If you think we're hooked on social status updates now, just wait. As connected computing starts to shift from our pockets to wearable devices like Google Glass and Apple's rumored iWatch, the flood of messages and bite-sized digital content is going to become even more relentless.
Just like smartphones, these devices will have a transformative impact on things like communication, navigation and productivity. But some are concerned that, like their pocket-sized counterparts, wearables could increase our reliance on technology in unhealthy ways.
The First Step: Admitting We Have A Problem
It's now beyond debate that owners of mobile devices like smartphones and tablets often exhibit something resembling an addiction to those gadgets. It may not be as serious as something like alcohol or crystal meth, but it's a type of dependence nonetheless. Sure, some of the press coverage of this topic may be overblown, but the science supporting the existence of widespread smartphone addiction keeps piling up. If that's not convincing enough, just look around.
A few weeks ago, I was waiting for a table in a crowded restaurant. As I sat on the bench, I couldn't help but notice the scene next to me: An entire family - mother, father and three kids - were all sitting in total silence, each of them staring intently into little glowing screens. Not once over the course of several minutes did any of them look up from their devices or say a word. Of course, I only noticed this family of smartphone zombies because, for once, I wasn't glued to my own phone.
Scenes like this are incredibly common these days. Sometimes, they're short-lived and innocent. In some cases, relationships, productivity and mental health can become strained. Evidently, we haven't yet figured out how to best fit these amazing little computers into our lives. While we've had no trouble discovering all kinds of beneficial uses for them, many of us have a hard time knowing when not to use them.
What makes us think we're prepared to wear computers on our faces and wrists?
That's precisely the question some psychologists are asking. Larry Rosen is a research psychologist at California State University and author of iDisorder, a book about the psychological impacts of technology, particularly as our reliance on it increases.
"We are already so distractible, checking in with our technology all day long," says Dr. Rosen. "When we don't have to reach into our pockets or our purses, we will be even more enmeshed and face even more obsession and compulsion."
With wearable devices, checking messages and updates not only becomes physically easier, but it will also be less noticeable to those around us. For human beings, pulling a small rectangle-shaped device out of our pockets and interacting with it is a relatively new behavior. Looking down at our watches is not, and thus it's less conspicuous. Sure, it would still be obvious and unusual if I were to look at my watch dozens of times in an hour, not to mention periodically swipe its touch screen. But by even slightly reducing the physical barrier to interacting with the digital world, we're ensuring we'll do it more.
Mainlining The Internet Directly Into Our Eyeballs
Head-mounted computers are a little different. For one, they're not intended for everybody. Not yet, anyway. When Google Glass first hits the market, we'll know (and probably disapprove) if somebody is wearing it at the dinner table. Early Glass users won't be able to use them whenever and wherever they please. But when they do use it, they'll be developing new digital habits. Instead of compulsively checking Facebook on their phones, they'll be able to mainline status updates and notifications directly into their eyeballs.
For awhile, the obvious design of products like Glass will limit their use, and thus curtail whatever disruptive effects they might have. But what happens when head-mounted computers become more seamlessly designed into normal glasses frames? Eventually, we'll have connected contact lenses. Hopefully we'll have enough time before their arrival to figure out some of the glaring social and psychological issues these technologies raise.
In the meantime, there's plenty to be excited about. As Sarah Rotmann Epps outlined recently, wearable devices can be hugely beneficial to our lives, especially if they're designed with our brains' limitations in mind. And while Google Glass raises a number of weird social questions, there are lots of very compelling use cases for the device.
It's like any major advance in technology: There are going to be issues. The tech is going to evolve more rapidly than laws, etiquette or certainly the human brain itself. The era of wearable computing is coming regardless of how ready we are.