Thanks to Google Glass, watching x-rated content in public just got interesting.
Whenever I open my laptop in a coffee shop or with a friend looking over my shoulder there is often a moment of panic about what will appear in the little squares that catalog my most frequently visited sites. There is always something pornographic in them, and my search history is even worse, a humiliating collection of things that would be condemnable in most settings—the time I went searching for beheading videos while writing about Eli Roth, homemade speed recipes from another story about poverty and urban sprawl, or the phrase "hornless unicorn" from trying to find a funny picture a friend had shown me.
All of these disparate puzzle pieces make sense in private, where the context for each is controlled and contained, but when taken into public I lose control and become aware of how easily they might be used to create a false impression of myself that I would have to defend against.
"Glass could become a huge incentive to view stranger and more taboo subject matter in inappropriate settings."
This week MiKandi, an Android-based company that distributes sex films and sex-related apps, announced it had begun working with Google Glass. "Obviously, Glass is perfect for shooting POV video, so we're experimenting with that first," founder Jennifer McEwen told Violet Blue in ZDNet. "But what's really interesting about Glass is that it's not just a hands free camera. It can receive and send data, so there are a lot of interesting interactions that we want to explore."
Using Glass to film sexual encounters isn't especially novel. There is already an active and popular subculture of POV sex movies that would be made slightly less cumbersome to shoot with a head-mounted camera.
What's potentially revolutionary, however, is the idea of viewing socially stigmatized content in a public setting with no threat of being intruded on by the people around you. If there is an implicit standard of manners surrounding tablet or laptop use in a public setting—using headphones, not looking at explicitly sexual content—Glass creates a platform where individuals can transgress all of these impositions, a second stream of thought between a person's brain and their surroundings.
While this might initially seem freeing, it introduces a whole new set of ethical concerns that could be used to extend content controls on the Internet. It's tolerable to imagine a horny writer looking at sex movies at home, but what about when that same writer is watching them on Google Glass in a crowded subway? Looking up POV blowjob videos in a crowded coffee shop or on your iPad during your daily commute would have been as uncouth as urinating in the corner. Now that these portable access points are nearing a point of both total privacy, the power of public social stigma won't have power anymore.
In a way, Glass could become a huge incentive to view stranger and more taboo subject matter in inappropriate settings. The lingua franca of the Internet is not free content, after all, but content taken out of context. Its most pervasive and popular forms are "memes," simple pictures whose natural context has been changed by captions that force new meanings on them. A bored animal having lunch, suddenly becomes a Llama that is very disappointed in you.
Google Glass is an engine for decontextualizing reality itself, forcing the meaning of a crowded subway into a new context by experiencing it alongside some concretized snippet of your subconscious. The power of the technology is not in making it half a second easier to read a text message or update your digital calendar, but in creating a tool that gives a person some crude ability to take control of their personal context away from group norms.
If Glass becomes as ubiquitous as iPhones and laptops are today, it is hard to imagine its essential privacy not triggering waves of paranoia about appropriateness. The end result would necessitate some net of content filtration being cast over the Internet as a whole, either through outright censorship, or individual censorship of each query.
Would we really want a convicted militiamen looking up bomb recipes or 3D printing schematics for guns in the middle of Times Square? Would we be able to tolerate a paroled sex offender watching a certain kind of video while walking past a playground or toy store? The less of the context we can control as a group, the more we will want to create technical structures that do it for us in proxy. In that way, Google Glass may be the catalytic turning point where the already dying wildness of the Internet becomes overwritten with restraints of modernity, just as the mythic expanses of the Wild West eventually gave way to paved city grids and cops to keep them safe from weirdos like you.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.