Friday, August 2, 2013

When the Interface Gets In Your Face

Gary Shteyngart's very good
"O.K., Glass: Confessions of a Google Glass Explorer" 
is in the Aug. 5, 2013 New Yorker
Socrates warned that the spread of writing would be disastrous for the life of the mind. Readers would grow lazy, he predicted, and no longer internalize knowledge. If they didn't memorize important information and wisdom, their grasp would be superficial at best. They might have access to texts, and even read them once in a while, but that would be an anemic kind of knowing, if it was knowing at all. Does the fact that we love books today mean that mean Socrates was wrong? No. It may be the nature of the loss that we simply can’t remember what it was like when the essential knowledge was stored in our heads. But for a taste, think of the difference between reading a great poem and knowing it by heart. We downplay the difference; but maybe it is key.

At the same time as more and more of our memory, knowledge, and wisdom is stored on disks and in servers outside of our heads, the devices that we use to access the stuff are moving brainward once again. PCs keep our stores of valuable knowledge within a few feet of our heads most of the day. Smartphones put our important memories in our pockets and Bluetooth devices beam the interface right up to our ears. Now Google Glass puts our mental prosthetics closer still, placing the interface on the face, just a fraction of an inch from the brain itself.The woman wearing Google Glass might not know that poem, but she can call it up any time. And to all the world it may look like she does know it. 

Soon enough, brain-computer interfaces will bring the device inside the body, perhaps even merging it seamlessly with the brain. In that case, will she "know" the poem again, even though she herself never memorized it and even though it doesn't reside in the organic part of her head? Does it matter if the memory is stored in gray matter or silicon?  whether it is hippocampal or digital? We can philosophize all we want, but to really know we will just have to wait and see what it feels like to remember something we never knew, to know something we never learned. Beware though, by then we might not even remember the pleasure of knowing for ourselves.