When Google Glass was first announced in summer 2012 most people thought the glasses would make you look like a bit of a spod, even if the technology sounded impressive.
Fast forward to spring 2013 and the mood music has changed. Organisations like Stop the Cyborgs have generated a lot of press with their message that Google Glass would be an intrusive technology which threatened to destroy whatever shreds of privacy we have left.
This “surveillance-nightmare” theme has replaced “look-like-a-spod” as the primary anti-Glass argument. But have you noticed that they’re diametrically opposed to one another?
In the earlier phase of the anti-Glass backlash, the idea was that the glasses were so conspicuous that if you wore them in public you’d find yourself scurrying for the safety of your home with the derisive catcalls of the masses ringing in your ears. Grannies would point and laugh while teenagers would inflict wedgies and other ritual humiliations, safe in the knowledge that if you took them to court no jury would convict, because any twelve reasonable men and women would heartily agree that you had it coming.
But the current thinking is that the wearer of Google Glass, far from being a public spectacle, is a covert observer, a stealthy spy capturing and recording all our private moments for purposes we can only begin to imagine. Rather than being laughed at on the streets, they move about the city invisible to those whose privacy they’re violating.
I don’t really buy this new argument. The original thinking, that the glasses are almost laughably conspicuous, still seems sensible to me, and I don’t believe it to be compatible with the newer idea that Google Glass will turn its users into highly effective secret agents. They just stick out too much for the users to be anything but highly visible.
If anything, modern smartphones are more effective as surveillance devices than Glass is going to be. They are so ubiquitous that using one in public is not likely to draw attention. Their screens typically point at the faces of the users, and their backs give no indication of what they’re doing – no red lights come on when they’re filming, that sort of thing. They have mics, cameras, and a huge array of apps. If I was looking to carry out urban surveillance I’d start with a smartphone that no-one will notice, not with a piece of headgear that makes me a laughing stock.
People like Stop the Cyborgs do have valid concerns, which they clearly state are more about ubiquitous computing in general rather than just Google Glass. And as a society we need to understand the ethical implications of forthcoming technological developments. A book like Adam Greenfield’s Everyware is a good place to start if you’re interested in that sort of thing, and I’d also recommend reading up on the implications of drone technology, which are far scarier than anything being placed in the hands of civilians.
But simplifying these issues down to a single product, especially one that hasn’t even been released yet, is to underestimate their importance and their complexity. Hanging out in a bar that’s banned Google Glass will not keep you immune from privacy invasions – but it’s a great idea if you just want to avoid people that look like spods.