November 18, 2013

Sorry, novelists, Google just made lying obsolete


Edgar: “Come on sir; here’s the place. Stand still. How fearful and dizzy ‘t is to cast one’s eyes so low.”
Gloucester: “Wait, is… is your neck beeping?”

Google subsidiary Motorola has just patented a throat tattoo that includes a microphone and, just for the hell of it, a lie detector. Thanks, Google.

The neck tattoo microphone—most likely just an adhesive patch, not a tattoo at all—is at worst funny, the way hickeys are funny or, for that matter, holding boxes in our hands up to the sides of our heads to talk to distant people.

The inclusion, however, of a possible galvanic resistance lie detector (gee Google, thanks) could cause chaos. From the patent application:

Optionally, the electronic skin tattoo can further include a galvanic skin response detector to detect skin resistance of a user. It is contemplated that a user that may be nervous or engaging in speaking falsehoods may exhibit different galvanic skin response than a more confident, truth telling individual.

Our most effective social lubricant, the falsehood, would become so much grit in the wheels. Only psychopaths could be politicians. What relationship could survive? But of course the most adversely affected, as with all big inventions, would be the poor novelists.

Just as air travel put paid to many of the mournful possibilities of Nineteenth Century novels, and the rise of the computer killed the entire genre of calculator-based erotica in the Twentieth, so our new friend the omnipresent lie detecting neck sticker (great job, Google) seems set to shift the course of fiction in the Twenty-First.

Some novelists have been frank that they already have a tough time writing contemporary novels; the use and ubiquity of smartphones makes plotting more difficult. Unless characters are sent somewhere remote or outlandish bad luck comes their way—”Joe realized his battery was about to die; and he’d dropped his phone in the urinal; and there was a solar flare coming“—they are never, for instance, lost. They are never out of contact. Facts are less obscure, secrets are less secret. They are rarely even bored.

Now imagine these poor novelists in the near future whose characters can’t even lie. Sure, there are scarves, but everyone knows only liars cover their socially-obligatory lie detecting patches (really, Google, thanks for this).

And only a couple of novelists will be able to get away with zany plotlines involving malfunctions or neck sweat. Everyone else will be forced to manufacture the same old drama from people being honest which, sure, it can be done but it sounds exhausting.

The smarter among these near-future scribes will probably do what they’ve always done: dodge the question and give everyone a petticoat or a sexy, sexy calculator.

And I don’t think there’s any doubt about the ubiquity of these never-to-be-taken-off visible-to-everyone lie detectors (such a good job, Google, really great), should they ever actually be built. Think of the many people you likely see around you each day using bluetooth headsets, for instance. If that many consumers are willing to buy and wear blinking geek-detectors, why wouldn’t people wear these throat mics that also happen to alienate everyone and make anything like a Shakespearean plotline impossible?

In truth I don’t think the lie detector aspect of these things will really be used that widely. The fact that it exists may be consequential enough. For instance, not so many people calculate logarithms on their computer every day. But they could. And now nobody will buy the manuscript of this raunchy slide rule novel I’ve been shopping around. Even if these lie detecting throat stickers (thanks, Google, thanks, thanks a lot) aren’t used for that purpose in daily life, they’ll have that power, and that alone could be enough to shape fiction in coming decades—and cause a few authorial ulcers in the process.



Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.