Eye Contact

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.
                                                                                             Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1836

            Wearable technology innovators are developing a digital contact lens that may not quite make the wearer an all-seeing eyeball, but it will bring the pixelated world right to his or her pupils. With the aid of tiny antennae and LED screens, the lens will project information from the Web right onto the user’s field of vision. This technology transcends the boundaries of square screens and it also penetrates the eye’s round cells. Taking biochemical information from the cells on the surface of the wearer’s eye, the digital lens can monitor blood glucose level, heart rate, and other vitals. 1
            At first glance, the digital lens looks like something that turns the Average Joe into Robocop, but the engineers claim they’re aiming for mainstream market. I can imagine how 4G eyesight might enhance my everyday experience as a two-zone commuter and graduate student. I step off the bus and a digital display hovering over the subway station says five minutes until the next arrival. Just enough time to hit the coffee shop on the corner, which has an encouraging five stars glowing in the window. Check the bank balance while I’m in line. Make it a single. The cinnamuffinbomb tempts me until the calorie and trans-fat stats balloon up above it. I opt for a banana instead. Thankfully the sticker’s peeled off so I can’t see the carbon footprint. (Trending on the internal ticker: caffeine and potassium.)
            At least as easily as I can imagine the ways that this device could make my life a hyper-informed Pop-up Video of human efficiency, I can envision how that lens-enhanced morning could quickly devolve into blooper reel. It’s hard enough to make subtle eye contact with my favorite baristo without tiny antennae making my eyelids twitchy (“Miss, are you Googling me?”). Maybe I would be detained on my way to the T by an off-duty librarian who picked up an ISBN sticker scan from my backpack (“Do you have overdue Holds in your bag?”). Would a digital Dr. Oz waggle a finger in my field of vision every time I ate an M&M? The sunrise over the Charles might look much less soothing with my upcoming appointments and incoming messages looming in the view.
            I polled a few friends about whether they would wear a digital contact lens. Most of their initial reactions were similar to mine—flurries of ideas about how it would make work and play less painful or more fun. For almost everyone in my little survey, that initial brainstorm of benefits was followed by an emphatic “BUT.” What followed the “BUT” ranged from “It kind of creeps me out” to “Well, I would probably live ten more years, but they would be miserable ones.”
            So it seems as if my friends and I, at least, wouldn’t camp out in front of the box store for the iBall. It’s probably true for most technologies that a large part of the pack hangs back while the early adopters rave or rant and short-circuit. In a few years or months or maybe days, the crowd catches on. Two decades ago, I couldn’t imagine that I would ever have a phone that fit in my purse, never mind that I would have one that slept on my pillow.
            Even though my cohort of young adults and I are hesitant to pop in a Google-eye, it’s not a stretch to say that we already see the world through our iPhones. We type and read messages, snap pictures, track our trains and diets and budgets. We can access maps that tell us not only where we are, but what pubs are nearby, and what they have on tap. In that way, the contact lens would just be a convenience, straightening up our cell phone slouches and maybe protecting us from bonking our heads on lampposts when we try to walk and GoogleMap at the same time.
            Voice commands and browsing in my line of vision might become convenient shortcuts once I got the hang of them, but I wonder if, instead of powering ahead to a new peak of multi-tasking, it might be time to slow down and take the scenic route. What boundaries might I be crossing while I wink away at my email inbox? Any first-grader knows that a pencil’s length of distance between the hand and the eye is a crucial space indeed. To be fair, many of us pop pieces of polymer into our eyes every day, but the intrusion that I’m worried about could not be sprayed away with saline.
            Many modern Americans are already aware—and wary—that our eyes are open to a nearly constant glare of digital information. Theories and studies abound about how our digital gazing could affect us physically and psychologically. Exposure to bluescreens can knock our biological clocks out of whack.2 Toggling amongst tools and windows cuts into our ability to concentrate.3 That is to say nothing of the impact of what we absorb from those screens and windows, or what we don’t see or do because we’re stuck staring. The ability to close our eyes to the media stream might be one of our last means of escape from our daily entanglement in the information and misinformation of the World Wide Web. There’s no scientific consensus about whether or how our use of the Internet and connected devices affects our overall health. The depth and magnitude of that question itself is what makes ceding those last few inches between my eye and the screen seem so dangerous.
            As William Powers points out in Hamlet’s BlackBerry,4 I’m not the first person in history to flinch at a new invention. And just as today it seems a given that society was not flattened by the railroad or strangled by the telegraph wire, as Emerson’s neighbor Thoreau might have feared, one century from now, or even a decade from now, a Bostonian graduate student might not believe her LED-enhanced eyes when she reads my concerns.
            Powers would say that regardless of whether science or history supports it, I should pay attention to my reflex to resist becoming more immersed in technology. His prescription is to reclaim tech-free space, in one’s schedule and one’s dwelling. “Whenever I open a gap between myself and my screens, good things happen. I have time and space to think about my life in the digital realm and all the people and information I encounter there.”5 Tech-free hours and rooms are for Powers what the woods were for Emerson. When Powers unplugs from his devices, he feels another current of connection circulating through him, and a deeper understanding for the human contacts and knowledge that cross his screens every day.
            The “gap” between a hand-held mobile device versus an eye-scan may be a mere six inches or sixty seconds, but that’s critical habitat for something very important. Whatever species of thought or feeling moves there is hard to name, but it’s something we all recognize. It may be different for each of us. Emerson might have said it was “reason and faith.” Another might call it attention, or intuition. For me, “It” is a chameleon that takes on multiple but unmistakable forms. It is a gentle smirk and shrug from the old man who joins me on the windy corner and follows my gaze to the taillights of the bus we both just missed. It is the giggle from the baby in the stroller that compels even the most harried of subway passengers to laugh. It is a trace of cinnamon on my cappuccino that—I let myself believe—my baristo sprinkled especially for me.
            If always-there, always-on technology like the digital contact lens posed an undeniable threat to Its last refuge, then I would be among the first to chain myself to the gate (or to barricade the entrance to Best Buy, as the case may be). Another reading of history, however, suggests the physical and temporal measure of that space is arbitrary. The size and shape of the technology we count on has changed many times in just a few generations. We strung wires across the continent and then disappeared the networks into the clouds. We built computers the size of entire rooms and then tucked them into our pockets. Now engineers are figuring out how to pack the latest software programs into a circle just a centimeter wide. For all the time and space we’ve trimmed, we haven’t cut humans out of the process. The creators, builders and users of these gadgets are bodies and souls who are trying to preserve themselves and their connections. All, in their own ways, demonstrate a wild faith that the essential qualities and abilities of human beings—the imagination, creativity, attention, determination, and, simply, energy it takes to make and use a device—are not only irreplaceable but also indestructible.
            Resisters have faith in the familiar forms, the makes and models that they feel sure have caused more good than harm. Inventors and adopters (actively or passively) show a faith that a machine can only complement or enhance those qualities, but can’t obliterate them. The cycle we’ve persisted in through history, of resistance, adoption and adaptation, doesn’t have to represent our society spiraling down the drain. Trace the circles in the other direction and we could say that we’re alright, and we’ve come out alright, time and again. Maybe we’re ascending—or maybe we’re circling—but nothing new has brought us to a halt.
            The signs of the “Universal Being”—that reason and faith which assure humans of our connections with each other and our worlds—have never been easy to detect. The subtle signals, I hope, will always be there for those who seek them, whether in sunlit fields or between blue-lit screens. Decades from now, when I and my fellow commuters are sitting in the subway car, climbing into our hovercapsules, or plugging in to our cyberstations, we will leave at least a sliver of space for a wink, a smirk, a particle of the mutual understanding that circulates amongst all of those who open their eyes to see it.

