A week on from SXSW’s Google Glass showcase and the media’s been awash with fears over the privacy implications, the technical ramifications and the concentration of so much power in a single corporation’s hands. ‘The person next to you isn’t just a commuter any more,’ wrote The Mail, ‘they’re a Google agent.’ ‘Orwellian surveillance with fluffier branding,’ said The Telegraph. But another theme emerged as well, the issue of safety: putting a screen directly in a person’s field of view will quickly lead to people running into roles, wrote Mashable, and anything that takes away a viewer’s attention from what’s in front of him is dangerous.
The arguments quickly merged into a familiar hue, that of our increasing reliance upon devices over our own senses, and that any misdirection from Glass could lead us into harm. It’s a news story we’ve all heard before, most ubiquitously regarding coverage of sat-nav errors leading drivers into walls or oncoming traffic. Tragedies, certainly, but not without their upside, namely a cleansing of the gene pool: if your driving ability is reliant upon an image on a glass screen then perhaps taking you off of the road is nature’s way.
And yet these are reported as though technology is somehow to blame. The angle here is all wrong: these aren’t cases of technology threatening our lives – it’s a dire reminder of the morons living amongst us, sharing our space and breathing our air. ‘She insisted the satnav system was to blame,’ said a rescuer of an Austrian woman who had followed driving instructions into a lake, with commentators calling for safer systems to prevent this from happening again.
But if we care – really care – about society we shouldn’t want safer systems: we shouldn’t be making sat-navs more reliable, we should be programming them to guide us into ravines. Not all the time, obviously – that would be silly – but maybe every hundred journeys or so, just to keep us on our toes. Of course, not all of us live near ravines, so there will need to be some localisation: swamps, wildlife enclosures, sinkholes, volcanoes, take your pick. Just somewhere out of the way, where you’re not going to make too much of a mess.
Look around and it’s not hard to see that there’s a problem. There’s too many of us. We’re everywhere, the detritus of a a few minutes’ clumsy passion churned forth into a world that’s rapidly becoming dumber, the enlightenment unravelling around us at a frightening pace. Observe the forms making their way along the street, backs hunched over as they stare into smartphones, and just try to fit them into Darwin’s theories. We’re becoming The Missing Link for our own evolution.
We’re living in a time where tapping a screen a few dozen times makes food appear at our houses, where values and causes have been distilled into a blue thumbs-up, where registering dissent is pretty much restricted to 140 characters. Each day brings new ways to waste our time staring at pixels and transform human contact into megabytes, keeping our relationships at arm’s length. Medicine and science extends our lives way past the point where we’ve any use beyond consuming stuff, and we’ve long since smoothed away any major threats to our livelihood.
And that’s the issue. Bereft of the threats that our forebears faced we no longer really need to think, and what minor challenges we do face are steadily being eroded: I barely need to remember my debit card pin anymore since merely holding it in front of a sensor is sufficient for most payments. Even that’s beginning to seem an unreasonable chore.
Perhaps we need those threats back again. I’m done with this society that keeps wrapping us in wool – if heading outside were more dangerous maybe we wouldn’t be so fucking bored, you know. Five hundred years ago people had highwaymen and plagues and fires that took out whole cities: it’s very hard not to think of those as golden times. Sure, people died, but that’s what all people do eventually – and besides, I’d rather live my final moments fleeing pirates than expiring through the negligence of some inebriate carer in a crumbling Eastbourne nursing home.
So, where to start. Shopping. Right now it’s a dreadful trauma of striplighting and dead-eyed assistants, of self-checkouts yelling passive-aggressively about bagging areas. How much better they would be if we introduced a lion – just one, prowling the aisles of Tesco and Sainsburys and Waitrose and all the rest. A tannoy announcement would relay its position as you enter the store: Welcome to Tescos. The lion is currently in aisle six. How much do you really want that Mars Bar, huh? Prove it.
Think how much just this one simple act would improve the experience. No more dallying in front of the custard agonising over the vanilla or the low-fat variants, nor unfocused grazing through the confectionary section weighing up the relative appeal of whichever conduits for sugar catch your eye. Two for one? Fuck it, there’s no time: I can hear him breathing, dammit.
We might not have to kill our food ourselves anymore but that’s no reason why we shouldn’t have to work for it. Let’s get some pride back into our mealtimes, shall we, and make Grace mean something: thank you for this food, daddy, and we hope you recover soon. Let’s eliminate food-waste in one fell swoop – because we’re sure as hell not going to throw away anything that we damn near lost a leg to get. Let’s disincentivise obesity, and give our captive wildlife back a sense of purpose.
But this is just a start. Let’s not pretend that all of our problems can be solved just through putting a few lions in supermarkets: the rot is far too rooted for that. We all know that commerce is changing and that our high streets are pretty much just catalogues now, fluffing us up for Amazon, and we’re all familiar with the issues this brings: tax-dodging, a culture of low-wages, the de-enrichment of our towns and communities. But it’s not enough to just say don’t buy online – we need to be weaned off. But how? Snakes. Black Mambas, Death Adders, Cobras and Vipers, randomly shipped in 10% of internet purchases. By all means take advantage of the free shipping and the 40% off RRP – you just need to accept the risks, and take care opening that box, y’hear. It’s such an obvious reform that it’s a wonder we haven’t thought of it already.
But it still isn’t enough. When our coffee cups have to warn us that their contents might be hot and our cliff edges come replete with signage warning us that falling might be dangerous then there remains work to be done, but the path is there for us if we just choose to take it. And that path is one without these fucking signs. Don’t warn me that there’s a hole in the pavement coming up: it should be my prerogative to look where I’m going. Take away the barriers and the orange lights and if by the end of the week we’ve got a pile of bodies in there then we know we’re moving forward. The same applies to the guardrails at zoos and on the observation decks of tall buildings: just think of all the good The Shard could do for us. All we’d need is a trench at the bottom and some plumbing for drainage – heck, now we’re all off horse there’s a clear market gap for a reliable source of meat, and this could really deliver.
As things are we’re thwarting nature at every turn. Life expectancy’s rising, with today’s toddlers facing above-average odds of seeing their centenary and a few of them half again, and food’s fast running out. And yet we’re hampering the wastage, enclosing ourselves in ever-safer spaces with airbags and roll-bars and proximity alarms and sprinkler systems and panic rooms and life-support machines and for what – so we can stare at screens a little longer? Get through that boxset? Make it through to that summer festival you’ve got tickets for? Most of us – what the hell are we doing anyway? We’ve been anesthetised into a stasis, an endlessly-cycling to-do list of drudgery and consumption where the only real measurable change is the accumulation of dust of the top of our cupboards. If that’s how it’s going to be then we might as well clear some space.
And maybe, somewhere along the line, we’ll get our heartrates up a bit again and start paying attention to what’s around us, stop taking our lives for granted and begin actually fighting for the privilege of breathing again. That would be a step forward, provided we’ve checked the ground ahead for traps.