Google’s April Fool spoofs have never been particularly funny, but it was only this year that they became slightly sinister: Google Nose, a satirically imagined search service for smells, reminded us that the company has graduated beyond the intellect and is now moving in on the senses.
Consumer hardware may not yet have the power to capture and process olfactory search terms, but it is more than capable of augmenting sight. Thus we have been gifted Google’s latest, most horrendous idea: a wearable, Internet-enabled computer it has christened “Glass,” but whose inelegant aesthetic is better represented by the product’s goofy unofficial moniker, “Google Goggles.”
It’s an audacious product for a company no one trusts to behave responsibly with our data: a pair of glasses that can monitor and record the world around you. But they do so much more than that. Let’s not beat about the bush here: these specs are a thing of wonder. They can email, take pictures, record video, provide walking or driving directions, conduct searches, translate signs… the possibilities are endless.
But if Glass becomes as ubiquitous as the iPhone, are we truly to believe that Google will not attempt to abuse that remarkable power?
To do so, we would have to accept that Google, to select just three examples from just one recent New York Times report, only collected passwords, emails and data from private WiFi networks “accidentally”; that the company meant well when it deliberately bypassed security protocols in the Safari browser in 2012; and that the FTC was wrong to call its Buzz launch tactics “deceptive” and impose a twenty year audit ruling thereafter.
Journalists privately remark that Google, like Facebook, has become practically impossible to libel when it comes to privacy, and that the company has only itself to blame, for two reasons.
Firstly, we are moving toward a world in which technology corporations have at least as much influence over the average person as national governments do. That may sound daft, but ask yourself whether a few dollars off your tax bill would really make as much difference to your life as the withdrawal of Gmail, or the disappearance of all your Apple products. (Oh, and pause for a moment, before you answer, to remember that Facebook is now cited in a third of all divorces.)
Google is both the originator and the archetype of the invasive-tech-firm cliché. It has done more to bring shame on the technology industry than the most feverish imaginings of dedicated Microsoft haters and has been caught with its hand in the privacy till many times. It is also terrifically rich and considerably globally powerful, thanks both to its lobbying efforts and its peerless in-house engineering talent.
It is also one of the leading lights of the cloud revolution, with all the concomitant privacy assaults, data centralization and ready access to data for law enforcement agencies that go with it.
Secondly, in the real world, Google regularly goes rogue, like a vigilante ideologue armed with every possible technological advantage: more power, in fact, than it can safely or maturely handle. Depressingly, the only war this outlaw sees fit to wage is against citizens who refuse to share their toilet habits with the Kimberly-Clark Corporation. That’s to say, Google isn’t fighting organised crime with its unprecedented power; it’s peering into your downstairs lavatory so it can sell you the right toilet paper.
To assist in its disquieting mission to “organise the world’s information,” Google is recruiting an army. Not a real one, of course: the idea of Google mercenaries is far-fetched, albeit only slightly. Instead, it’s recruiting members of the public to spy for it, simply by wearing its new specs. Google Glass doesn’t represent militarism so much as espionage on a colossal scale.
According to the Economist, technology has already forced state-sponsored spycraft to morph from a profession into a set of freelance job postings. Mountain View looks on and laughs, applying research dollars and Internet-scale economics to the trend, turning its customers and acolytes into a private army of eavesdroppers by releasing irresistibly alluring new ways to explore our world and ourselves that somehow always get busted for phoning home and blabbing a bit more than they should to the mother ship.
Does that sound hysterical? It shouldn’t. With each new eyebrow-raising court judgment and federal fine levied against Google, it becomes ever more clear that this is a company hell-bent on innovating first and asking questions later, if ever. And its vision, shared with other California technology companies, is of corporate America redefining societal privacy norms in the service of advertising companies and their clients.
It’s important not to slide into conspiracy theorising when discussing Google, however tempting it might be. Nor should we scapegoat the company out of fear of the unknown. So it’s worth reminding ourselves that the dangers arising from the concentration of influence by companies such as Google are inherent and structural.
