The State of Controlled Reality

In May Google moved its internet of things (IoT) platform, Android Things, out of its beta stage of development. For those who are unsure what IoT actually is, it’s a network of physical devices that exchanges data between themselves. For example, your car notices you’re driving home and so it automatically informs your coffee machine to prepare for your arrival. Essentially you connect all your smart devices to create a network that deals with reality for you. Android Things is not Google Home. Instead, it is the platform that informs it.

That’s cool and all if you’re into living that way. What is noteworthy though is that Google has incorporated some of its machine learning algorithms into their IoT gadgets. Of course, Google showed this off. They presented the “Handbot,” a robotic hand that can play rock, paper, scissors by reading your gestures. Other devices included artificial flowers that changed colours depending on your facial expression and a robot that draws your portrait. The features hadn’t been perfected yet. They would take at least a few more weeks.

Doubtless, there are some to whom this would appeal as a rise in one’s standard of living. It’s Oscar Wilde’s image of a world fashioning Nature for our use and pleasure. It plays upon our humanist ego that whispers about how special we are and how we do deserve it. However, it’s equally doubtless that others will see this as an alienation of the home or an attack on their quality of life. They read “Google Home” and they see Google invading the home.

Both visions are valid and both are logical extensions of the world we currently inhabit. Google, along with a select handful of other services, already presents us with a reality. They curate a selection of curators and creators based off of what they know we already like. It’s a feedback loop that creates a virtual reality and we’re addicted to it. We know this. We’ve been upset about this and now Facebook and Google are “trying” to be more responsible. However, their responsibility is still a far cry from the freedom the internet initially promised.

The state of controlled reality in which we live is highlighted by our language. Since when has the word “Google” become synonymous with search? Obviously, it means to use the Google search engine, but now searching on the web is inseparable from googling. It’s striking because in this case it shows the total dominance Google has on the market. It’s like Netflix and chill. While one could use Yahoo or Ask Jeeves (if that’s still around) to explore the internet, you still use Google. For many Google and Facebook simply are the internet.

The omnipresence of these services, though, is not the core of the issue. It is a symptom. It’s a huge symptom, but it’s still a mere symptom. The problem stems from the fact that we live in an attention economy that thrives upon the commodification of information. In The Attention Merchants, the academic Tim Wu illustrates how in this industry we, the consumers, are the products to be consumed by the producers. Advertisers take our attention and sell it to corporate buyers, and this is the food for our culture.

And, of course, Google is a master of this attention gathering game. Out of a contempt for advertising, Google’s CEO Larry Page, who incidentally coined the term “googling,” created AdWords. AdWords created auctions for text only advertisements that depended on relevancy and how often people actually clicked on them. Facebook is doing something similar when Zuckerberg says they will prioritise quality time spent over length of time spent. After all, who wouldn’t choose the specific target guaranteed to succeed over the scattered approach that only works occasionally? It doesn’t treat us any better. It removes our complaint whilst making the whole process more efficient.

The increased efficiency also allows the attention merchants greater purchase into our lives. Facebook’s quality of time metric normalises our dependence on it. After all, we aren’t likely to object to spending quality time on a website. What, though, are we to do about it? We need to not become Amish, but to step up. We must take control of what it is we pay attention to. In his book, Tim Wu uses his favourite saying of William James, “My experience is what I agree to pay attention to,” to illustrate what’s at stake. Do you want to find ways of controlling your attention? Google it.

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