First published February 28, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
Call it a Tipping Point. Call it an Inflection Point. Call it Epochal (what ever that means). The gist is, things are going to change — and they’re going to change in a big, big way!
First, with due deference to the brilliant Kevin Kelley, let’s look at how technology moves. In his book “What Technology Wants,” Kelley shows that technology is not dependent on a single invention or inventor. Rather, it’s the sum of multiple, incremental discoveries that move technology to a point where it can breach any resistance in its way and move into a new era of possibility. So, even if Edison had never lived, we’d still have electric lights in our home. If he weren’t there, somebody else would have discovered it (or more correctly, perfected it). The momentum of technology would not have been denied.
Several recent developments indicate that we’re on the cusp of another technological wave of advancement. These developments have little to do with online technologies or capabilities. They’re centered on how humans and hardware connect — and it’s impossible to overstate their importance.
The Bottleneck of Our Brains
Over the past two decades, there has been a massive build-up of online capabilities. In this case, what technology has wanted is the digitization of all information. That was Step One. Step Two is to render all that information functional. Step Three will be to make all the functionality personalized. And we’re progressing quite nicely down that path, thank you very much. The rapidly expanding capabilities of online far surpass what we are able to assimilate and use at any one time. All this functionality is still fragmented and is in the process of being developed (one of the reasons I think Facebook is in danger of becoming irrelevant) but it’s there. It’s just a pain in the butt for us to utilize it.
The problem is one of cognition. The brain has two ways to process information, one fast and one slow. The slow way (using our conscious parts of the brain) is tremendously flexible but inefficient. This is the system we’ve largely used to connect online. Everything has to be processed in the form of text, both in terms of output and input, generally through a keyboard and a screen display. It’s the easiest way for us to connect with information, but it’s far from the most efficient way.
The second way is much, much faster. It’s the subconscious processing of our environment that we do everyday. It’s what causes us to duck when a ball is thrown at our head, jump out of the way of an oncoming bus, fiercely protect our children and judge the trustworthiness of a complete stranger. If our brains were icebergs, this would be the 90% hidden beneath the water. But we’ve been unable to access most of this inherent efficiency and apply it to our online interactions — until now.
The Importance of Siri and Glass
Say what you want about Mark Zuckerberg, he’s damned smart. That’s why he knew immediately that Google Glass is important.
I don’t know if Google Glass will be a home run for Google. I also don’t know if Siri will every pay back Apple’s investment in it. But I do know that 30 years from now, they’ll both be considered important milestones. And they’ll be important because they were representative of a sea change in how we connect with information. Both have the potential to unlock the efficiency of the subconscious brain. Siri does it by utilizing our inherent communication abilities and breaking the inefficient link that requires us not only to process our thoughts as language, but also laboriously translate them into keystrokes. In neural terms, this is one of the most inefficient paths imaginable.
But if Siri teases us with a potentially more efficient path, Google Glass introduces a new, mind-blowing scenario of what might be possible. To parse environment cues and stream information directly into our visual cortex in real time, creating a direct link with all that pent-up functionality that lives “in the cloud,” wipes away most of the inefficiency of our current connection paradigm.
Don’t think of the current implementation that Google is publicizing. Think beyond that to a much more elegant link between the vast capabilities of a digitized world and our own inner consciousness. Whatever Glass and Siri (and their competitors) eventually evolve into in the next decade or so, they will be far beyond what we’re considering today.
With the humanization of these interfaces, a potentially dark side effect will take place. These interfaces will become hardwired into our behavior strategies. Now, because our online interactions are largely processed at a conscious level, the brain tends to maintain maximum flexibility regarding the routines it uses. But as we access subconscious levels of processing with new interface opportunities, the brain will embed these at a similarly subconscious level. They will become habitual, playing out without conscious intervention. It’s the only way the brain can maximize its efficiency. When this happens, we will become dependent on these technological interfaces. It’s the price we’ll pay for the increased efficiency.