/ 12 March 2013

Through a Glass, Inevitably

I’ve been reading much handwringing about what a product like Google Glass means for polite society. Because the item in question is a powerful computer shaped like eyeglasses, Glass can become an omnipresent documentarian of its wearer’s life – analyzing, recording and even live-streaming the events and faces that surround it – without giving much notice that it’s doing so. Among prominent writers who opine about technology, this is not going over well.

Obviously we need to be in the situation to truly assess it, but I’m not sure I want to talk to people who are wearing Google Glass, ever. Our culture is already soundbite-y and out-of-context enough.
David Chartier

My hope is that restaurants and bars will ban them.
John Gruber

The device’s eyeglass form factor alters something fundamental about our unspoken bargain with powerful technology – it removes the social cues that currently signal to other humans: hey, you’re about to be recorded, scanned, broadcast, and/or saved for posterity. Or even, hey: you’re about to be ignored while I look something up on my phone. There are observable, expected behaviors that surround the modern use of cameras and smartphones, and usually (but not always) those behaviors give others fair warning when devices are being actively brandished. Glass changes that; there’s no telling when someone who’s wearing them is actively using them, not even as they’re looking you in the eye. Sure there’s a “red light” when they’re recording, but a “turn off the red light” app (or a tiny piece of tape) isn’t hard to conjure. Glass introduces the tangible threat that something surreptitious could be happening to you at any time. It’s spooky, no doubt about it.

So as high-profile observers weigh in – this is tech-pundit red meat, after all – a passionate response pours forth. This is only encouraged by very justifiable suspicions surrounding Google’s motives. The verdict is clear: Public places should ban Glass (some have already, chiefly as publicity stunts). Their use in “cool” places should immediately render those places uncool. And hey, if people wearing Glass glasses get punched in the face, well, what did they expect?

It’s not a stretch to imagine that you could immediately be identified by that Google Glass user who gets on the bus and turns the camera toward you. Anything you say within earshot could be recorded, associated with the text, and tagged to your online identity. And stored in Google’s search index. Permanently.
Mark Hurst

There is a kid wearing Google Glasses at this restaurant which, until just now, used to be my favorite spot.
David Yee

All this stuff rings true; I will feel vaguely uncomfortable if I see somebody wearing Glass near me. I will take steps, to an extent, to avoid being in the observable path of a Glass user. I think it’s right to be incredibly skeptical about a company that makes its living indexing information about us and selling it to advertisers, when they introduce a product that could record, potentially, everything about everybody and save it forever. This sentiment isn’t hard to get behind; you won’t find a reaction approaching this level of consensus on most topics that concern the tech world.

But there’s something being lost in the back-slapping backlash: no matter how much we find it distasteful, Glass is inevitable technology. Moore’s Law ensures that. Sure, we can gather up arms, ban people wearing techy-looking frames from public places, withhold public acceptance, and scorn those who deem the technology worthy or cool. But it won’t matter, because technological progress is improving too rapidly to stop something like Glass now.  It won’t matter because when Glass is good enough, it won’t be identifiable anymore.  It won’t, in fact, be visible.  And because of that, it will be everywhere.

A quick analogy is in order. Forget the oft-stated factoid that the iPhone has more processing power than the computers NASA used to get us to the moon. Simply compare today’s iPhone 5 with the original 2007 iPhone. The 5 is far more powerful, has a far better battery, has a far better camera, has far better networking capability, has a far better screen, is made out of higher-quality materials and yet is far thinner and far lighter. Oh, and it’s about half the price of the ’07 model. Five and a half years of progress have yielded, what, a phone that’s five-fold better than its first version? Ten-fold? It’s somewhere in that range, right?

