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Meet the Glassholes

It shows a distinct lack of imagination. Therein lies a paradox of technology, and its specific application to human needs or wants: the more sophisticated it becomes, the less sophisticated it assumes humans are. If Google Glass is anything to go by, we are not merely a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but short of the picnic altogether.

Google Glass is the camera of Twitter and the profane eye of Big Brother. It renders its users augmented reality cyborgs while engaging that very reality. It is considered the neat, spare, minimalist acquisition for the busy modern tech freak using “modular design”. But the crux of the matter, as ever, is that you do not need to be a tech freak to love it. That, at any rate, is what Google is hoping for.

The device has already made news in various ways. When, for instance, will that stealthy click be made to take a photo of unsuspecting targets? Does it merely take a wink to do so? The website advertising Glass is swank and chic, as one would expect, and totally innocuous. Don the minimalist computer wear. “Say ‘take a picture’ to take a picture.” Then, “Record what you see. Hands-free.” You can share what you see, live of course. Directions can be seen “right in front of you”. “Speak to send a message.” It can translate your voice.

According to Google co-founder Sergey Brin, the Google Glass concept improves on the experience of the “smartphone”, yet another awkward and inaccurate term to begin with. Indeed, Brin has had harsh words for that phone technology, seeing it as “emasculating”. “You’re standing around and just rubbing this featureless piece of glass” (CNET, Feb 27, 2013). Brin’s rub free fantasy, which he hopes to make real, is to enable information to surface for individuals even before they ask for it. Google Glass “is the first form factor that can deliver that vision.”

Defenders of the device, such as blogger Robert Scobie, see Google Glass as making Google “an assistant to your life.” He sees no problem with the project. “It tries to assist my life and get ahead of me, and think about things I need to see” (Guardian, Jun 5, 2013). This leaves an open question as to how one sees – there are, after all, numerous ways of seeing.

Ways of seeing are already getting the glassholes into trouble. According to the Gadgeteer (Jan 20), a man from Columbus, Ohio found himself in trouble using Google Glass at the cinema. He was watching, with his wife, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. While he was sporting the device, he claims it was switched off.

An hour into the film, he was nabbed, ostensibly by DHS officials. Their suspicion: he has been using Google Glass to illegally tape the film. Then, the questions, some of them along the line of “what does Google ask of me in exchange of Glass, how much is Google paying me, who is my boss and why I am recording the movie.” A sad state of affairs overall, be it the unimaginative Ohioan, or the unimaginative authorities.

Earlier this month, a driver faced traffic violations for speeding under California’s vehicle code. She got the second ticket after the California Highway Patrol officer noted she was using Google Glass. The traffic citation against Cecilia Abadie under Section 27602, which bans video screens in the view of the driver, was dismissed by a court commissioner in San Diego claiming that “he could find no evidence that the device was in use while Abadie was driving, according to several news reports” (PC World, Jan 17).

Much of the run off from Brin’s “emasculating” remark on smartphones might have shed light, however consciously, on another aspect of the technology. Criticism has been forthcoming of the device: that it is being marketed as a “man gadget”. Gender language is replete in the Silicon Valley innovation scheme – these are toys for boys, and the boys like it.

The latest app called “Sex with Google Glass” attempts to introduce erotica into the Glass experience. It assumes that sexual actors are also, at heart, sexual voyeurs. But it also suggests a form of activity that is staged. (Imagine lovemaking sections with “OK Glass, the lights”.) The advertising theme behind it is also gendered, involving a good deal of sexed assumptions. That’s advertising for you. As ever, the pragmatic aspect is lacking – presumably, the physical sex takes place slowly (the devices seem fragile).

Then comes the storage facility. The activities can be recorded and viewed at different angles, potentially enabling you to see your sexual counterpart in full dimension, but the video itself “disappears in 5 hours”. Actors can become voyeurs. The advertising language there is striking: “You’ll be able to watch your videos for 5 hours until they are deleted forever. That’s for all the ladies out there.” Presumably, the ladies have nothing to do for the five hours following coitus – or rather, nothing to fear, or hope for, in the context of revenge porn. Stop living, start interrupting.

Some commentators strain to see something interesting in it. For Adi Robinson writing in The Verge (Jan 20), the entire advertising premise behind the application is skewed. If Sex with Google Glass is evidently designed to show “the whole picture”, a totalised reality of lovers in action, then the choice of images for the app is crude. What she sees, or what he sees, are limited projections.

Robinson is reminded of those lines, problematic as they are, from art critic and novelist John Berger, writing in 1972: “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” He sees his lover’s back. She so happens to be seeing herself as well – from the neck down. This would surely encourage users to take the glasses off by this stage.

With such worn computer devices, the looming question is how far Google will be allowed into private, let alone public life. The company has not only taken a mile, but virtually everything. Is Google really the valet to our needs, or a dictator of ideas? Should Brin’s vision transpire, the information continuum may find itself changing roles: what, or who, will be doing the thinking about information? It certainly won’t be the glassholes, who risk becoming the modern era’s feckless automatons.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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