Google Glass and the remembering self



I remember in 3rd grade, Mrs. Goldman teaching us a trick for multiplying factors of 9. Splay the fingers of both hands in front of you and from left to right count out the number you’re multiplying by 9 and fold that finger under. Everything to the left of the folded finger is the tens, to the right are the ones and there’s your answer.

Seventh grade, Mrs. Thompson and sentence diagramming on the blackboard, wondering how she could draw such straight lines freehand.

High school. I don’t remember class so much.

College neither, except sometimes, on my iTunes a song called “Sleep Alone” by The Wonderstuff will come on and it will remind me of the time I met the woman who would become my wife, and in the present when I look at her, she is exactly the same, though that can’t be true because we met 22 years ago.

I’m thinking about things I remember because of a short, provocative essay by Mykola Bilokonsky on experiencing life with Google Glass.

In the essay, Bilokonsky zeroes in on what makes Glass different from a cell phone in that rather than having to fumble for it out of a pocket of purse, it is fixed to your gaze:

It’s almost like there’s no device — you just, magically, have the ability to capture a moment. The moment is what you see, either in an instant or over a few instants. You just ask the device to remember it for you, and you know it’ll be there later.

I can’t stress this enough. It doesn’t feel like taking a picture. It feels like making a mental note to remember what you’re looking at.

As he goes on to say, “Glass feels not like a new toy but rather like an augmentation to something far more primitive. We are all capable of simply deciding that we want to enjoy a moment, remember it, come back to it.”

The way we come back to it is through the social network Google+, where the pictures and videos are automatically stored. Google Glass can apparently outsource our memories.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow (and this TED Talk), the behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman discusses the differences between memory and experience. Kahneman is interested in these phenomena in the context of “happiness,” or as he puts it, the difference between being happy, “in your life” or happy “about your life.”

As Kahneman observes, our “experiencing” selves, are the selves that exist in the present world. The vast majority of those experiences are lost forever, usually just after they happen. The moments we are left with are our memories that our “remembering” selves then make use of to assess how satisfied, or even happy our lives are, or have been, or will be.

The remembering self is, naturally, dominant when it comes to decision-making. It is the data we have in order to assess future acts. But as Kahneman makes clear, that data is extremely limited, and additionally skewed by biases such as privileging endings of experiences over beginnings in the same way we may decide that a book we’ve greatly enjoyed is “ruined” by an unsatisfactory conclusion. In reality, we experienced many hours of pleasure. Those few moments of seeing that the author has failed to stick the landing seems to undo those experiences, except they didn\’t.

Google Glass offers the potential of “remembering” more things. Perhaps it has the potential to bridge some of this gap between our experiencing selves and our remembering selves.

Except that I don’t see it this way. As Miko Bilokonsky moves through the world with his Google Glass, he tells Glass to “remember this” a kind of conscious choice, a rational judgment that this is something to catalog and to experience it later. But every time we outsource our memories to a device, we are hindering our ability to experience the moments those memories attach to.

It is akin to the Quantified Self movement that seeks to gather data surrounding our life’s “inputs” and “performance.” They can measure things like based on eating X, Y, or Z, your digestive enzymes performed a A levels. But what the Quantified Self movement doesn’t actually measure, is how something, you know, feels in the moment you\’re experiencing it.

By asking something else to remember our experiences for later, by eliminating the friction of our memories, we are, I believe, disengaging from the moments themselves. The New York Times recently reported on the phenomenon of yoga practitioners posting “selfies” of their poses to Instagram, turning what is supposed to be a private, contemplative moment into something for public display. These people’s experiencing selves are mostly wondering how cool they look in their pictures.

The applications of Google Glass for education are obvious. When the professor puts a slide up, ask Google Glass to take a shot of it for you for later reference. The problem is that the later is divorced from the context in which the information was originally presented. Even with video and audio, relying on something else to remember for us means we are de facto less engaged in the moment.

Not valuing the moment seems endemic to our attitudes about education. Rather than considering how education and instruction can inspire learning and effectively switch students to the “on” position, we have fallen for the false promise of quantification, pumping students full of information that they can later offload on to standardized exams.

In higher education, the promise is always framed in terms of what will (one hopes) happen at some point in the future, good grades that lead to college and a high paying job. This is why we hear talk of a humanities “crisis” because it may be slightly harder to get a job with a philosophy degree, or because there are fewer majors than in the past. Curriculum needs to be practical, to pay off in the form of income. Never mind that you may have been moved to the point of tears by a slide of a Raphael masterpiece in art history, there\’s no jobs in it, so those human moments are at best, a luxury, or more likely, useless.

(Interestingly, according to Kahneman, research shows that experienced happiness, as tied to income, flattens out at around $75,000.)

Outfitting students with Google Glass would probably increase achievement on standardized tests, but it would only prove that our approaches have crept ever closer to turning students into little learning machines, rather than life experiencers.

Kahneman uses a thought experiment to show how we allow our remembering selves to dominate our lives. He asks us to envision a vacation where afterwards all of our memories and any photos would be entirely erased. Would we make the same choice? He suggests that if the answer is no, we are living a life in conflict with our experiencing selves.

We drive students towards choices that we believe are judicious and practical in the face of the world we live in, but what if the cost of those choices is experiencing lives with very little pleasure, where we store our memories for an indefinite future that never comes?

I don’t believe we need to save the moments for later, a la Google Glass. We need to make the moments count in the now. We need to trust ourselves to experience and hold on to those things that are meaningful. I have no need for Mrs. Goldman\’s trick to multiply nines, but I remember it because it was a moment of wonder in the classroom, a jolt of discovery, rather than an input of data.

I do not need a short video of the moment I met the person I will spend my life with to remind of how that felt. If I was worried about what it might mean, or how I might make use of it later, it might never have actually happened.