Glassholes: At least you know who they are

[commentary] Too many people dismiss Google Glass without considering how social norms can evolve or how much mobile phones and other technology can do surreptitiously what Glass can do overtly. CNET's Stephen Shankland urges us to look at the bigger picture.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise Processors, semiconductors, web browsers, quantum computing, supercomputers, AI, 3D printing, drones, computer science, physics, programming, materials science, USB, UWB, Android, digital photography, science. Credentials
  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
6 min read

Google Glass Explorer Edition
Google Glass Explorer Edition Jason Cipriani/CNET

Google Glass has provoked a lot of angst among those worried about the electronic eyewear is rude, weird, or creepy -- and for good reason.

Among the concerns Glass raises are that the wearer could be recording video, audio, or photos of other people or that the wearer could be looking up online information about those people. For a good illustration of the social difficulties of Google Glass, check Becky Worley's report from South By Southwest on Google Glass at Yahoo Tech, in which wearers report problems at a supermarket, customs, a business meeting, and a trip to the bathroom at a zoo. The headline of the piece: "Google Glass Will Never Be Okay."

Plenty of others have similar sentiments. Gartner's Ian Glazer is worried that Google Glass makes relationships uncomfortably asymmetric, with a power imbalance between those who are and are not wearing Google Glass.

The Google Glass creepy factor is embodied in Neal Stephenson's sci-fi book "Snow Crash" in the character of Lagos, a "gargoyle" who's encrusted with electronic sensory equipment and a live link to the databases of the world:

Gargoyles...are adrift in a laser-drawn world, scanning retinas in all directions, doing background checks on everyone within a thousand yards, seeing everything in visual light, infrared, millimeter-wave radar, and ultrasound all at once. You think they're talking to you, but they're actually poring over the credit record of some stranger on the other side of the room, or identifying the make and model of airplanes flying overhead.

Google Glass will rightly raise lots of hackles when used in public, and I think that's appropriate. Although Google Glass devices are perched just over the line of sight, Glass still comes between two people having a conversation. And because one of the major points of Glass is to be able to record an intimately first-person view of the world, Glass can be intrusive: people often behave differently on a stage or on camera.

Thus, I'm not suggesting we brush off concerns about Glass as just baseless techno-fretting. It's worth discussing society-altering inventions like power looms, birth control pills, automobiles, and televisions.

But often, the discussions about Google Glass are too narrow in scope. Before declaring Google Glass doomed to failure, we need to look at what has come before them and at what's going to come after.

Paving the way to Google Glass
The most obvious precursor to Google Glass is the smartphone. It's a general-purpose electronic companion that can be carried with you at all times, augmenting what you happen to remember with a live connection to vast amounts of personal and public information. It pages us with important messages and lets us record the moment with photos and videos.

To many of us, smartphones are useful and ordinary. But social norms are still catching up to technology. It's just fine to take a mobile phone call when you're driving with your spouse to do weekend shopping errands. It's rude to do so when you're on a first date. But in many circumstances, it's a gray area, and what's considered OK is changing. Taking a call from your child's school in the middle of a business meeting is probably OK, because it might be an emergency. But taking a call from your friend in the middle of a business meeting might be a bad idea. On some trains, there are cars where it's OK to talk on mobile phones and some where it's barred.

We're also adapting to mobile phone photos and video. Is it OK to record a rock concert? Maybe, but some musicians politely ask you not to. At my son's piano recital last month, a succession of parents moved to the front of the central aisle to record their children's performances and blocking the view for a lot of the rest of the audience. Nobody objected, but such behavior would be unthinkable if the performer had been a world-class violin virtuoso rather than a bunch of primary-school kids.

The Lost Lake Cafe and Diner in Seattle bans people from wearing Google Glass.
The Lost Lake Cafe and Diner in Seattle bans people from wearing Google Glass. Lost Lake Cafe/ Facebook

The more we use mobile phones, and the more they can do, the more we as a society will evolve these social protocols, either through convention, posted rules, or legislation. Google Glass looks shocking today, but don't discount out the possibility that we'll work out rules for when they're OK to wear and when they're not, gestures that warn people we're using them or reassure them that we're not, or conventions for asking politely if it's OK to record a particular moment.

We're already working some of the protocols out with mobile phones and other devices. I went skiing a couple weeks ago, and lots of teenagers and some adults had GoPro helmets stuck to their helmets, making parts of their lives mini-performances and making all the rest of us part of the supporting cast whether we wanted to be or not.

All these rules are evolving, but here's the underlying point: We've already accepted technology into our lives that comes with much of the rudeness and creepiness of Google Glass.

Google's devices push the issue further, but we're already dealing with the rudeness of attention divided between our company and our device, with the constant interruptions from the cloud, with joggers tuned out to music only they can hear, with people recording images of everything around them then posting it publicly on the Net.

Glass in our future
That's the context that Glass is fitting into today. I also think it's important to consider the context Glass will fit into tomorrow.

Glass today is bulky and awkward compared with ordinary glasses, but it's sleek compared to anything that could have been built a decade earlier. Extrapolate today's trends in miniaturization of processors, networking electronics, cameras, and it's not hard to imagine that many more devices could come with the capabilities that Glass has today.

I'm not saying such a future is inevitable, but it's quite possible that ordinary looking glasses, or perhaps jewelry or clothing or Bluetooth earpieces, could have such technology built into it. Russian dashcams could spread to many more cars and to our homes and offices. Maybe it'll even be in contact lenses or, if Ray Kurzweil is right, nanobots in our brains and bloodstream will intercept our own sensory data, process and store it, then communicate directly with our own neurons. That latter idea is pretty far out, but given how much technology has changed in the last few decades, I'd hesitate to rule it out completely.

The more we rely on devices to keep track of what's going on around us, the more the assumption of asymmetry common in today's Glass criticisms isn't actually the case. It's natural to think about the asymmetry today because almost nobody has Google Glass. But if Glass or something like them spread, the discussion will have to include situations of symmetry, too, like when two people having lunch each have smartphones instead of just one of them.

We could record a lot more with our mobile phones. Perhaps we'll find it useful to record conversations by default to improve our imperfect memories -- the phones themselves or some cloud service they connect to could keep track of whom we met at social occasions and business meetings. Technology could scan our conversations and prompt us later that we'd promised to go to that birthday party or bring snacks for the office, or warn us that a weekend outing won't be possible because a spouse had mentioned earlier that he or she will be out of town on travel.

Maybe other devices will offer much of the creepiness of Glass without the actual Glass itself.

And here's where I think there's a perversely good thing about Google Glass's intrusiveness. They're so overt that they don't leave as much room for ambiguity about what's going on. They broadcast to everybody what's possible.

In other words, wearing Google Glass might make you a jerk -- but at least you're an honest jerk.