"Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,' said Scrooge. ’But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me."
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)
I’ve just seen ‘The Future’, and I’m a little uncertain how to feel about it.
Of course, seeing the future is a little unnerving. Sure, it quickens the pulse and gets you giddy and speculating, but it spooks in that you're learning that your world is changing.
I attended a Google product demonstration the other week. I didn't have to hitch my wagon to a trail heading West. Mountain View came to me. Google's demos are on a world tour, taking up London residence in a customised town house on Fitzroy Square.
You receive an invite, an address, the proposal of an early evening gathering, and in failing light you duly rap on the brass G door knocker, stepping across a threshold to discover... ‘The Future’ has a W1 postcode.
The experience would have been rewarding for anyone merely a fan of architecture, high end interiors, or members clubs – but before we explores Google’s ‘Townhouse of Tomorrow/Today’, let’s time-rewind a little, join a few temporal data points, and consider how we reached this moment.
FOUR POINTS IN TIME
The Prologue, let me suggest, is set in the land of late 80’s power dressing and executive fleet cars. In 1989, when Charles Dunstone launched The Carphone Warehouse, he was looking no further into a future than where a phone-in-your-home was naturally scale-able to a phone-in-your-car.
Only Dunstone, along with pretty much everyone else, wasn’t thinking big enough. Phones in cars became phones in pockets became internet-connected smartphones – but where early iterations felt Neolithic, blunt and ineffectual compared to what we're now on the cusp of.
But I’ve already time-skipped ahead too soon. Another rewind. Post prologue, to Christmas Day. Tim Berners-Lee, a contracted scientist at CERN, is working on project ‘WorldWideWeb’. Berners-Lee sends the first successful HTML missive on December 25th 1990. While so many of us were tucking into our turkey, no one could have appreciated this revolutionary trigger pull... in the shape of a Return key. There was no popping sound. Certainly no grand explosion. Just an email - that started a seismic Earth shake.
Now adjust the time-dial. Fast forward 7 years. Larry Page and Sergey Brin are still in their Stanford days. ‘Google’ is a garage band style project, operating out of a garage. On September 15th 1997, Page and Brin register the domain name ‘Google.com’.
Fast forward 16 years. January 2013: Google announces earnings of $50 billion in annual revenue for the year of 2012.(Source: Wikipedia)
1989, 1990, 1997, 2013, four points in time. Joined. You could even make it a square, imagine it as a screen.
From the Baby Boomers onwards, no one screaming into the light anytime from 1946 to 1996 could, hand on heart, have said, “Yeah, I'll be living through a Revolution equal to and as major as the Industrial Revolution. I reckon The Digital Revolution is going to make The Jetsons seem like The Flintstones.”
Time to hop out of our time machine (yes, it can be a De Lorean if you like). Parked up in ‘The Now’ of Fitzroy Square (single yellow’s are fine at this time of night), let’s return to the warmth of Google House’... where it’s clear that The Jetsons has become techno retro.
First rate theatre aside, Google’s ‘Townhouse Demonstrations’ really demonstrate one thing: the mobile phone has progressed to a Higher Purpose; is set to become an even more ambitious form of "Life Support". While it’s been the over-eager ‘Year of the Mobile’ every year for about the last 5 years, 2014 might just be the year the declaration becomes bona fide.
Smartphones are at last getting genuinely smart, and Google’s voice activated search moves the whole game on. For almost everyone, soon, talking into our phones will become talking to our phones, with the major change being that they’ll talk back to us.
Yes, our Sat Nav’s already talk at us, but Google’s iOS Search App is more like an oracle or intermediary or translator.
The App download copy runs with: “Just say “Ok Google” or touch the mic to begin. You’ll also get answers before you ask”.
While pre-emptive search results is impressive, it’s small fry when compared to your phone’s newly coded ability to aurally translate one language into another, within a heartbeat of utterance.
“Phone as instant translator” is really rather mind blowing. Though I appreciate, give it a year or so, and it’ll become part of our digital second nature. In the same way that I’d suggest email has helped improve the writing skills of an entire generation, I wonder whether Google will inadvertently turn us all into slightly better linguists?
But this is no time to ponder, because the ‘Future Fun’ in Fitzroy Square doesn’t stop with phones that talk back. In the attic there’s Google Glass to try out.
The ginger bearded Google-ite (a twenty-something West-coaster with laid-back smarts) gives the crash course and happily admits, “The experience is a little hard to explain”. He’s not wrong.
Specs on, and it’s like giving your waking moments a heads-up display. Combined with voice command rather than touch activation, and Glass further blurs (maybe merges?) the already fuzzy line between our physical and digital worlds.
This is next generation Augmented Reality. It’s way beyond “gamifying your day”. When the ‘Synthetic (or Virtual) World’ is folded back on the physical world, and put before your eyes, not only does the view fundamentally change but the question begs to be asked, what becomes of “real”?
Wearing Google Glass made me think of Ferris Bueller and Alfie, and how we partly feel we know them the way we do because they talked to us, broke the fourth wall and came that little bit closer. Google Glass is breaking the internet’s fourth wall, bringing it near. Technology has never felt more intimate.
Part of me wonders, is Google Glass an ambition too far? They’re very subtle as specs go, but a very strong technophile statement however you look at them (or through them). A colleague later asked, “Wearing them, didn’t you feel a bit of a dick?”
No comment, but I have it on reliable authority that Glass wearers are an increasingly common sight not just on the Google campus but also the streets of San Francisco. From those early days 80’s memories of city boys lifting ‘mobile’ phones the size of portable stereos to their ears, is it any more of a leap to imagine us all soon wearing Google Glass? Only time, or time travel will tell.
Yet what I was really thinking as I went through a range of ‘OK Glass’ commands was, how insanely cool will this be when it becomes a contact lens?
But the show’s not over. Take off your glasses and click on Google’s Cultural institute, to witness an increasingly inventoried world of cultural artefacts, all at a proximity that “physically being there” will not allow. Having quantified the planet with Google Earth, Google is now capturing the micro, the contours of a brushstroke, and “mapping the world of indoor spaces”. ‘Street views’ have moved indoors.
Thank-you’s and goodnight’s said, it’s time to return outside, to the Autumn cold of a London going home and out. Fitzroy Square looks timeless, the kind of place where you could exchange evening pleasantries with a passing Sherlock Holmes. What would Holmes deduce from our recent encounters? Certainly that Google in Moriarty’s hands would be a very bad thing. Might a path to world domination simply be via world documentation?
Perhaps Holmes would further make the kind of observation Spiderman knows only too well, that “with great power comes great responsibility”.
One can only hope Google is good to their word and ‘Don’t Be Evil’ mantra - because I think it's clear who’s gathering the power. It’s also a trend line that feels like it’s curving towards the absolute, and that kind of power requires super hero levels of restraint.
That was then, and this, as they say, is ‘now’ - and as you read this there is no brass G door knocker in Fitzroy Square. The door’s painted a different colour. The lights are off, and the only view through those grand sash windows is one of spectral ‘emptiness’. Was it a dream? A visitation? No, a pop-up, I’m sure. Only, why does the ‘Ghost of Christmas Future’ float to mind? Better to distract ourselves with festive thoughts and wish lists. I need to tell Santa about a new pair of specs I saw - in a future that I either did or didn’t dream.