If future historians – presuming the profession will still exist then – should one day try do determine how it all started, they may well take a longer look at this object.
Explore your world.
Google’s official Glass website employs the typical two-to-three-word slogans that seem to be the new thing in advertising nowadays. Two to three words, the maximum amount you’re allowed to use when verbally implying a lifestyle. Because, as Apple taught Silicon Valley, which now preaches it to the rest of the economic world: nothing sells better than lifestyle.
What exactly is this lifestyle? Looking at the website, one stumbles across a lot of large, high-res images of outdoor activities and landscapes. We see woods and snowy slopes, air planes and babies, the Eiffel tower, a subway entrance in New York, super sexy, intellectual looking women with trendy frames etc. Except for the models, they’re not real images, more like imitations of everyday perceptions, and that is exactly the point. If Mountain View has its way, Google Glass should become a natural extension of the body, a blend of the digital space and one’s bodily senses. The Glass, we are told, will open up a whole new way of living for us.
Cut to Ext. A San Francisco neighborhood. A bar. Through its open door, we can hear people yelling and the noise of agitated footsteps. A man emerges, his right arm raised, a fragile, shiny object in his hand. It’s a Google Glass. A women charges after him, crying angry insults. She had been filming them inside, in the bar, to suppress their hostility, but it just made them angrier. She’s enraged. She will post this on Youtube, definitely. She will drag this into the public’s eye and have her revenge.
It wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last of its kind. It’s also not a coincidence that many of these clashes, as the media like to call them, are happening in San Francisco.
Close to Google’s HQ in Mountain View and home to many tech entrepreneurs and innovators, the city is a hotbed of IT innovation and wealth, which for the “normal” citizens of San Francisco creates a lot of headache. Real estate prices are soaring skyward, making it harder and harder for workers earning the average national salary (about 55.000 $) to afford a place to live. Google and other tech employees, however, who get paid handsomely, don’t have this problem. For them, San Francisco may look simply like a huge experimental field for their innovations. In this context, Google Glass is not just a new technology but a symbol of class warfare, a sort of badge that identifies its wearer as part of the tech elite out to change the world according to their ideas and likes.
But the struggle of the people of San Francisco, although very much part of the bigger picture, is not what I want to talk about now.
What I want to discuss in this blog entry is the threat to privacy Google Glass poses as the vanguard of the Zuckerbergian movement to abolish privacy. There have been discussions about this ever since the social media era really got going in 2010. Protecting one’s interests from thoughtless Facebook posts, tweets, YT videos etc. We’ve heard all about this. We know. We’re careful now. What’s new about Google Glass, though, and even more threatening than, although connected to, the trend towards automated facial recognitition advanced by Facebook and its acolytes, is Google Glass’s potential of constant, undirected and ubiquitous recording. Much like an upheld gun, Google Glass is a weapon just waiting for the trigger to be pulled. Only the trigger is invisible and the gun doesn’t have to be held up, because that’s its normal state. The trigger is in the Glasshole’s (from here on, this very fitting term shall be used for a person wearing Google Glass) eyes. Within the fraction of a second, the neutral mode can jump into record mode and before you know it, often without you ever knowing your spontaneous eruption of joy, anger, annoyance, craziness or whatever else makes human interaction human can be transferred to Youtube and fed into the eternal digital memory of the world, where it will stay, forever out of your control, forever determining your image and brandishing you for what you were in a moment. And there’s nothing you can do about it; right now, the laws can’t protect you from an obnoxious person’s whims. I’m sorry, but there’s just so much wrong with this, this notion is so terrifying, that I can’t stay within the disciplined paragraph structure and muted voice necessary to deal with these questions cool-headedly. It just stirs up the worst future visions fiction cooked up over the last century. Kafka, anyone?
Think 1984. It’s not a coincidence that George Orwell’s classic dystopic novel about a society where all information is controlled by an authoritarian elite, which itself is controlled by the distorted information again, creating a vicious circle of dependency, is often cited with regard to Google Glass. In Orwell’s nightmare, every person is described to have a sort of screen fixed to a wall in their home that is in any moment transmitting data to a government-controlled facility, where it is archived, analyzed and used to control said individual and thus society. Orwell dreamed this up as a worst case scenario. The thing is – Google Glass is even worse than this. Why? Well, because Orwell’s screen is stationary. It’s possible to avoid it, because you know where it is and when you are within its frame. If GG becomes a commercial success, though, and people start wearing it everywhere, the streets themselves will become monitored areas. Everywhere you’d walk, you’d cross somebody’s visual axis, thus ending up somewhere on the Internet whether you want to or not. The public sphere, where even now we are being monitored by surveillance cameras, constantly captured on phone pictures, videos etc. would become something we cannot even fathom right now. A giant, real life Youtube, where everyone has to be a performer in order to survive. The worst of the worst.
