No technopanic here, just understandable concern


Jeff Jarvis has written an interesting post about Google Glass over at Medium: I See You: The Technopanic over Google Glass. Most of it is about minimising privacy-related fears expressed by other people — especially by Mark Hurst in his article The Google Glass feature no one is talking about — and Jarvis’s stance could be paraphrased as “Just calm down, guys; like with other technologies with high social impact, we’re all smart enough to figure it out. These fears over Glass are premature and largely exaggerated”.

After reading both Hurst and Jarvis’s pieces, I’m left with the feeling that each tends to be a bit extreme — Hurst in his fears, but also Jarvis in his laid-back minimisation of Hurst’s fears. I share Hurst’s point of view when he writes:

The key experiential question of Google Glass isn’t what it’s like to wear them, it’s what it’s like to be around someone else who’s wearing them. I’ll give an easy example. Your one-on-one conversation with someone wearing Google Glass is likely to be annoying, because you’ll suspect that you don’t have their undivided attention. And you can’t comfortably ask them to take the glasses off (especially when, inevitably, the device is integrated into prescription lenses). Finally – here’s where the problems really start – you don’t know if they’re taking a video of you.

Wholesale surveillance paranoia aside, Hurst expresses a very real and annoying scenario. And it’s undeniable that, should Glass be adopted by a significant amount of people, the device will change certain interpersonal dynamics. In the debate over Glass, I’ve often heard pro-Glass people say that this is just history repeating itself: look at mobile phones in the 1990s. At first they were treated like ‘foreign objects’, but after a few years of increasing adoption, they have become completely integrated in our society. The same is going to happen with Google Glass. Jarvis says something similar, but focussing more specifically on when cameras were introduced in mobile phones:

This is the fear we hear most: That someone wearing Glass will record you — because they can now — and you won’t know it. But isn’t that what we heard when cell phones added cameras? See The New York Times from a decade ago about Chicago Alderman Edward Burke:

But what Mr. Burke saw was the peril.
“If I’m in a locker room changing clothes,” he said, “there shouldn’t be some pervert taking photos of me that could wind up on the Internet.”
Accordingly, as early as Dec. 17, the Chicago City Council is to vote on a proposal by Mr. Burke to ban the use of camera phones in public bathrooms, locker rooms and showers.

His fear didn’t materialize. Why? Because we’re civilized. We’re not as rude and stupid — as perverted — as our representative, Mr. Burke, presumed us to be.

A few things:

1. I’m not so sure Burke’s fear hasn’t materialised. I usually don’t waste time browsing YouTube videos, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of finding candid videos of people in public bathrooms, locker rooms and showers.

2. About us being civilised and not rude, stupid and perverted… Just try searching on Google “YouTube videos of high school student being beaten” (or “raped” or similar searches) for a few samples of ‘civilisation’.

3. I believe there is a certain difference between mobile phones and Google Glass, and I don’t think Glass is going to be accepted and integrated so easily as mobile phones have been. Glass, in my opinion, is a more controversial device because the needs of its users and the impact on surrounding non-users aren’t as well-balanced as with mobile phones and smartphones.

In other words, when I use my iPhone in public, the device can fulfil my needs without affecting other people’s personal sphere or freedom. Sure, I can be rude and talk loudly on the phone in a public place. Or I can try to take candid shots or videos of other people. Both of these acts, though, are blatant enough to hardly go unnoticed. In these cases, my ‘needs’ create enough friction with other people around me that it’s very likely I will suffer the consequences of my actions.

But Google Glass can certainly be a stealthier device than a smartphone in this regard. It can offer a lot of convenience to the user, but make other people uncomfortable. If I am in a public place and notice a guy or a girl fiddling with their smartphone all the time, I may quietly shake my head thinking of how addictive these things have become, but unless he or she is pointing the device in my direction, I will certainly ignore them and their behaviour. But someone wearing Google Glass? Not equally easy to ignore. They may be using the device in the most innocent way, but I will perceive a violation of my personal space.


How will we deal with the Glass problem? I’ll bet that people wearing Glass will learn not to shoot those around them without asking or they’ll get in trouble; they’ll be scolded or shunned or sued, which is how we negotiate norms. I’d also bet that Google will end up adding a red light — the universal symbol for “You’re on!” — to Glass. And folks around Glass users will hear them shout instructions to their machines, like dorks, saying: “OK, Glass: Record video.”

This looks to me as simplistic and maybe too optimistic a way to treat the issue. From what I’ve understood by watching the “How it feels” video Google posted on YouTube and by reading a few reviews, Glass users can also operate the device by touching its side, so they really don’t need to “shout instructions” if they want to surreptitiously record something or somebody. As for the red ‘REC’ light, it’s very possible that it’ll be added to the final product, but unless it’s as awfully bright as the AF illuminator of certain digital cameras, that too may go unnoticed. And even if you notice someone whose Glass device is recording, you won’t be able to tell for sure whether they’re recording you or only your surroundings and you just happen to be a part of some tourist’s personal video-recording. Google Glass in this instance is better than a camera or camcorder at masking intent.

This is a very delicate, nuanced matter. Perhaps people will just get used to this, but somehow I find it hard to believe: have you ever found yourself on a bus and apparently out of the blue someone asked you What are you staring at? What do you want? just because they thought you were staring at them while you were actually lost in your thoughts? If some people (many people? — I guess it depends on cultural factors) already have problems with slightly prolonged eye contact in public, I really don’t know how well Google Glass is going to be received.

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