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Should Society Be Able to Tell You How To Augment Your Reality?

Over at Atlantic Wire, Evan Selinger is wondering about a potential downside to augmented reality technology: What if people want to tune augmented-reality tech to their prejudices? Specifically, he imagines a little old lady (OK, his grandmother) tuning her personal Head’s Up Display to filter out African-Americans—maybe by turning brown faces into copies of Larry David or Rhea Perlman. Or, he continues, imagine reality-supplementing eyewear that keeps track of whom you look away from and who triggers a stress response—so it can edit out any people you’d rather not see. (Let’s just stipulate that it’s good enough not to also eliminate the person you’re madly in love with, who provokes pretty similar signals—this is a thought experiment, after all.)

Would that kind of editing be bad thing? Imagine that Selinger’s granny was avoiding the Post Office or a nice restaurant because she was afraid of black people. If her eyewear algorithm eliminated the sight of those people, she’d get her mail and dine out without stress. Of course, the people she was mis-seeing would be offended if they knew what was going on (social erasure being a problem that long predates 21st century technology). But how would they know?

The trouble arises at the societal and political levels (how things play out for a community full of people wearing these see-what-I-want-to-see glasses). It does seem bad for society to let people wander about in cognitive and emotional cocoons. Maybe we want the law to insist that they see their community as it is, not as their prejudices would have it be.

The problem with that claim, of course, is that people already walk around in cocoons. We already have devices that filter our perceptions so that we see facts and events and people as we want to see them. These devices are called human brains, and they are good at the work. What augmented-reality devices would do is move our preferences and prejudices outside our heads. Instead of being expressed outside our awareness, they would have to be made explicit, so they could be programmed into our devices. And this explicitness would give society a way to engage in thoughts and emotions that are now hidden from other people (and, often, from ourselves). So moving our reality-filters from mind to device could make them more subject to regulation.

But what sort of regulations would a future society want? On this point, America’s political and business cultures are ambivalent. Polite and proper Americans know they’re supposed to value diversity, which requires seeing differences and appreciating how they help an organization or a society. Yet we also know that we’re supposed to act as if we don’t see those differences: a pretense of “color blindness” is now the norm in American corporations and institutions. Small children in experiments take care to hide the fact that they have noticed race differences and in other experiments adults go to some trouble to appear unprejudiced. (Such research is part of a wave of work on social meta-cognition—your management not only of your own racial feelings but of others’ perceptions of your racial feelings.)

So maybe some the (Chelsea) Clinton Administration of 2032 will mandate that people’s augmented reality smooth out differences and make every citizen look like every other. Or maybe it will instead ban any form of augmentation that distorts people’s real appearance. (But what if they want to appear different than they look? That’s another wrinkle.) Seems to me it could go either way. Maybe we’re more pro-social and unbiased when we have more information about each other; but maybe we’re more tolerant when we know less.

Of course, there are other regulatory options. Gary Marcus, for instance, suggested that perhaps those Google Glasses of the future could be required to give you empathy-inducing information about people you see—reminding you that the person in front of you was a fellow grandparent, Red Sox fan, Lutheran, gardener or whatever, and thus pushing back against any racist or sexist or other isty thoughts. Your device would end up gently nudging you to be a better citizen, inclined to see others as in the same boat, rather than as scary members of Them. This would, again, be a technological extension of what people do now. Example: Years ago a friend of mine, who was about to be visited by a tax auditor with an Irish name, reached into his ash tray and daubed his forehead with some cinders. It was Ash Wednesday, and he figured it couldn’t hurt to send a (false) message to the IRS man that they were both pious churchgoers.

The root question, in any event, is well worth pondering, especially as most technophiles are knee-jerk libertarians. Once augmented-reality technologies become truly ubiquitous and truly powerful, will government have a say in how we can and can’t use it?

Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby


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