The Mounting Dangers of Our Ever-Increasing Dependence on Electronics

Posted on July 19, 2012


Yesterday I ran across the story of Steve Mann, who was assaulted and forcibly ejected from the McDonald’s in Paris, France on account of his wearable computing device, the EyeTap.  Dr. Mann is an engineer who has been working on “wearable computing” and “augmented reality” devices for decades, and has actually been wearing the EyeTap (or earlier versions) since 1999 as part of his research.  It is similar to, and long predates, the prototype Google Glass.  But, well, who knew that McDonald’s was a high-security, no-cameras-allowed zone?  Who knew that the menu was top secret, as traveler Penny Sheldon learned in 2010?

This incident points up some interesting considerations.  First off, whatever French McDonald’s employees may think, privacy has become a quaint and outdated notion.  It is not only the legions of security cameras everywhere that watch our every move; practically everyone these days carries a video-enabled cell phone camera, with which they can upload hilarious images of you picking your nose, or perhaps video of your child’s tantrum in the supermarket.  Generally, we are not protected against this kind of intrusiveness in any public place, so watch yourself!  Or, alternatively, stop caring what anyone thinks of your latest public foibles.  After all, it’s only going to get worse as things like Google Glass come along, and people will graduate from wearing ear gadgets like Star Trek‘s Lt. Uhura and holding their phones in front of their faces, to just wearing their devices… all. the. friggin’. time.

The issue of swiftly declining expectations of privacy actually pales in comparison to another problem, which came to light when Dr. Mann ran into difficulties with airport security in Canada in 2002.  It was that early post-9/11 period when it seemed that security requirements changed by the minute.  Although he was allowed to keep his gadgets on his outbound flight, security personnel were having none of that for the return flight.  In the end, he was forced to remove this augmented-reality device that he had been wearing (I believe) since 1999 – every waking moment, for approximately three years.  Lisa Guernsey describes the result in her article in The New York Times:

“Without a fully functional system, he said, he found it difficult to navigate normally. He said he fell at least twice in the airport, once passing out after hitting his head on what he described as a pile of fire extinguishers in his way. He boarded the plane in a wheelchair.  ‘I felt dizzy and disoriented and went downhill from there,’ he said….  Since losing the use of his vision system and computer memory several weeks ago, he said, he cannot concentrate and is behaving differently. He is now undergoing tests to determine whether his brain has been affected by the sudden detachment from the technology.”

This is much worse than I imagined.  I have noticed that with GPS, we lose our ability to navigate like we used to; with cell phones, we lose our ability to remember friends’ phone numbers; with round-the-clock connectivity, we lose our ability to be patient, to be attentive to our friends, or indeed, to notice anything around us.  I did not imagine that we would be dizzy, unable to walk, and need wheelchairs upon being disconnected from our devices of the future.

Who the heck would want to be like this?  If you are visually impaired and the technology helps you, it could be a great thing.  But I think Dr. Mann’s experience shows that if your senses are normal, then wearing a reality-augmentation device all the time actually cripples you.  Think we got problems with people texting and driving now?  Imagine a world where everyone with a wearable device becomes so dependent on it that they can’t even function normally without it.  The question then will be far more complex than simple bans on distracted driving; what do we do with people who can’t even walk normally without their devices?  Do we say they can only drive while attached to their devices?  Or that they can never drive again?  Do we force everyone to get autonomous cars?

I just can’t wait for the future.  I’m so excited about it, I think my next car may be a Model A Ford.