Originally Published in British Airways Business Life magazine in September 2019
The tiniest movements make all the difference. At least that was what I heard when my wife threatened to burn my glasses if I wore them near her again. These aren’t ordinary glasses, of course. They’re the new Focals by North, which with a combination of a special material embedded inside the lens, a very finely tuned laser projector in the frame, and some delicate fitting, look just like regular glasses but give me a heads-up display of pertinent information. I press the little switch on a ring on my right pointer finger, and a display hovers in the middle of my field of view. The time, or the weather forecast, or how close the Uber I just called is, or the walking directions to my next meeting. They are, in private, on my own, really cool. But if I wear them in the house it all goes downhill very quickly. Because although the display only pops up a few words at a time, and right in the middle of my field of view, my eyes subtly shift. It’s only a matter of a millimeter for a few milliseconds, if that, but it’s enough for someone to notice.
It isn’t the gross rudeness of ostentatiously taking my phone out from my pocket in the middle of dinner, or pushing back a cuff to look at my watch during a meeting, and certainly not the combination movement of looking at my watch, then swiping around on its face while apologetically looking back at my conversant as if nothing is happening. It’s just a brief flicker, a saccade, a tiny taking in of the new knowledge and then a return to the present moment. But somehow it enrages far more. In trying to hide, or at least deemphasize the physical impact of, these little informational exchanges on the people around me, these new, more personal interfaces seem to actually make things worse. And certainly angrier.
This isn’t because the alerts I’m getting are trivial. It’s not Twitter, or some faux-important news blast of celeb gossip. Those little pop-ups of information are genuinely life-improving. Knowing that it’s about to start to rain (apps like Dark Skies are almost minute-perfect in this), or that the traffic is getting worse between here and my next appointment, or being able to see texts from a very small list of people I’ve configured it to allow through immediately are all features that have made small but meaningful improvements to my life today alone.
No, the issue seems to be much more immediate than that. It’s not the nature of the information that seems to upset people, nor really the fact that they can’t see it – they can’t see my more regular screens either – but the idea that I have a secret backchannel to the universe.
Augmenting my consciousness with a display that, through a network of connections each entirely simple, reaches out to the tiny spaceships that are watching the clouds nearby, and then allows me to know privately that it’s going to start to rain in 90 seconds is as close to magic as you can get. Someone who had that knowledge a decade ago would have been a savant. A century, a fee-charging curiosity. A millennium ago, burnt as a witch. It’s not surprising that others find it indescribably unnerving.
There seems to be something curious that happens when we take our information closer and closer to our personal experience of the world. New interfaces, like head-up displays, or vibration alerts from watches, or private languages of subtle beeps and tunes from omnipresent airpods, exist to do this: to give us information in a way that bypasses the need to read something from a screen, and instead insert new information directly into our consciousness in the same way as the smell from the kitchen, or the tune from an ice-cream truck does. Without a conscious interpretive step. It’s weirdly unnerving for other people, and we don’t yet have a language to either describe it, or a way to develop an etiquette around it.
But as our devices and our environment become more connected, the possibility to have, say, a special alert pattern of vibrations from your watch triggered by your partner arriving home, and for that alert pattern to be so familiar a thing that we don’t so much notice it happening as just know they are there, is deeply interesting. My glasses still trigger a tiny moment of taking-in and processing, but soon that process could become more and more second nature.
In one way of putting it, a connoisseur is someone who has trained their consciousness to a experience a greater knowledge of the nature of something – wine, coffee, art, whatever – in a way that they cannot explain, but can access. Perhaps the next stage of computing is to make us all like this. Aware of the world around us in whole new ways, but through interfaces we can’t really describe. It won’t be a world of screens. I can just feel it.