Last Friday Kyle Russell, a reporter for Business Insider, was walking toward the 16th Street BART stop in San Francisco when someone ran up beside him, ripped the Google Glass he was wearing from his face, and smashed the device on the sidewalk before making an escape. In writing about the event, Russell framed the act of vandalism as a personal assault, vaguely connected to the wave of ant-tech protests that have flourished in San Francisco.
“Unfortunately, anything associated with Google has come to represent gentrification in the city,” Russell wrote, “from the buses that take young software engineers to their corporate campuses in Silicon Valley to Google Glass. This is especially true in areas where gentrification and income inequality have become points of conflict in the community.”
This interpretation—that a violent act against an object a person wears is an attack on the person themselves, and must be part of a symbolic struggle between individuals and the social systems they live in—has been a commonly used to criticize those hostile toward Glass wearers in the two years since it was first demonstrated to the press. Don’t blame the engineer, or tech reporter, or angel investor, blame city hall, or congress or the system. From the start, there has been resentment and hostility toward Glass as something that made the worst aspects of a tech-driven future suddenly pathetic, digital intrusions an inescapable part of the landscape itself.
People becoming targets for their use of technology is nothing new, from rampant iPhone theft to car stereo break-ins. Technology is a desirable symbol of wealth and owning it brings a responsibility to safeguard it against others incapable of buying their own symbol, but willing to break any moral bound to get it all the same. The hostility against Glass owners is different kind of social antagonism that treats the object of technology as toxic and corrupting, like someone bringing a dead animal into your living room or carrying a bag of excrement into your coffee shop.
From the start, there has been resentment and hostility toward Glass as something that made the worst aspects of a tech-driven future suddenly pathetic, digital intrusions an inescapable part of the landscape itself.
The smashing of Russell’s Glass is not disturbing because it misplaces aggression that should rightly be directed at symbolic villains like gentrification and widening income inequality, but because it is hostile toward the machinery that produces symbolic narratives in the first place. Destroying Google Glass is not an act of defiance against rising rents, but a rejection of a device that makes the exchange of symbols, produced and distributed through digital networks, the organizing structure of modern life.
Russell’s argument that this sort of violent interjection is ironic given San Francisco’s history also happens to be ahistorical. There is a long and proud history of retaliation against establishment forces in the Bay Area, from the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz by the Indians of All Tribes movement in the early 1970s, to the city hall riots after Harvey Milk’s murderer was given the lightest possible sentencing in 1979, to Bobby Seale’s work building counter police-brutality groups with the Black Panthers in Oakland during the late 60s. Even during the city’s early years in the mid-19th Century, its lawless Barbary coast neighborhood flourished with Gold-rushers, ex-convicts, gamblers, and vigilantes who regularly fought with politicians and police.
There is no irony in San Francisco’s history of hostile indignation toward symbols of authority and those who distribute them. What is unwelcome is the philosophy of deference to system-level authority hard-coded into Glass and many of Google’s services. It’s emblematic of an increasingly dysfunctional worldview that expects a fellow human’s suffering to be a matter of structural inefficiency rather than the sum product of ten thousand little moments of self-absorption by their neighbors and community members. Attention spans drown in this mist of a thousand needy digital fingers poking out and receding again into their various networks. Instead of thinking about our worlds as inhabited by people with relatively unambiguous needs for food, home, and sympathy, we are drawn into abstract debates about a series of interlocking systems that could be made to run more efficiently if only we had better programmers for them.
People are not attacking Google Glass because of what it symbolizes in terms of gentrification and the economic structures supporting the tech industry, but because Glass makes it possible to view other people’s struggles as symbols in a network. The only way for a symbol to stop being seen as one is through violence, to either break itself or else the thing that frames it. At this point in history we should be done with the business of breaking people.
In comparison the idea of a broken pair of computer glasses (or ten thousand pairs) is a reminder that those expected to nobly suffer the cruel inefficiencies of our present systems might at some point reciprocate because, like eviction notes given to 7 tenants so a Google employee can take possession of an entire apartment building, it’s nothing personal, it’s just how things happen sometimes.
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, NewYorker.com, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.