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The Meaning of the Google Glass Backlash

Has a product ever provoked as much hostility before even hitting the market as Google’s geek specs are generating? There’s something special about the eyes.

Almost 10 years ago I spent a day in Toronto with computer scientist Steve Mann to understand why he strapped a PC to his body and wore a camera and a monitor over one eye. He argued that it was the optimal method of using a computer, which meant that eventually everyone would want to do it. That prospect unnerved me, because being with Mann was difficult. He seemed distracted by whatever was over his eye—or at the very least, I worried that he was paying more attention to it than to me. Whether it was the best way to interact with a computer seemed like the wrong question; it was certainly a suboptimal way to interact with a fellow human being. It struck me as fundamentally rude to put something in front of your eye but not let the other person see it—the equivalent of whispering a secret in front of someone else.

I’ve been reminded of that cyborg encounter by the advent of Google Glass, the Mann-like computer that has provoked a backlash even before hitting the market. I’m on record as predicting that Glass won’t take off except in very specific applications and certain jobs (like a surgeon, augmented for the very first time). But perhaps this is wishful thinking. Because one of the biggest strikes against Glass—that it looks hopelessly dorky—probably will go away as the design is refined. And then the only reason left for people to avoid it would be the fear of seeming like a jerk.

I am heartened to know I am hardly alone. Adrian Chen of Gawker writes that “people who wear Google Glass in public are assholes,” because they “are demanding social interaction on [their] wholly weird and unsettling terms.” Earlier, Mark Hurst put it really well when he said that “the most important Google Glass experience is not the user experience—it’s the experience of everyone else.”

Some Glass critics fear that people will use the device to surreptitiously record their surroundings. That’s not what riles me. It’s already easy to surreptitiously record people, and the glasses make it pretty clear when a recording is being made. Instead, I’m turned off by the overall statement Glass wearers will be making. We all know what it’s like to be in a conversation with someone who is fiddling with a mobile phone (a device that provoked hostility, too, when it first appeared; to use one in public seemed tantamount to shouting “I am extremely important!”). And people can tune out of conversations in any number of other ways. But at least you can tell when it’s happening. You still can look them squarely in both eyes and know when they’re looking at you, when their brains are actually registering you in all your other-ness. It’s cheesy to say the eyes are the portal to the soul, but the gist is right. When you’re going about your day, in the checkout line, stepping into elevators, whatever, it’s nice to look people in the eye and let them look into yours, if only for a moment of elemental human interaction. Tell me why you must put a computer in the middle of that?

P.S. I realize that some of my objections could be obviated in an even more futuristic scenario: if Google Glass could be miniaturized and fit into contact lenses. If it were possible to wear Google Glass without anyone else knowing, at least the act of Glass-wearing would not be shoved in other people’s faces. That would be better than the uncanny valley Glass is in now—where it’s meant to have a slyly unobtrusive design but still is the elephant on your face.

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