In other words, Google need not be an evil corporation for us to have justified concerns about the power it wields. We should be concerned about what happens when the mounting social pressure of consumer temptations meets the economic imperatives of a multinational corporation, whoever that corporation is.
Yet there can be little doubt that Google will eventually be hauled in front of a judge for illicitly collecting data from its Glass products. No sane analyst or commentator would bet against it. As ever, corporate America’s imagination and daring puts the hubris of nosey civil servants to shame.
And that’s why it’s fair to subject Glass to extra scrutiny: because it’s Google we’re talking about here. No other company has so consistently proven itself deserving of scrupulous attention.
The Moral Side
The treatment of technology in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 Batman movie The Dark Knight struck just one bum note, and that was the creepy, Gotham-wide sonar system created by tapping into private citizens’ mobile phones. For one thing, fans didn’t like Batman’s wacky, glowing eyes whenever the system piped information to his cowl, but they also, and more vociferously, objected to the invention itself.
Fans didn’t react badly because the idea of turning “every cell phone in Gotham into a microphone” was absurd and impossible. No: it was that, for a movie franchise crammed with outlandish, barely-possible gadgets, the hijacking of mobile phones for surveillance seemed… well, unambitious.
Moviegoers accustomed to having their email scanned for advertising keywords, their mobile app data tracked and stored and their houses photographed for public consumption on the Internet were hardly going to be blown away by the idea of someone listening in on their conversations. To put it bluntly: consumers already know their devices are spying on them.
But even this unarresting stab at private sector prying gave pause to one of the two moral guardians of the story—Morgan Freeman’s avuncular Wayne Enterprises chief executive, Lucius Fox. Fox, if you recall, threatened to resign should the sonar device remain active after the Joker’s capture.
The scene in question is charmingly naïve. “This is too much power for one person,” intones Freeman, shortly before delivering a line that must have had tech executives everywhere sniggering into their lattes with derision: “Spying on 30 million people isn’t part of my job description.” You can almost hear the giggles from Palo Alto. Only 30 million?
Tech execs would have snickered, too, at a redemptive slow-motion sequence in which the machine is destroyed after serving its function. This is an act of conscience entirely alien to Silicon Valley.
Typing LARRY PAGE into Google’s mainframe isn’t ever going to precipitate the destruction of the company’s Street View or search data, the same way typing LUCIUS FOX wiped out the sonar system in The Dark Knight—even though the data mined from any one of Google’s battery of products is far more valuable, and dangerous, than Batman’s kooky gizmo.
A Pulitzer is on ice, waiting for the reporter who can demonstrate why human rights violations originating in Mountain View matter to all of us. Yet coverage of Google’s perpetual privacy infractions is often limited to under-staffed Left-wing newspapers, self-righteous, illiterate fulminators on tech blogs and clunking European courtrooms.
The public may be wising up, but all things considered there are surprisingly few professional reporters willing or able to put in the legwork, given how important tech giants are, not just for the global economy but for the future of society and culture. It’s instead left to Luddites in cumbersome national judiciaries and to the whipped-up opprobrium of the masses, instead of the fourth estate, to enforce propriety on the private sector.
Perhaps it’s just as well that the Internet is doing the policing. The software component to Glass means that the devices can be extended and upgraded in ways even Google hasn’t thought of yet. On the one hand, that’s toxic: they’re in a class of devices, like smartphones, vulnerable to insidious, creeping changes, like the Facebook platform. So they need to be watched.
But it’s also Glass’s genius: in wafting the prospect of augmented reality for all before our noses, the spectacles do what Gmail did to email eight years ago: they take an essential daily task or tool (in this case, one of the very most basic) and make it rich, joyful, liberating—and easily upgradeable. Apple creates sexy but static objects in new verticals; Google makes the pedestrian both personal and delightful, and iterates rapidly.
A relatively common, if overwrought, view is that Glass is only the latest in a decade and half’s worth of Machiavellian plays for advertising data, in which Google dreams up an irresistible product, gives it away cheaply or for free, and in return garners a vast, unprecedented catalogue of personal data to resell to its advertising partners.
