Changing the world…but mostly not

A recent July 2013 article in the Guardian caught me eye (and no, not the incredibly depressing one about how the NSA continues to monitor massive swaths of the internet), about how a reporter is using Google Glass to cover protests in Istanbul, is worth a read. I especially liked the use of a quadrocopter, for livestreaming protests from above. It seems like this kind of new technology can be transformative for a journalist, in an age where cameras are already ubiquitous, and live streaming could be a niche of journalism for events and activities that are already very susceptible to state-sponsored bullying (I think the dashboard camera phenomenon in Russia is another version along similar, though kind of wacky, lines).

The point, though, is that this is held up as an amazing application of Google glass. And it is! We have no clear idea about what wearable technologies are going to be like. We do, I think, know what they will be like at first. For the most part, the people who use Google glass are going to be a lot like these folks. What are they doing with it? Googling who the manager of Manchester United is (and his birthday! and a photo!); where is the nearest KFC?; directions to the nearest Crispy Creme; pictures of cats. Mostly it’s going to be ‘record a video.’ And it’s not going to be protesters in Istanbul. It’s going to be the most mundane stuff you already see on Vine (though you want a kind of interesting defense of Vine? here it is).

And the people who are going to make an ecosystem out of it are not journalists, but these folks.

This is not about Google’s glass, per se. I’ve been thinking about this since seeing Apple’s promotional video about 4 apps that are changing the world: a healthcare delivery application for easy use in rural areas; a tech app for altering a prosthetic limb; a language application for preserving at-risk languages and cultures; and a communications app for autistic/non-verbal children (and adults). These apps are insanely amazing. This short video will make you weep with the promise and potential of technology. But if you look at what the most popular, ubiquitous apps are on the iPhone? Games. To-do lists. Social network clients. Weather apps. I own a bunch of these. They are sometimes incredibly well-designed, they improve productivity, they make my time waiting for public transportation bearable, I read a lot more books because of them. But they are tinker tinker tinkering at the very far edges of worldchanging. Or rather, they are worldchanging, but not in ways that will make you weep (well, ok, it may make you weep, but for the wrong reasons).

Maybe this is always the case in technological transformation. The ‘myths’ of tech change are centered around the uplifting, transformative, humanity-saving amazing things that you can now do. And the massive appeal of these technologies is something incredibly mundane, dubiously-valuable, commerically viable, and only obliquely mentioned, if at all, in a separate media channel, or under a different subsidiary brand. It’s Dove Campaign for Real Beauty on the one hand, and the Axe Body spray on the other.

Or, shorter: There are a small number of people who are using technology in ways that are transformative, uplifting, world-changing. And then there are the rest of us.

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