Prof. Derek Valiant
One of the common drives of humanity is the desire to modify environments to be better suited to human wants. From the creation of prehistoric sculpture to the colonization and suppression of the natural world, humanity constantly seeks out ways to mark the world and mold it to their circumstances. It is not much of a surprise, then, that humans have changed the function and landscape of computers to reflect that which is human. So far removed from their original creation, computation and the Internet are now user-friendly hubs for social networking and human connection, with one company to thank for much of the shaping of the structure of the modern Internet. Google was created in 1998, and in just three years, had become a verb in both the Merriam-Webster and Oxford English Dictionaries. Google has since expanded into phones, laptops, word processing software, Cloud-based file storage, and most recently, the experimental augmented reality headset, Google Glass. Opened to beta testers in 2013, available to the public in 2014, and removed from production in 2015, Glass held the public’s attention as a center of interest and debate about what may be in store for the future of communications technologies. Although Google announced they would stop producing and selling Glass, they also said that they were not yet giving up on the project. Did this technology’s inability to gain traction on the mass market lie in the technology itself, or in the social climate that surrounded its genesis? What political, moral, and aesthetic aspects of Glass as an emerging technology defined it from other popular computing formats? This essay aims to bring an awareness that, even if a communications technology possesses “properties… directed towards a service of life” (Mumford, Technics and Civilization 7), cultural anxieties and perceived threats to personal autonomy can prevent it from being smoothly integrated into a social system.
Google Glass, at its core, is a true marriage between the “mechanical” and the “organic” (Mumford, Technics and Civilization 7), using Cloud computing to extend sight, hearing, speech, and memory. Glass was not intended to record and track every aspect of one’s daily life; rather, much like it’s parent company, to be an always-present yet hands-free link to the central technologies already present in the smartphone. By placing that technology directly in our visual environment as is seen in the Google commercial “How It Feels,” Glass is marketed as a tool that allows the user to reconnect with life, to record and communicate digitally without being impeded by a screen. Another commercial-cum-documentary, titled “Seeds,” steers the user towards the idea that Glass has created a new platform with which one is able to create deep, emotional connections through capturing and sharing lived experiences. One property in favor of Glass is that, unlike many current emerging technologies whose only motivation is “to achieve increased efficiency” (Winner 124), its function is not “to maximize energy, speed, or automation, without reference to the complex conditions that sustain organic life” (Mumford, Authoritarian and Democratic Technics 5), but rather, works with them to create a new way to experience digital communication that services daily life. In these ways, Glass is distinguishable from other lifestyle technologies and its direct predecessor, the smartphone.
It is interesting to note that even with such philanthropic aims, the Glass prototype did not succeed on the mass market. Often cited are its high price and lack of style; however, the problem that most consumers have with Glass is one that has developed on the national scale–the cultural anxiety over personal privacy versus government surveillance. Cultural anxieties, such as the fear of falling prey to an authoritarian regime during the 50s or the worry about artificial intelligence surpassing human intelligence in the early 70s, have always had profound impacts on consumer markets. Today, the debate over the ways in which a person’s autonomy is restricted by the constant recording and tracking of their actions over the Internet strikes a similar chord to the argument made by Lewis Mumford in an article from 1963, titled Authoritarian and Democratic Technics. He warns that technologies are pulling society away from democracy and towards a new, more perfect type of authoritarian regime, in which “each member of the community may claim every material advantage, every emotional and intellectual stimulus [they] may desire… but on one condition: that one must not merely ask for that the system does not provide, but likewise agree to take everything offered” (Mumford, 6). One of the reasons Glass makes people uncomfortable is because the video and picture camera is always on display. The aesthetic of the Glass–a thin wire headband with a weighted block on one side–seems to attempt to at the same time be pseudo-futuristic yet discreet. The constant presence of an unblinking third eye disrupts the conversation, as one beta tester noticed (Simson Garfinkel, Glass, Darkly). This idea of constant digital surveillance even in the physical world is one that has not been accepted, even though it has by-and-large already been implemented, due to the GPS and motion data that is constantly being recorded by smartphones. Even if the user has to hold down a button to record, or say a voice command to take a photo, there are already programs that have been created to get around those implemented software restrictions and film people without their knowledge. Although it is unlikely that Google will ever hold the world hostage, what if their services someday stopped working, or someone else with less than pure intentions was able to access this company-sponsored public service? Glass is part of a “man-made system that appears to require particular kinds of political relationships” (Winner 123), with the term ‘political’ meaning ‘pertaining to a system of power,’ in this case, the hierarchy of information through Google. When one company is in charge of systemically ranking what is important and what is unimportant, no matter how benevolent the corporation, a sort of censorship occurs from this lack of multiple information sources. Although the product was still in prototype form when it hit the market, the politics expressed in the artifact itself point to a separation of class, both because of the $1500 price tag and requirement that the user already have a smartphone that Glass can sync with. Additionally, the software used to create Glass points to Google’s ability to enter every aspect of the market, inadvertently stifling competition and creation. Beta testers proved it was easy to hack into the Glass software and uninstall certain failsafes (Freeman, Exploiting a Bug in Google’s Glass). Perhaps more competition would have prompted developers to code stronger software? Either way, it is clear that this total and usually unthinking dependance on the systems provided by Google is largely problematic, and the political implications of Glass extend far beyond the metal-and-wire object.
Thus the parts of technology that are aimed to be in service of life can often be overshadowed by the social-political circumstances under which they are born, and the inherent politics of the layers of the technology itself. In the case of Google Glass, public anxiety about surveillance served to be the nail in the proverbial coffin and prevented it from progressing past the early adopters. However, this type of augmented reality technology is not going to go away, not from Google and not from other technological players like Microsoft with the new HoloLens or the Oculus Rift virtual gaming device. However, worries about the user losing their humanity to the machine are rather unfounded: people are going to continue to use communication technologies to behave like humans would. People have and will always seek deep, meaningful connections, no matter the medium, and will continue to alter and reject incoming technologies until they serve that human purpose.
Freeman, Jay. “The Realm of the Avatar.”Exploiting a Bug in Google’s Glass. Web. 10 Feb. 2015. <http://www.saurik.com/id/16>.
Mumford, Lewis. “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics.” Technology and Culture 5.1 (1964): 1-8. Print.
Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. New York [N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace, 1934. 7. Print.
Garfinkel, Simson. “Glass, Darkly.” MIT Technology Review. 1 Feb. 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.
Winner, Langdon. “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Daedalus 109.1 (1980): 121-36. Print.
“How It Feels [through Google Glass].”YouTube. Google, 20 Feb. 2013. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.
“Seeds [through Google Glass].” YouTube. Google Glass, 8 May 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.