Proponents from the “It’s not so bad, don’t be fucking paranoid” camp often use two contradicting arguments.One of them is: It’s not as if it’s recording all the time.
This argument is silly insofar as it doesn’t take into account that already each second hours and hours of video material are being uploaded to Youtube, films that were often made using smartphones, the good old way, by holding and pointing, which is already annoying, but easy to recognize and dodge. Imagine now, how much more these already insane numbers would increase once people were comfortable with GG and using it more and more. Imagine a camera being built into everyone’s eyes. Even though it may not record all the time, would you be able to trust a person looking at you through said eyes? Would you be fully comfortable? Or would you feel a naggin distrust? Further, imagine all this camera records automatically being transmitted to government and marketing department servers. Think this is far-fetched? This is how it works. Our lives are about to become constantly filmed ads. Ads constantly streaming along the edges of your vision, featuring ourselves, but belonging to huge, anonymous corporations.
Another angle I’ve read in many comments sections is this: “Don’t think you’re so important; do you really believe people are that interested in you? And if you’re afraid of being filmed and uploaded, don’t do anything that might put you in a bad light.” These are the most obnoxious and brainwashed answers imaginable. First of all, nobody who complains about this development really believes that they might be stalked by random people. (To the contrary, isn’t it the people who like these gadgets that might be seen as having a narcissistic trait?) They do not assume it very likely that they could suddenly find themselves in the limelight. But the limelight’s not necessary. Often a few hundred people, out of billions of Internet users, are more than enough to destroy a person’s life. Image being yelled, laughed, cursed at by a few hundred people in reality for nothing worse than making a strange face for a second. The possibilty that this might happen could be enough for people to try being more “compliant”, to repress their personality, to constantly look over their shoulders. Change your behaviour! Indeed. Anticipate the norm, by which random people might judge you, and act accordingly. Is there a more fascist, totalitarian idea thinkable?
Tech companies like to use the words “freedom”, and “enable”, and “empower”, not aware that they’re using them in a more and more cynical and ironic way that with every passing day makes them resemble Orwell’s Party more. These words should ring hollow and like tin in the ears of people paying attention. What we hear is “control” and “power” and “money”. It’s time to face it: a rich, very, very small elite is changing our culture in a way that benefits their bank accounts, and we appear to accept it unquestioningly, sacrificing our privacy and the only thing us poor schmucks have left: our dignity. Are the glassholes really winning this easily?
Google has done many amazing things. Searching the Web has been an invaluable asset in speeding up research processes and helping to create new knowledge. The Google car might reduce the number of traffic deaths. Google Maps reduce our wandering around aimlessly and Google’s next projects, AI and the abolishment of death also aren’t exactly modest projects, to say the least.
The main problem I have with all this is the following. It seems patronizing. Eliminating all error from our lives, delegating every minor and increasingly major thing of our affairs to computers, letting them tell us what to like (to do?) – doesn’t this reduce us? The magic words are efficiency and saving time, but aren’t these words that should apply to machines, not to us? Google is taking norms from the computing world and applying them to us as if there were no difference between a human being and a machine. Larry Page said in a recent TED Talk that he wants computers to understand us better. Why? Why do computers have to enter in some sort of relationship with us? This does sound the ultimat nerdist vision to me and any human being proud of their existence should be wary of such a scheme.
And now the Glass. Where does it fit in all this? Why is it necessary to slap a camera on everyone’s face? Ask yourself this question, how does this product benefit humanity as a whole? Does it really make us “free”, as Big Tech claims? Or does it make them free to drag even more parts from our lives kicking and screaming into their databases, make even more money from our personalities and gain even more power over our economies, our politics, our cultur, ourselves?
In his essay “On the Sublime”, Friedrich Schiller once talked about the need of Man to conquer nature by finding pride in those things not controlled by elemental forces. He argued that the sublime was the ultimate victory of the intellect, a victory for independence and freedom of the spirit. Could we go back to these enlightened words? Could we find the sublime here and now and say no to Silicon Valley’s attempt to infantilize us? Are we more than just their pawns, their numbers, their stock value?
Are we still people?
Google’s slogan used to be: Don’t be evil. It’s been some time since I’ve last seen it somewhere.