there; I’m not talking about places but about people. You’ll immediately know whether you share common interests, common politics, common TV shows, or common families histories. Or whether you have nothing at all in common. If that’s the case, why bother getting to know them?

Once the digital costume arrives in stores, and once we use Facebook like a GPS, will I feel the same kind of disconnect I felt this week driving to my friend Mike’s house? Will I feel that intangible-but-real isolation from those I care about? Navigating highways takes one kind of memory; but navigating personalities is much more complex.

Flickr: Serenae
New research published in Psychological Science shows connecting face-to-face has positive biological effects. One of the researchers concluded, “If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face-to-face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so” (link). If Google Glass provides me with explicit directions for navigating the personality of a friend, why depend on the subtleties of facial expressions? Once I am as used to Glass as I’ve become to GPS, will I still be able to relate without Facebook’s GPS?

The fact that I’m even talking about “navigating my friend” at all reveals how easy it is to make a person into an object. Tools like GPS, Google Glass, and Facebook give us a new language to use. “Liking” meant something less specific a decade ago. Maybe in another decade, “navigating” will too.

CS Lewis wrote about friendship in his book, The Four Loves:
You become a man’s Friend without knowing or caring whether he is married or single or how he earns his living. What have all these “unconcerning things, matters of fact” to do with the real question, Do you see the same truth? . . . That is the kingliness of Friendship. We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts. . . . It is an affair of disentangled, or stripped, minds. Eros [erotic love] will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities.
With Google Glass, these naked personalities will digitally costumed. With Facebook, they already are. Why? Because all these technologies can offer is context. All data and clothing is context. There is no friend that is naked on Facebook. He is shrouded with data.

This isn’t simply a vision of the future when we all wear Google Glasses; it may or may not come to pass. In reality, this vision is already true today. Facebook is a map. It is context. It is the clothing we wear. Friendship, the kingly kind that Lewis praises, is already much harder to find. Today, two digital costumes “friend” each other on Facebook. It precludes such a kingliness of Friendship before it can begin. As Lewis would say, “It castrates and bids the gelding be fruitful.”

But perhaps, someday, we will be looking around, through our data-colored glasses and find two men for whom no data pops up. They will be sitting in a pub clinking beers and talking. We will look away, slightly embarrassed, as though they were naked. But then, we will turn and look a bit longer, even stare, just as though they were naked indeed. For they will be bare of data, stripped of Facebook, of all the context except the clothes they’re wearing and the beers they’re drinking. And they will be sitting there together, kings on the frontier of a long-abandoned land.

- Facebook launched its first app for Google Glass. Read more here.
- Facial recognition is already a possibility in Google Glass. The motive? To help doctors pull up medical records for patients. Read more here and here

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