Will Glass be the Frankenstein that pushes us into a world of reductive reality?
“It’s coming,” said Google’s Mary Lou Jepsen last month. “I don’t think it’s stoppable.”
Ms. Jepsen, head of the company’s top secret R&D division, was referring to, of course, Google Glass— a head-mountable contraption that threatens to invert Shakespeare’s most famous adage from ‘All the world’s a stage’ to ‘All the world’s a screen.’
The imminent arrival of Google Glass has sparked a cocktail of excitement, curiosity and trepidation quite unlike any other device; it is, at the same time, both a vessel of quasi-religious longing for its supporters and a potential Big Brother device for its detractors.
Much of the initial trepidation, of course, stemmed from the hidden surveillance possibilities of the device’s tiny camera. There are others, however, that feel that Glass will be the Frankenstein that tips us over; that pushes us into a world of reductive reality that we will have trouble recognising, let alone deciphering.
It is this curious mixture of unbridled enthusiasm and murky apprehension that has prompted the Kierkegaardian, Soviet Russia meme of a question: Do you wear Google Glass or does Google Glass wear you?
Fortunately for us, Google has shown the way, through a recent patent filing. Glass, for all its disruptive ability, has a simple problem: the lack of a proper input mechanism. It was the invention of the keyboard and the mouse that really let the PC spread to the masses. Laptops have the touchpad. The modern smartphone has the now-infallible touch-screen. And so on.
Google Glass for the most part still hasn’t refined its input methods. After all, how does one give instructions to a pair of computing spectacles? Sure, as demonstrated by recent videos and Google Glass beta users, one could wag their head up and down. But that has limited functionality, and sends one into a little tizzy after repeated usage, especially when it comes to operating more complex apps.
What Glass does have, however, is a camera. This can be trained to decipher and remember key hand gestures which, in turn, can be used to operate software applications.
Look at the below image. Google Glass users will soon be able to frame an object with a heart formed using only their fingers and thumbs, a method that can seemingly be used to register ones approval for the object—similar to clicking a Facebook ‘Like’.
According to the filing, this effect would be the same as clicking or tapping a smartphone screen.
On similar lines, look at the second image, shown below. Glass also allows you to ‘select’ a certain part of the landscape by making a lasso gesture with your finger. This is somewhat similar to a crop/cut option.
Just as most readers confuse Frankenstein with the name of the monster in Mary Shelley’s classic novel, when in fact Frankenstein is the name of the scientist that creates the monster, it is clear that with Glass, Google has side-stepped the problem of finding an input mechanism and instead is trying to turn the human body itself into an input device more completely than anything that has come out before.
This is fundamentally different from a webcam or any other type of facial recognition technology for instance, where the device is a fixed camera that is turned to focus on human movements and then translate them into functions that display on a screen.
Turn it out like a sock
With Glass, the camera is placed on the user, with its focus turned outwards—turning the whole world into a screen. It is our vision that becomes the mouse pointer, our hands that become the keys on a keyboard, with our world transforming into a store of digital data that can be manipulated with a simple hand gesture.
The computer is no longer a simple tool, but instead becomes an experience that is universal and seamless. This cannot be compared to virtual reality, which seeks to merely provide a simulation of the real that remains quite separate from the real. What Glass seeks is to do is turn our reality into a simulation and, in the process, make all of existence machine-readable.
There are people, who out of reasons of ideology or financial gain, who would quiver in anticipation of this radical transformation of the real. Google for instance, as I have written previously before, has already appointed the ‘Glass Collective’, an investment syndicate that seeks to help entrepreneurs contribute to the Glass ecosystem through apps. In other words, a group of investors, who command multitudes of lobbyists and PR functionaries, seek to harness our gaze in a very intimate fashion. How should our rights and responsibilities play out in a world such as this?
Glass, therefore, is not a prophesied perpetrator of divine violence, a type of violence done not out of revenge but to disrupt the fabric of social order, as Eric Schmidt would have us believe. It is instead a logical extension of the historical process of a small group of people trying to exploit the ‘crowds’ for financial gain. Again, this is still a type of violence, but one that seeks to maintain the status quo.
One of the recurring consequences of technological progress, as seen throughout history, is the removal of real human agency from the technology’s inner workings. We see this in the development of the Internet, cloud computing and the subsequent NSA surveillance fallout, where what we get is an abstraction of human agency that represents the desire of the manufacturer (the U.S Government in this case, which funded and built most of the Internet as we know it).
It is the same with Google Glass. Those who applaud technological progress often change tune when progress destroys something they care deeply about. “We love the things we love for what they are” wrote poet Robert Frost. Let us not wait for Glass to start destroying the things we care about, whether it is privacy or the reduction of reality, in order to start fighting for them first.