Google Glass will usher in a new era of social technology. Here's why that's a bad thing.
Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)
In the beginning, Google was a large machine meant to reach into the incomprehensible pool of Internet data and return with some fragments small enough to be understood at human scale. Fifteen years later, the reverse seems to be occurring, the company is delving into every part of human life to withdraw data fragments that can be used to create an information superstructure that exceeds the comprehension of any one person. Google's recent projects have at least partially abandoned the general directive of supporting humans in their problem solving efforts, while instead inviting them to contribute to the effort of Google solving its own technological problems. In this way Google Glass offers users a nominal increase in convenience and cohesion, while winning Google a direct line into people's daily lives.
"We wondered, what if we brought technology closer to your senses?" Steve Lee, Google's product director, told Verge frontman Josh Topolsky. "Would that allow you to more quickly get information and connect with other people but do so in a way—with a design—that gets out of your way when you're not interacting with technology? That's sort of what led us to Glass."
Google Glass is not improving a person's abilities so much as solving problems another piece of technology has introduced.
Glass is basically a small translucent monitor affixed to the top right corner of eyeglass frames, connected to a mobile computer processor that displays Internet search results, video chats, messages, and maps. The Glass frames also come with a camera so that you can take photos and video of everything you’re seeing and transmit them over Wi-Fi or a mobile connection to anyone you choose. It is a more limited version of a smart phone that repays the narrowness of its features and presentation with the convenience of not having to take your phone out of your pocket and enter a security code. It also ties a head-mounted camera to its users, connected to a cellular signal, making it possible to share your first-person life with persons as yet to be determined.
Glass does not actually bring technology closer to one's senses, but it does make access to representation of other people's senses possible—maybe an obvious point, but in those terms the values of the technology are clear, it's not improving a person's abilities so much as solving problems another piece of technology has introduced. Glass is a product of technology in dialog with itself, an iteration and refinement of the old, which leaves most of the basic problems its source technology responded to in place. In Google's concept video earlier this year, Glass allows a distant friend or loved one to share in a hot air balloon ride or a special birthday party for a beloved grandmother. Like phone service and video chatting, the added mobility made possible by Glass is as much a cover up to a problem as it is a solution to one. If we accept the problem here as the inevitability of having to live in isolation from family members and friends, driven across state lines and national borders in service of work, Glass makes things slightly more tolerable but does little to affect the underlying condition. It is less about making things better than about making the fragmentation less painful, as if watching video footage were not a diminishment of experience but a miraculous gift to be grateful for.
The prospect of millions of people turning the sidewalks and coffee shops into filmed space, tied to location data and coupled with Google's ever-evolving facial recognition software, points toward a new reality of implicitly accepting one is being filmed whenever one leaves home. Publicly collected data is already used in criminal cases, from the use of Google search data to trace the location and identity of an art thief to the inadvertent geo-tagging of a Twitter picture leading to the arrest of John McAfee. Introducing head-mounted streaming cameras into the public space, will likely only enhance the sense that some fragment of your life may be flagged at some later date and judged illegitimate by an authority you have no control over. And inevitably there will be some unlucky children who graduate from toddler leashes to head-mounted cameras so their parents can observe their play dates or classroom activity.
In an essay about the worrisome trend of "smart technology," Evgeny Morozov argued, "Devices that are 'good smart' leave us in complete control of the situation and seek to enhance our decision-making by providing more information." Google's video pitch for Glass features a variety of privileged experiences—from hurrying backstage before a ballet performance to doing barrel rolls in a flying club—placed alongside moments that used to pass for quotidian, a few moments spent with a child in the backyard or a solitary lunch in a working class neighborhood.
The implication is that without Glass, our lives have lost their sense of extraordinary possibility, impoverished by our inability to peer into other people's senses and see what it's like to skydive or have a bowl of noodles in Thailand. In a more representative version, the video would be a long unbroken stream of time spent before computer screens, with periodic exchanges where direct eye contact is greeted with mistrust, a panorama view of how technology has weened us off the dependence on one another and instead given us the digital equivalent of formula bottles to prize and defend as if they contained our very lifeblood. Why ask a stranger for directions when you could ask a computer? Why share a thought with the person next to you when you could text it to someone a thousand miles away? Why not film everything and send it to wherever the 10 goes when you transform it into something so large nobody knows what it is anymore?