Last week, a cafe in Seattle banned the use of Google Glass, a reflection of the growing concern about the ways this cutting-edge technology might be abused. But the critics are ignoring the technology’s potential to make our lives safer and more democratic. Worse, by stigmatizing its use, the Glass-haters are spawning an entirely new kind of discrimination.
Google Glass, the much heralded wearable computer eyepiece, has yet to be officially launched, yet the hysterics against its use have already begun. The device can, among other things, be used to snap photos and access the Web. People are understandably concerned that they might be filmed or photographed without their knowledge or consent.
The critics have two primary worries: First, they're concerned that Glass will encourage people to increasingly violate social norms, particularly when it comes to privacy and the enhanced potential for remote presence (like talking to someone else on the phone, which is hardly a new problem). And second, that it’ll allow people to take even more creepy pictures of people.
These concerns are, mostly, reasonable. But what the Glass-haters don't realize is that society will find a way to adapt to these technologies (whether through new laws or social customs) — and we’ll be better off for it.
There's also no denying that Google-hating is also an important part of the equation; many people can't separate the technology from the company.
Yes, Google is a trailblazer in this area, but its developers are most certainly not the ones who came up with the idea, nor will Glass be the only game in town once the technology becomes fully realized.
The idea of wearable computing has been around for ages. Back in the 1970s, Toronto professor Steve Mann started to work on his EyeTap device, a clunky attempt at the world’s first head-mounted camera. Today, his device looks almost exactly Google Glass, which is hardly a coincidence.
But Mann was not seeking to develop technologies that would allow him to spy on people or take creepy photographs. His initial idea was far more conceptual — one with his sights set firmly on the future. Mann believed, and still believes, that camera-embedded wearables could be both liberating and empowering. Even democratizing. In a world peppered with security cameras and a sensory-sphere completely dominated by corporate memes, Mann foresaw the wearable computer as a means for individuals to re-take control of their environment and protect themselves.
His idea was called sousveillance — a way for people to watch the watchers and be at the ready to chronicle any physical assaults or threats.
“Rather than tolerating terrorism as a feedback means to restore the balance, an alternative framework would be to build a stable system to begin with, e.g. a system that is self-balancing,” he wrote. “Such a society may be built with sousveillance (inverse surveillance) as a way to balance the increasing (and increasingly one-sided) surveillance.”
Mann listed some potential benefits:
- Good drivers, professors, teachers, government officials, and police welcome sousveillance because it ensures their integrity
- Bad drivers, professors, teachers, government officials, and police oppose sousveillance
- Sousveillance is necessary to prevent crime, corruption, terrorism, etc.
- Building sousveillance infrastructure into a government, a police force, military, or the like, will ensure integrity, and ensure that surveillance is balanced
- Societies with surveillance only (e.g. no sousveillance) are unstable and tend toward totalitarianism (e.g. overthrow of government, or takeover, martial law, etc.)
Last year, in a complete stroke of irony (or validation), Mann was attacked at a McDonald’s in France for wearing such a device — what may have been the first documented cybernetic hate crime. But Mann was able to use his EyeTap to record the attack and the attackers as it happened.
Of course, what many Glass critics also fail to acknowledge is that the entire affair was recorded by McDonald's' very own surveillance cameras. When we’re out in public, we are already being filmed without our permission — and often by private firms who are not looking out for our best interests, but their own. Moreover, state-planted cameras are also starting to appear everywhere. Take the city of London, for example, where there’s virtually no public place hidden from prying eyes.
There’s no question that we’re headed towards a Vingeian Rainbow’s End, a transparent world that David Brin calls the Surveillance Society. Or what futurist Jamais Cascio calls the Participatory Panopticon. The death of privacy is upon us.
And the whole Google-hating thing is an equally misguided and unfortunate distraction.
Eyeglass devices will eventually be developed by other companies (or even through open source initiatives) and exhibit vastly different features (Glass already has a competitor). Before long, we’ll be able to engage in augmented reality while filtering out annoying objects in our environment, including billboards and other obtrusive eyesores forced upon our visual spectrum. In their place, we’ll add useful things like maps or the weather report or a picture of our cat.
So instead of being reactionary, cafes like the 5 Point should work to find work-arounds to the problems instead of simply banning them outright. Given the future prominence of wearables, bans are simply not viable long term solutions.
It's also important to not stigmatize the use of wearables and cybernetic technologies in general. Human capacities, and the ways in which we interact with each other, are constantly evolving in step with our technologies. The trick is to normalize them in such a way that no one gets hurt, and no one gets to miss out.
All while using them in an empowering sort of way.
Images: 5 Point Cafe, Google, Steve Mann.