Augmented Reality, Political Groupthink, and Civil Society

Earlier this month, I wrote about one potential danger of immersive augmented reality–the potential for becoming addicted to it.  The chances for dependency will increase, I argued, the more ubiquitous the technology becomes, and the more we gain the ability to customize the augmented displays that we see.   Augmentation could then become narcissism and self-aggrandizement.

There are other, related ills that could stem from the same set of conditions.

Political Groupthink Is Already Rampant

One such ill is the reinforcement of our pre-existing opinions and the filtering out of anything that is inconsistent with those opinions.  In a word, groupthink–a term defined as follows:

Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972), occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment” (p. 9).  Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups.  A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making.

To be sure, we don’t need to wait for an augmented world to make political groupthink a reality in the United States. Commentators are already bemoaning the sharp rise in political partisanship and rancor, and the corresponding dysfunction of civil society.

The diversity of media channels and news sources makes such polarization orders of magnitude easier than it used to be.  Whatever your political leaning, you can find a customized website, satellite radio station, news channel, and talk show host who will give you the news filtered through that perspective.  Opposing viewpoints are increasingly things to be mocked, shouted down, or ignored, not to be respected, understood, or even considered.

To see the consequences of this trend, one need look no further than this summer’s deadlock over raising the national debt ceiling.  Two parties with deeply entrenched political ideologies played an unprecedented game of chicken while the threat of a sovereign debt default loomed–triggering a downgrade of the country’s creditworthiness and a stock slide, and at least contributing to the likelihood of a double-dip recession.

Will AR-Enhanced Social Media Undermine Civil Society?

AR will contribute to partisanship and polarization.  And I am not the first person to say so.  Back in November 2009, Jamais Cascio published a spot-on piece in the Atlantic called “Filtering Reality: How an emerging technology could threaten civility.”  If you haven’t read it, you should.

Cascio saw in AR the potential to “strike a fatal blow to American civil society,” as people use their immersive AR eyewear ” to block any kind of unpalatable visual information, from political campaign signs to book covers.”  Moreover, as those devices become more able to give us information about particular individuals in our field of view (perhaps based on facial recognition technology, social media-linked RFID tags, or nanotaggants), we can start blocking those people as well.  “You don’t want to see anybody who has donated to the Palin 2012 campaign?” Cascio writes.  “Gone, their faces covered up by black circles.”

Diminished Reality

Again, we can already see the results of similar motivations today.  This photo taken in the White House situation room on the day Osama Bin Laden was killed appeared on newspapers and websites across the world.  Di Tzeitung, a Brooklyn-based Hasidic newspaper, wanted to use it as well–but its religious rules don’t allow it publish photographs of women.  Their solution?  They simply edited out the two women present in the picture–and didn’t say anything about it to their readers … until they got caught.

People are already talking about the ability of AR to do the same thing to our everyday lives, in real time.  They call it “diminished reality“–augmenting our view of the world not to add more data, but to make things we don’t want to see disappear.  Here’s a glimpse at what DR might look like:

DR apps wouldn’t have to be directly related to politics in order to have a negative effect on civil society.  Suppose someone doesn’t want to see evidence of poverty in their neighborhood?  DR could make those ratty foreclosures look like splendid estates, and the homeless panhandler on the corner appear as if he’s wearing a tuxedo.  The less we see of the negative aspects of society, the less motivated we will be to remedy them.  Out of sight, out of mind.

There are implications for race relations as well.  In 2009, HP stepped in a firestorm of criticism when consumers discovered that its facial recognition technology didn’t work on people with dark skin.  Now consider the opposite of that problem: DR apps that recognize a particular shade of melanin, and replace it with another–so that the user can live in their own version of a racial utopia.


Perhaps even more corrosive to civil society than ignoring people with opposing viewpoints, however, is the ability to (literally, in this case) label and objectify people.  Cascio asks, “You want to know who exactly gave money to the 2014 ban on SUVs? Easy—they now have green arrows pointing at their heads.”

Even more likely are labels that AR users choose for themselves. Social media is likely to be one of the primary forces driving the adoption of AR.  As soon as the technological capacity is there, expect to see Facebook profiles and Twitter feeds floating over their authors’ heads.

Again, we already have real-world precedents.   Cascio highlighted one:

After California’s Prop 8 ban on gay marriage passed, opponents of the measure dug up public records of donors supporting the ban, and linked that data to an online map. Suddenly, you could find out which of your neighbors (or the businesses you frequent) were so opposed to gay marriage that they donated to the cause. Now imagine that instead of a map, those records were combined with an AR system able to identify faces.

There are an endless array of other labels that users may want to see hovering over other peoples’ heads as well–including tags identifying religious affiliations, club memberships, socioeconomic background, alumni groups, fraternal orders, or sexual proclivities.  That would be as simple as importing one’s Facebook or other social media profile into AR space, something that will certainly happen as soon as technologically possible.  And if we choose to see such labels in a real-time AR display, it’s probably because we either want to associate with, or disassociate from, “those kinds” of people.

Or worse.   Recall the case of Michael Enright, the New York college student who, in August 2010, allegedly went out looking for a Muslim to kill.  When he asked his cabbie, Ahmed Sharif, if he was a Muslim and the driver said “yes,” it’s charged, Enbright stabbed him several times.

If Enbright had been wearing AR eyewear that tagged Sharif (or anyone else, rightly or wrongly) as a Muslim, he wouldn’t have even had to ask.

With apps like these running in our AR eyewear, literally everyone we meet during the course of a day could come pre-labeled as a friend or enemy–or at least as interesting or uninteresting.  What room will that leave for getting to know someone as an individual?  For learning from someone with experiences that are different than ours?  For taking seriously a viewpoint that doesn’t already fit into our worldview?

Our realities would certainly become “diminished”–in more ways than one.

Disagreeing With Dignity

When I was in high school, we often read the Opposing Viewpoints series of booklets, each one of which summarized differing views on a particular subject.  I’ve always remembered the slogan printed on those books: “Those who do not know their opponents’ arguments do not completely understand their own.”  It’s a good reminder that a truly critical thinker is never 100% convinced that his own perception and understanding of any given issue is entirely complete or correct.  Even strong opinions can be further nuanced, modified, reconsidered–or, if nothing else, strengthened–by confronting an opposing viewpoint.  And even the most passionate advocate can still acknowledge the basic human dignity and worth of someone who disagrees with him. Disagreement and debate can–and should–be a respectful, constructive process.

People who understand that concept are a necessary prerequisite to a healthy civil society and a functioning democracy.  And at this point in American history, we could use many more such people.

I also hope that you’ll read this post with that frame of mind, rather than dismissing me as  a Luddite or alarmist.  I am a gung-ho enthusiast of AR and social media technologies, and can’t wait to have a heads-up display in my eyewear.  Even I weren’t, it’d be too late to stop them.  First-generation AR apps are already here on our smartphones.  Government and industry alike are barreling ahead toward widespread and diverse application of AR technologies.  Consumer demand and undeniable efficiencies will drive them to become increasingly  immersive and ubiquitous.

The only question is how we as individuals will apply these tools, and how we allow them to shape our society.  In my view, the more we think through questions like these ahead of time, the better our chances will be of using AR in a mature, constructive manner.

What do you think?  Is my critique of AR’s impact on civil society fair?  Overstated?  What positive impacts could AR have on political or social discourse?