Two visions of our technological future are battling it out this week. Google has released a promotional video celebrating the potential of its astonishing, voice-activated heads-up display Google Glass, complete with acrobats on video chat in mid-air. Meanwhile, the new series of Charlie Brooker’s TV show Black Mirror continues with a bleak satire, White Bear, that shows a world where constant use of videophones serves to distance and brutalise, rather than bring us closer together.
Anyone who has tried to navigate an automated call tree in the blind hope of reaching a human being knows how improved technology can be a curse as well as a blessing. But even if Google Glass doesn’t set fire to your imagination, you don’t have to search far to be reminded that we live in an age of man-made wonders. Download the new Kickstarter app, or look at projects like the 3Doodler, a 3D printer in a pen that lets you draw real objects.
Ironically, a short story from 1895 captures these mixed blessings better, finding a path between the wide-eyed optimism of corporate PR and the savage denunciation of Brooker. The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes was written by sci-fi master HG Wells on the back of popular belief in a paranormal experience called remote viewing. Yet it serves today as a parable of the challenge and the miracle of living with one foot in the real and virtual worlds. It records how Davidson, a Londoner, is suddenly struck with a vision as if standing on an island in the south seas. It is at first compelling and paradisical. But his inability to navigate the London in which he lives, while his eyes see only sand and palm trees, turns the experience into a nightmare. Davidson is eventually cured, only to regret the window to a wider world he has lost.
We all suffer when barriers prevent us from seeing the human face of those who need our help. As a result, the technologies produced by private enterprise reflect our need for better connections. We love our gadgets because they are designed and used to bridge the gaps from person to person. Mobile phones helped some of the doomed passengers of 9/11 say goodbye to their loved ones. Television brings the suffering of strangers on the other side of the world into our living rooms, demanding our attention. Our gadgets can be misused, but they are built to tear down barriers, not to erect them.
Technology, in combination with trade, serves to link the world’s people in a network devoted to serving one another’s needs. Neither offers a cure for life’s tragedies or human folly and vice. Life is not a Google promo. But our recent national scandals of abuse and neglect have revealed the wilderness of inhumanity possible within institutions devoted to public service. We need to be clear-eyed about the darkness we bring with us to the future, however we build it. But we should cheer the larger, richer world technology can show us as well.