Reflections on Google Glass
Thought-provoking analysis of the possible implications of always-on personal recording technology such as Google Glass.
I want you to try a little experiment. Find somewhere where you can sit and observe people interact with one another. Pick somewhere just out of the throng — the edge of a cafe looking in, a park bench, a doorway close to a market. It’s easier if you choose somewhere you don’t know so well, you’ll have less to unlearn.
Give yourself 30 minutes to view and reflect upon the scene in front of you: Who visits that space, and why; the differences in ritual greetings, and indeed whether or not a person is greeted; how people project who they are; things that signify status and social hierarchy; where objects are placed; the level of interaction with those objects when not in use. What can you see being documented online or off? What can you imagine being documented? Pay particular attention to things that fit your definition of “technology” and reflect upon the things in front of you that once fit this definition but no longer do (my list of were-once-technologies includes the pencil, the wristwatch and the smartphone).
If you’re close enough to other people, you’ll overhear conversations plus bits of conversations that the speakers will allow you to hear, raised, projected, sotto voce and in whispers, combined with body language all serving to emphasize what is said, and the intent of what is communicated. How much of that conversation is directed at the “listener” and how much of it is directed at others in proximity, including you? This rich social choreography is playing out hundreds of billions of times a day across our planet, and is as subtle and delicate as anything appearing in a BBC2 nature documentary.
Of course, people and systems are already capturing (and channeling) content and data in this space in the form of photos, video, background noise on phone or video calls, who is connected to what, and what they are doing. It is likely that Google, Microsoft and Nokia’s Navteq (to name but three) have already systematically mapped this space and are serving up street views online. The difference with Glass is that it threatens surreptitious, unexpected or continuous recording from the perspective of the human-eye/ear view. At this point, it doesn’t matter whether it can support sustained recording for long periods or not; what matters is that the form factor supports this, that it could at some point, and that we all know Google is in the business of selling ads against insight drawn from large volume of data. Continuous, indiscriminate recording in this space is the dragnet fishing of data collection — it’s a destructive technology, a conversation- and privacy-killer.
Back to our experiment. Take in the scene in front of you. Who owns this space, both legally and figuratively? Who has the rights to do what? By what authority? Who enforces that authority? How do these rights differ for regulars or a first-time visitor? What are the ways people signal the beginning or the end of an activity? And how does that signalling make something more or less acceptable? The obvious clue to activities people have deemed socially unacceptable are often found on hand-scribbled “do not” signs, as in “staff will refuse to serve customers who are on their mobile phone,” or “do not ask for credit.” The more sustained the infringement, the more official-looking the sign.
Today, we falsely assume that our conversations and our images are not by default recorded by other people in proximity.4 Not having a persistent record allows us to present a nuanced identity to different people, or groups of people; it provides the space to experiment with what we could be. The risk that what we say will be broadcast, or narrowcasted, to people we don’t know, or may bubble up at some point in the future in the hands of someone serving up ads, fundamentally changes what we want to talk about. The challenge for Glass is that the costs of ownership fall on people in proximity of the wearer, and that its benefits have yet to be proven.
And he continues to delve much deeper into the possible trajectories of this kind of technology. A great read.