Perhaps that’s because Google is a company that often seems bewildered by its own creations, and which struggles to establish appropriate ethical standards even for itself.
There’s a growing sense of unease inside Mountain View about the monstering Glass is receiving in some parts of the press. And that’s before the goggles, which promise to bring Minority Report-style interactivity to everyday life, are even on general sale. “Stop the cyborgs” is one phrase being used by privacy campaigners terrified about what might happen when Google Glass hits Main Street.
The mainstream reaction to Glass has been—how should we put it charitably?—mixed, prompting some to speculate that the product may arrive stillborn. “It’s not,” one well-known Silicon Valley analyst, who preferred not to be named, told me, “that these glasses are ahead of their time. It’s actually that they’re too late: tech writers and even the public are terrified by what they represent because Google has proven itself so untrustworthy.
“What I mean is, we’ve got Google’s number.”
We shouldn’t get carried away imagining Google is waging some sort of war against the public. After all, it’s the company’s tech industry stablemates that stand to lose from Glass, should it prove commercially successful. Why? Because despite the reservations of the Wall Street Journal and seasoned Google-watchers, there’s an irritating digital-era learned behaviour that these glasses might just help us to overcome.
It’s a familiar scene. Two young professionals meet for coffee, yet beyond the air kisses and shallow, fashion-forward affirmations as they greet one another, half the time they spend together isn’t dedicated to real interpersonal communication at all: instead, they are checking in, Tweeting, surfing, sharing and even, occasionally, sending each other messages, despite the fact that they are sitting opposite one another.
Academic Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, says that young people aren’t learning basic body language any more, primarily thanks to their connected devices. The art of subtle cues that express a paragraph’s worth of intimate expression is being lost. We don’t make eye contact with each other any longer. We don’t touch. In a world in which young are under pressure to be visibly connected, they’re in fact lonelier and more isolated than ever.
Until now? At the TED conference earlier this year, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, wearing a pair of his company’s internet-enabled spectacles, described the act of swiping and tapping on a touchscreen as “emasculating.” It was a poor choice of words, but it revealed Google’s dissatisfaction with the touchscreen as a primary interface method for mobile devices. And it affirmed the company’s commitment to the heads-up, voice-controlled way of doing things.
Glass might be plugged into all the same services as your iPhone—Twitter, email, Foursquare and Google itself—but you interact with the platforms very differently: by using, as you do in real life, your eyes, mouth and ears. You are forced to acknowledge the primacy of what’s around you and recognise the potential technology has to augment those things, but also the limitations inherent in it.
Encouragingly, journalists and Valley A-listers who have trialled Glass report that they spend less time on social networks, even when the amount of content they post goes up. Generally, they’re querying other platforms for other kinds of data. That ought to worry social networks that rely on eyeballs and screen time for their revenue.
We should sound one note of caution here before celebrating the speculative demise of the social network: the data in this area are very mixed. It’s unarguably true that people are beastly on the internet, but there’s just as much evidence to suggest that young people use social media to supplement and not to replace their real-world relationships, which would appear to be no bad thing, if true.
Whether online friendships are as good as “the real thing” would appear at this stage to be a matter of individual parental choice. As for the effect of introducing Glass into the playground, no one yet has any idea about it.
It’s possible that Google might even reboot interpersonal etiquette. Surfing Twitter on an iPhone, it’s easy to forget there’s a world out there. That’s why people are so gruesome to one another online, after all: the screen provides a mediating layer between reality and us. We forget that the person at the other end is a human being too.
Glass’s layer is thinner, more translucent—and not just literally. By removing some of the distance between us and other people, could Glass usher in more humane, healthier relationship architectures—models in which technology sticks to doing what it is good at and doesn’t overreach itself, suffocating the message with the medium?
There are hurdles—perhaps insurmountable ones—that must be cleared before Google can be permitted to unleash Glass to the mass market. If that sounds like a call for regulation, perhaps it is. Already there are suggestions that the headsets will be illegal to wear in some countries under existing laws. Restaurants, we can only hope, are already planning ban them from being worn over supper.
