A few days ago I watched this advertisement for Microsoft HoloLens, a project now manifested in Microsoft’s previously top-secret holographic goggles which, according to their website, is designed with the intent of “seamlessly” connecting “our digital lives… with real life.” Wired reporter Jessi Hempel writes: “Project HoloLen’s key achievement—realistic holograms—works by tricking your brain into seeing light as matter…” Alex Kipman, the mastermind behind HoloLensm explains… “You essentially hallucinate the world, or you see what your mind wants you to see.” Interesting, I thought. Curious to find out more, I clicked on the video advertisement on Microsoft’s webpage for this seemingly revolutionary advancement in technology.
“Look around,” said the unidentified and unsettlingly omniscient (but ultimately optimistic) male voice. “Technology is all around us. We use it in every aspect of our lives. It enables us to do amazing things. But what if we could go further? What if we could go beyond the screen?” Suddenly the previous black-and-white scenes disappear to reveal a Technicolor world—one in which your technological world seamlessly becomes your reality. From here we watch a man stroll through his kitchen, seeing the holograms that he would see with his nifty HoloLens: to-do lists, his music, Skype and gaming options. Everything is at his fingertips! We see female engineers and businesswomen using their high-fashion HoloLenses to complement their outfits and their knack for design and business. A scientist looks at a hologram of Mars. (Mars, you guys!) A hipster father designs a rocket that his kid drew. We then return to a man in his apartment, sitting on his highly fashionable red footstool watching his hologram Netflix. It is not until I see his hologram dog that I realize my face has been scrunched up in skepticism for the past two minutes and 12 seconds.
Before I say anything more, I should probably reveal my biases. I am a user of technology, but not a fanatic. I like using my iPhone and Facebook, but I don’t understand Twitter or how to fix problems on my computer. I am grateful for scientific advancements, particularly in medicine, and I certainly see the value of science being a way to improve someone’s quality of life. But there are many parts of technology I do not like: I am an anti-Kindle advocate, a supporter of taking notes by hand and nostalgic for the days when I wasn’t able to check my email constantly. I like using technology when I see the true benefit in it or, more specifically, when it can accomplish tasks that I, or other humans for that matter, cannot. For example, it is easier for me to Skype a friend in Edinburgh than to fly there every weekend. Skype, however, does not bleed into my reality; it is something I am distant from. Alternatively, I see Kindles as a device that accomplish something I already have: books. The technology I enjoy and support are ones that have limitations against my reality and that achieve the tasks I would be otherwise unable to.
Despite this, I can also empathize with the plight of transforming sci-fi into sci-reality—after all, I’m still waiting for my floating car to magically appear—and, most importantly, I understand that technology is not going anywhere. As a history and literary buff, I am well aware of the history of technological advancements and I realize that our current generation is just one of many who has or will experience a technological revolution. For example, in her recently published memoir, “Yes Please,” Amy Poehler even wrote about how, in the early 1990s, she didn’t believe cell phones were going to catch on or that she would ever bother getting one. Technology changes as humans do and we learn to assimilate them into our environments. I get it. So before you say “Maureen, geez. Just get hip with the times already!”, just know that, fundamentally, I understand that the desire for progress is imbedded in humans and it’s only a matter of time before my flying car hovers in my driveway.
With this in mind, I clicked on another video on Microsoft’s webpage. The video was voiced by people who appeared to be Microsoft designers and employees (their names and whether or not they were actors were never specified) and their statements on the relationship between technology and life. “What we are really trying to do,” one bearded man said amidst a softly lit and inviting background, “is break down the walls between technology and people.” A shot of a white-board in a creative-looking office space shows phrases like “Holograms are amazing” and “Holograms are real”. People are shown happily creating things in their offices; collaboratively knocking their heads together to design the next big thing. These are supposedly the statements of the brightest revolutionary tech-folks; the smiling faces of those who believe that faster is progress is better. The clip ended, but there it was again: my skeptical face, the anxious feeling in my gut. A quote by Swiss novelist Max Frisch came to mind: “Technology is a way of organizing the universe so that man doesn’t have to experience it.”
Au contraire! you might be shouting at your screen. Blasphemy! How could you think such a thing? And part of me agrees with you. I have already contradicted the claim that technology equals checking out of reality, right? I write and publish thoughts via the interwebs in the hopes of connecting with others. I use Skype, Facebook and Instagram to experience interactions with people thousands of miles away. I, arguably, can serve as an example to the very claim I wish to argue against: that technology is becoming a way for us to lose our connection with people and reality. But the use of technology is not what I think is at stake here. It’s easy to look at new technology amidst commercials that contain flattering lights, smiley-happy designers, chic and simplistic design and instrumental music that is either light and fluffy or empowering (in the case of HoloLens, the musical styling of Imagine Dragons). It is easy to say “Technology is Progress is Faster is Better.” It is easy to say words and phrases like “Instant” and “Globally Connected” with a sense of pride and accomplishment.
But I want you to think about the last shot in the HoloLens ad for a second and really picture it. A man, probably in his late twenties or early thirties, sits down in his apartment. We see what he sees: his well-furnished apartment, artistically-organized books, his large dining room table which suggests he has friends that will likely come over for dinner later. But then there’s this hologram dog. His companion is artificial, and it is this that truly upset me. What’s next? Hologram friends? Hologram relationships? The man sees all these things with his HoloLens, but if he takes them off, his reality is different. Things are emptier and lonelier. What’s this man’s reality now? The HoloLens world or his empty apartment? When I watched this advertisement, all I could think about was what happens after we take the HoloLenses off and what our realities will look like then. In many ways technology has overcome cultural and geographic barriers, but in this instance I fear that we are creating a wider gap between interacting with people under the guise of technological advancement. There is no supplement to face-to-face interaction or to petting your dog when you walk through your door. Furthermore, I found myself unconvinced that HoloLenses were something I needed. How is having a pair better than using your phone or computer? While I certainly cannot answer for everyone, I simply could not justify the use of a product that created a false reality; a product that seems innovative, but lacks in convincing me of its necessity.
These questions can, and are, starting points for intense debate. Just how far is too far when it comes to technology? We all have various opinions and it’s not as if Big Brother is finally here. But sometimes it seems like it is coming sooner than we think. I don’t worry that we aren’t thinking creatively enough or that we are subjecting the human race to the beginnings of a path to unintended ruin, but sometimes I worry that we aren’t asking the right questions. Kipman’s pursuit of a hallucinatory world may sound all fine and dandy and Microsoft may have a killer advertising team, but ask yourself to what extent should our technological world bleed into our current sense of reality? How much is too much? I certainly do not have the answers to all these questions, but I think it is always worthwhile to ask what we really need as people and as users of technology to truly create a better world?