Glassy-Eyed: Contesting the Äppäräntly Andersonian Future of Google Glass

A recent social thought experiment I conducted on a few of my friends inspired this blog post. With my longstanding and self-professed fascination with cyborgism, […]

A recent social thought experiment I conducted on a few of my friends inspired this blog post. With my longstanding and self-professed fascination with cyborgism, I recently sparked several conversations about the technological possibilities that Google Glass would bring once launched. In a nutshell for those unfamiliar—essentially, it’s a wearable photographic and video camera, smartphone, and meteorological extraordinaire that functions all in front of the user’s eyes, enacted via voice command. Typically the lone technological optimist in a crowd of skeptics, I was unsurprisingly met with more than one side-eye glance and concerned frown. When I explained to one of my friends the concept of Google Glasses as a solution to mobile phone distraction and as an inevitable convergence toward the black box, she shuddered, “I would never wear it. What’s next? Turning into a robot?” Instantaneously, and bemusing to me, she promptly went back to her iPhone screen, furiously dusting off invisible fairies on its glass surface.

Google Glass
Source: Google Glass.

The science and technology behind the glasses claiming to be able to cannibalize many of our current gadgets and devices can seem truly frightening. Google’s advertising campaign surrounding Glass only perpetuates—exacerbates, even—this futuristique mystique. Superficial negativity toward the eye-piece call users “Glassholes.” Light-hearted criticism paints a satirical picture of Google Glass commands gone awry. Deeper and more worrisome concerns underscore the more socially implicative influences on society writ large. In a world with Glass, we will all wear metal rods above our eyebrows, calling to mind M.T. Anderson’s vision of a dystopian, futuristic wasteland in which our lives are controlled by chips implanted under our skin. In this future, corporations eliminate all semblance of individual privacy as all thoughts and information from the individual experience become funneled into a monopolizing channel of authoritarian control. In this post-industrial, 1984-esque world, our collective lives turn into Gary Shteyngart’s super sad true love story—all recorded by an äppärät that extends, as an artificial limb, our artificiality.

Super Sad True Love Story
Characters in Super Sad True Love Story on their äppäräts.
Source: Dave Plunkert for The New York Times.

So we have this kind of future to look forward to? Not necessarily. After a broad perusal of critical commentary on Glass so far, criticism dominantly hones in on the scary socio-legal ramifications that are agitated thought experiments themselves, having yet to even manifest. Beer googles are still acceptable at the Seattle bar 5 Points Café, but any patrons trying to wear Google Glasses into the establishment are promised to receive swift “ass kickings.” Strip clubs have already started banning Google eyewear, lest some lucrative lap dance ends up on business model-disrupting YouTube. The “Stop the Cyborgs” online campaign, one of the most vocal groups against Glass, uses Bentham’s panopticon as a legitimizing parallel to caution us naive, susceptible plebes. “The transparent society is a utopian dream that will never happen,” its manifesto reads. People will stop acting as “autonomous individuals.” The campaign, paradigmatic of Luddite alarmism, clearly reifies a thought-terminating cliché, stripping away all forms of human agency in technology adoption and usage. Clearly, no human can be trusted to operate Glass on their own terms, for their own purposes. To top off their oppositional fanaticism, the site even offers “No Google Glass” signs for circulation under Creative Commons licensing. The only thing that’s missing from this comprehensive apprehension is probably a surgeon general warning.

Stop the Cyborgs
“Support the Humans—Stop the Cyborgs” T-shirts on sale.
Source: RedBubble.

Resultant from this premature moral panic, what becomes ignored is the incredible science behind the technology itself. Few can deny the impressive feat in innovative engineering. The glasses weigh as much as a pair of Raybans. The wearer controls Glass with a touchpad on the side, without an indicative texture, therefore streamlining its sleekness entirely. The utility and potential of this device hasn’t gone unrecognized by other big players in the tech industry, either—Chinese Internet giant Baidu and Microsoft are both rumored to have competing products in the works.

Google Glass
Source: Google Glass.

Despite the scientific and revolutionary potential of Glass that has clearly become feasible, however, the dark side of Google’s initial model still occupies the searing (and sometimes fictional) limelight of the media. Rather than applauding the scientific and technological brilliance needed to even come up with this damn thing, most naysayers are, quite simply, jumping the Glass GunComputers! Technology! Robots! Scary! Even though Leonardo da Vinci recognized the possibility of such a technology 400 years ago, many today do not share that same profundity of prescience as much as they easily fall into a hasty hysteria.

Super Sad True Love Story
Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.
Source: The Atlantic.

True, there are privacy protection and data monopoly issues to be expounded, grappled with, and reconciled. But if people are already equating wearing Google Glass with cyborgism, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. Or maybe even a little late to the accusation, given the growing mass addiction to smartphones. A Google representative recently commented to Forbes, “It is still very early days for Glass, and we expect that as with other new technologies, such as cell phones, behaviors and social norms will develop over time.” On this, Chris Taylor at Mashable put it best:

Strange as it seems now, it was once a courageous act to wear headphones in public. First came the single earpiece for AM radios, then the stereo headset. Both helped drown out the loud tut-tutting from observers who saw them as unnecessary sense augmentation. Owning a PC in the early 1980s meant you ran the risk of being dubbed a computer yourself, as dumb as that sounds. I remember using one of the first color Apple laptops, the Powerbook 5300, in a Manhattan cafe in 1996; over at the next table, a group of hipsters started derisively humming the theme from Mission Impossible, in which the then-futuristic laptop featured. Want to bet how many of them are using Macbooks in cafes today?

Despite what this capitalistic soliloquy might sound like, Google did not pay me to write this article. I simply refuse to believe that our future resembles that of Lenny Abramov. It’s just too… well, super sad to be real.

About Qichen Zhang

Qichen is a master's candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, a Balliol College member, and the current Online Editor for Bang! Blogs. She thinks "Impact" font and cat memes have singlehandedly changed the historical canon of western culture. Read more at