Darth Vader Versus Dick Tracy in Your Daily Work

Blog / Produced by The High Calling

Does it matter if people see technology before they see each other? Maybe creepy is the new cool.

Perhaps you heard the buzz about new wearable technologies in 2013. The volume turned up again last week during CES, the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas where tech manufacturers demo their newest gadgets and devices. Last week we saw more Google Glasses and smart watches, more flying drones and new full body wearable video game controllers (really), and of course bigger TV screens. (LG is up to 105 inches now, which is bigger than a queen-sized bed.)

So what does all this technology mean for our daily lives?

Forget about the big TVs. The new wearable technologies are cause for serious reflection. Let’s consider the two biggest moves into Wearable tech: Google Glass and smart watches.

Darth Vader wore his technology like a mask, like Google Glass or iOptik contact lenses, but the technology on his face is not what made him evil. Dick Tracy wore something like a smart watch, but he also wore a yellow trench coat and a striped tie.

In other words, Darth Vader’s technology is not what led him to the dark side, even if the simple black and white world of Star Wars wants us to believe that. He didn’t have a technology problem. He had an anger problem. For evidence, look at all of the good guys in Star Wars. Luke has a robotic hand. He also flew a fancy X-wing space ship and carried a light saber (the weirdest backwards technology ever conceived). His most loyal sidekicks—R2D2 and C3PO—were 100% technology.

And that’s okay. Wearing technology on your face doesn’t mean you are more likely to become a villain. Having a robotic hand doesn’t either.

On the flipside, Dick Tracy’s watch doesn’t make him a hero any more than his yellow coat makes him a hero.

And yet, this is the marketing story we are seeing in technology these days. Smart watches are good. Smart glasses are bad. Last week, journalists and retailers celebrated Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, Pebble’s Steel Smart Watch, and other offerings at the Consumer Electronics Show. Yet people continue to fear Google Glass, the wearable for your face.

We don’t want to be Darth Vader. We want to be Dick Tracy.

Because we are easily swayed by metonymy, we shun things associated with villains and celebrate things associated with heroes. We can’t help it. People are really good at telling stories, but we’re really bad at interpreting them. So we look for causal relationships in our cultural stories. Darth Vader is evil, and the cause of his evil is the robotic suit that makes him look like a corpse.

This is becoming a real problem with our technologies. Philosophers call it the uncanny valley. Robots and motion capture animation have long fallen into the uncanny valley. This is the place where something becomes just human enough to be disturbing. You’ve seen the creepy humanoid robots and motion capture animations. They look just human enough to make us feel uneasy.

I believe this process works in reverse as well. Robots and animations enter the uncanny valley when they look too human. But people can enter the uncanny valley when they adopt too much technology. Too much technology can become a kind of deformity that creates distance from those around us.

This is the real problem with Google Glass or smart watches or even the phones that we obsessively check under the table.

To be fair, Sergey Brin has said that Google developed Glass in order to connect people to each other. He saw a world of people looking down at their screens, devoting their whole posture to the information there. In bringing the information and functionality to our line of sight, Google has created the single most honest mobile device we’ve seen.

When I wear Glass, people always ask if I’m recording everything. This is a question that could be asked of anyone. In truth, our world no longer has privacy. Anyone can record anyone with a strategically placed cell phone. Everyone’s mind wanders during conversation to the phone that just buzzed in their pocket. Technology has become an itch that demands us to scratch.

Google has made it much easier to scratch that itch by wearing our technology in our line of sight. The screen becomes a transparent filter through which I view the world, and this frightens people precisely because it is already true. We already understand the world around us and interact with it through the framework of our technologies—accepting the wisdom of crowds as gospel truth, expecting that our comments and our feedback has value, and rarely questioning when it is time to turn off the noise.

I own a pair of Google Glasses, and I love them. They are a marvel. But when I put them on my face, people are afraid of me because the Glasses remind them on some deep level about the truth of the world. Technology is everywhere, capturing everything, filtering all we know, and overwhelming us.

We are not zombies, but too much technology can make us appear like zombies to those around us. And, let’s be honest, too much connectedness can make us act like zombies too, so distracted that we can’t focus our thoughts on anything deeper than a 500-word web article.

Do not be afraid of these devices. The world needs good people exploring new technologies thoughtfully and prayerfully. Your good thoughts, your good prayers about technology use will help us sort through the challenge of our generation.

But don’t forget to anchor yourself in something solid. If I am not careful, I can lose myself in the promise of technology. In fact, this has happened in the years since I began leading The High Calling, and it was a long and painful road back to good mental health.

Today, I maintain careful disciplines so that I will not lose my ability to focus. I run. I pray. I read books, actual books with no purpose other than to deliver the printed text. I hike in the woods. I eat dinner with my family. I unplug on Sunday for a screen Sabbath.

These small, simple focal practices keep my mind and spirit fit for another day in the technology wars, where we fight to see people before we see technology and we work to use these amazing tools to build God’s kingdom rather than our own.