That said, if Glass, or some other, similar wearable device, does manage to ingratiate itself sufficiently safely to welcome in ubiquitous, connected computing, dare we imagine an end to the pathological, Twitter-driven rudeness of anyone in public under 30 years old?
Who Watches the Watchmen?
There’s one final consideration, when we look ahead to what many would describe as a classic dystopia—a future in which Glass and wearable computers like it are omnipresent—and that’s the psychological effect of being surrounded, even more than is already the case, by recording devices.
Already the “surveillance state” is contributing to widespread fear and loathing for the Establishment in western democracies. (It’s by no means the only factor, of course.) Governments, anxious about their declining influence in the age of the Internet, runaway capitalism and, even worse, runaway Internet capitalism, are engorging themselves, compulsively rummaging through their citizens’ drawers and generally poking their noses where they don’t belong.
That’s bad enough. What happens, though, when it’s not just governments but your friends, neighbours and colleagues who might, at any moment, be subjecting you to unwanted and unauthorised supervision? When the threat of censure from the state for putting trash in a wrongly-coloured sack becomes the threat of public ridicule from a friend who uploads a video of an unfortunate trip down the stairs? For many people, the latter could be a great deal more traumatic.
In the UK, a television show called You’ve Been Framed once held something of a monopoly on public embarrassment: viewers would send in home-made videotapes of their friends and relatives in “hilarious” accidents. (Some were faked; most were not.) Today, thanks to YouTube, Jackass culture is everywhere; cruelty and voyeurism are de rigueur. There’s even a social network start-up in Germany dedicated to sharing “stunts” and practical jokes; inevitably, it descends into barbarism.
The potential for social disaster would appear to be tremendous. As tech journalist and political blogger Greg Stevens put it to me this week, “The vector that is traced out by Google Glass could be called ‘the technological globalization of private experience.’” If that doesn’t send chills down your spine…
And it’s not just the potential for mean-spirited public shaming. There’s also the more unpleasant temptations inherent in spying on one’s own community: the opportunity to take the law into one’s own hands, or simply to enforce one’s own, morally superior ethical systems.
Imagine it: the stuff of dreams for big government cronies. Social engineering democratized out to the lowest possible level, with citizens transformed into clipboard-waving busybodies, terrorising one another with the threat of prosecution for recycling infractions, newspaper thefts or violations of summer hose-pipe bans. It’s those Internet-scale economics again—this time leveraged by the grassroots activists of the global guilt industry.
At the heart of privacy campaigners’ fears about Glass is that potential for social destructiveness; the power of always-on surveillance, storage and sharing to turn people against one another. We have learned the hard way, primarily thanks to Facebook, that the efficiencies and opportunities created by technology come with social consequences. The question is: will the fun and utility of Glass come at too great a societal cost?
More Like Botox
In evolutionary terms, Google Glass represents a tentative step toward the artificial augmentation of our sensory apparatus. So it’s not ridiculous to speak about it in the same breath as genetic engineering.
There’s a view that the human race modifying itself is inevitable, and even natural: Stephen Hawking has said that while genetic engineering “may not be in accord with democratic or egalitarian principles,” nor has Darwinian evolution ever been “politically correct.” But Glass is, in its present incarnation, little more than an accessory that hints at things to come.
In fact, Glass is very unlike the invasive body modification experiments and genetic tampering that some scientists claim are inevitable. It’s more like Botox than plastic surgery: a temporary, cosmetic upgrade. And because it’s a consumer product, everyone is free to discuss it—and decline to buy it. As a result, it is subject to the demands of moral argument in a way that some scientists claim that genetic engineering isn’t or shouldn’t be.
The community-based political activism Glass will encourage will undoubtedly be deeply annoying. But there’s little to suggest an apocalyptic societal breakdown just because a few hipster tech execs want the ability to tweet hands-free from their scooters. We may not be able to resist the allure of modding our bodies and even our species, we do have a defence against the charms of Glass, supposing we’ve been tempted into a purchase.
Version 1.0 of Glass isn’t an inevitability of evolution: it’s a rich kid’s toy. For now, at least, we can simply take the damn things off.