1More info: Pavik, Babak. “Augmented Reality in a Contact Lens,” IEEE Spectrum, 1 September 2009. Details research and prototypes developed at University of Washington. http://spectrum.ieee.org/biomedical/bionics/augmented-reality-in-a-contact-lens/0 Diagram: http://spectrum.ieee.org/biomedical/bionics/augmented-reality-in-a-contact-lens/0/eyesb1 Google posted discussion of a glucose-monitoring lens on its official blog in January 2014: http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2014/01/introducing-our-smart-contact-lens.html Innovega demonstrated a slightly different, iOptik system that pairs contact lens with glasses at the Consumer Electronics Showcase (CES) in January 2014. See demo: http://www.innovega-inc.com/videos.php
2“In Eyes, a Clock Calibrated by Wavelengths of Light,” New York Times, 4 July 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/05/health/05light.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1
3Chen, Brian X. 2011. Always on: how the iPhone unlocked the anything - anytime - anywhere future--and locked us in. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. [For interview, listen to Macworld Podcast Episode #2246 http://www.macworld.com/article/160122/2011/06/brian_chen_always_on.html]
4Powers, William. 2010. Hamlet's Blackberry: a practical philosophy for building a good life in the digital age. New York: Harper’s. http://www.williampowers.com/
5Powers, 209.

Emily Avery-Miller writes and teaches in Boston, MA. She loves tracking tech buzz, exploring new trails, and snooping around strangers’ bookshelves. Her work has also appeared in 48 Review (http://48review.com). Emily blogs at http://youarenowconnected.wordpress.com. 

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