What Would Tolkien Have Made of “Google Glasses?”

In the news recently has been Google’s plan to begin production of a beta version of internet-enabled glasses. Google glasses would allow the user to view simultaneously both the landscape and data about the landscape. The user would see, not merely the sky, but the sky and a meteorological report about the conditions brewing in the sky, perhaps even a link to an article about what makes the sky appear blue or what makes us think a particular cloud looks like a bunny or the face of someone we know. The user would see, not just a tree, but a map of the forest, perhaps along with a reminder that it is almost time to leave the forest to keep a more important date somewhere else. J.R.R. Tolkien created fantasy worlds, what he called “secondary worlds,” but he expressed great concern about how we see this, the “primary world.” Would he have approved of the vision Google glasses promise to give us?

“We need…” he wrote, “to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.” Tolkien worried that we tend to make up our minds about things before we ever really look at them. He worried that we become so used to things that we cease to see them at all. When was the last time you really looked at the art on your living room wall, at the trees you pass on your way to work? When was the last time you really tasted your lunch? Would you taste it more fully if it were offered to you in the middle of your march across the Midgewater Marshes? How about the trees? Would you delight in them more if you encountered them in the sunless depths of Fangorn Forest? Tolkien thought so.

Tolkien believed that discovering so-called mundane objects in secondary worlds helps us to know and love them better in the primary world. “We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep and dogs and horses and wolves.” Tolkien might have said of Google glasses that they take us one more step away from such revelations. Already preoccupied with our daily concerns, we hardly notice the sky. How much less will we notice it when looking at the sky becomes the equivalent of clicking on a link that says “sky?” How much less will we think of it when our own eyes seem to tell us what to think? What if our internet search histories determine the data we will be shown about “sky” based on the data we have requested in the past? How will we ever learn anything wholly new and unexpected? How will the actual sky penetrate the virtual sky that exists in our minds? How will it reach us behind our glasses when it already has trouble reaching us behind our day-to-day thoughts? Perhaps it will not, until we pick up a book about a world made in someone’s imagination then step outside to take a fresh look at the world we live in every day.

From Tolkien’s friend, C.S. Lewis: “The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity. By putting bread, gold, horses, apple or the very roads into myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our minds, the real things are more themselves. The Lord of the Rings applies the treatment not only to bread and apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, our joys. By dipping them in myth, we see them more clearly.”

4 thoughts on “What Would Tolkien Have Made of “Google Glasses?”

  1. I wonder whether the google glasses may prove to be today’s version of the palantir, and in defense of technology, its uses for good or evil reside with the intent of the user. Thanks for a thoughtful post!

  2. This is wonderful, Badgaladriel! Tolkien’s sense of mythic resonance rescues the word “escapism” from its intended slur — that of irrelevance to modern life. Emerging from the cape (the cowling?), Badgaladriel helps us to reexamine the primary world. We can hope to enrich ourselves with insights that would otherwise prove mysterious, forever hidden from us.

  3. This is a very insightful and topical post! Thank you for sharing. I think this topic is worth exploring more.

    What if “Google Glasses” are a way to appreciate the primary world because and when we are able take them off? More advanced usages of the “glasses” could be used to create secondary worlds and thereby force that recognition of the essence of the primary world.

  4. I agree that any tool can be used for good or ill. With something like google glasses or a palantir, for that matter, it is important to remind ourselves that what we are being given is a perspective, not every possible view. Perhaps Denethor was seduced by the vision Sauron was feeding him through the palantir (a vision that I am sure contained many “facts’) because he did not bother to ask if there was another way of seeing things. If he had begun to suspect that, even if everything he learned through the palantir was true in a sense, there were many other ways of looking at the information, it could have been quite an enlightening experience for him. If google glasses could be used to create secondary worlds or, in other words, to create art, the value would be in their ability to show us the importance of perspective. When I look at a painting like this one, http://www.art.com/products/p11816562-sa-i1160657/jan-vermeer-young-dutch-woman-with-a-water-pitcher.htm?aff=conf&ctid=1500427214&rfid=477380&tkid=15058841&, I am impressed with the power of light and attention to show me something that I might not have noticed before–the extraordinary in the mundane. The painting makes me want to pay more attention to the world because it shows me the richness of such a simple scene. I want to teach myself to see the way Vermeer must have seen. If google glasses could do that, they would be something special indeed, but I fear that the temptation in using them will be to lose ourselves in the everyday concerns that the glasses reflect back to us and forget that it is possible to shift our perspective.

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