This is what will happen with wearable computers like Glass. Every few months, a new model will arrive that’s smaller, lighter, less goofy-looking, less noticeable. Manufacturers will fight to offer versions that improve on the competition, and the pace of development will be staggering. Eventually Glass (or a Glass competitor) will be something that fits into regular eyeglass frames, then maybe something like a frameless monocle. Then, a contact lens. Then, a little bit down the line, it’ll be an implant – something you can get electively for a few hundred bucks – maybe you check a box when you go in for Lasik, and get Glass thrown in there too.

Over time, Glass will get markedly better, just like the iPhone has. Today’s Google Glass is, in fact, 2007’s iPhone. (In fact, since Google is admittedly releasing this product early, it might be more akin to a 2005 or 2006 iPhone prototype.) So what will a five- or ten-fold improvement on Glass look like? Probably nothing at all. Because as part of getting better, Glass will disappear.

In a few years – and I’m talking a decade out, two at most – it won’t matter how outraged we’d be if we saw somebody wearing Glass in public. It won’t make a difference that we’d punch them in the face if we saw them recording us. We won’t know who has Glass. We won’t know when somebody’s recording, or looking something up. The march of technology ensures that Glass’s biggest weakness as a product – how goofy the frames look – will melt away into nothing. As it does, the possibilities that a product like Glass opens up will become more and more enticing to many who no longer fear public stigma.

Eventually, when it becomes physically imperceptible to do so, the majority of us will probably be using something like Glass. By then, of course, the fact that we ever needed eyeglass frames to enable the technology will be laughable; the whole system will be so small and so integrated it will be functionally invisible. Privacy issues will be rocky, but an addiction to the power of the technology will override all else, and a steady redefinition of the concept of personal privacy will cascade down through the coming generations. We’ll also most likely have established a rudimentary gestural etiquette around the use of invisible technology. Roger Ebert, of course, predicted this many years ago.

Taking in that video, today, is a bit incredible; first, because watching an intelligent person spoon-feed Bill O’Reilly will never go out of style.  But more importantly, consider the timeline: if the day the interview takes place is point A, and the future Ebert’s describing is point C, we’re already more than halfway there – well past point B. That means that parts of what Ebert says sound silly-easy (“of course we can do that!”) and parts sound silly-impossible (“how could we do that?”). But remember, it was all fantasy when Ebert said it.  Now, with advances in natural language processing, high-speed persistent connections and ever-shrinking chip dies, It’s coming true, little bits at a time.  Like one of those fast-motion videos of flowers blooming, this video clip translates something normally out of phase with human appreciation – technological progress – onto a scale we can understand.

Though it may be inevitable, technological progress isn’t inherently moral. Our zeal to connect pipes and wires and data streams together is usually more powerful than our urge to preserve our naked humanity. There are virtually no checks on our society’s technological enthusiasm, especially when that enthusiasm is stoked by the equally powerful and equally human desire to make lots of money. This is the road we’re on right now – this is the human experiment we’ve designed for ourselves. (And anyway, progressive societies tend to adjust the definition of what is “morally acceptable” to fit what current technology enables us to do – not the other way around.)

So, however well-considered the the backlash over Google Glass –  however real the concerns, or clever the rejoinders – it seems a little misguided to single out this one project for derision unless we’re talking about getting off the entire nutty ride. Yes, Glass presents a host of challenges to what we currently think of as humane society. But we’ve already set up the rules of the game: innovate, iterate, integrate. Those rules guide our progress now. Glass isn’t just this one goofy product, it’s the first embodiment of an idea: the idea of frictionless, imperceptible, networked personal supercomputing.

The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.
Isaac Asimov

These concepts scare us, as humans, and and we react in a very human way: with bluster and critique. But even reasoned concern misses the broader truth, and derisive snark masks it; both styles of response can make it seem like Glass could never catch on. To the contrary: short of legislation, Glass (or something like it) is happening, and quickly. Progress is happening. So it’s time to either a) start punching everybody who blinks a little too much, b) pick up a few Wyoming real estate brochures, or c) start figuring out how to adjust to (yet another) brave new world.

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