I have a theory. When it comes to new technology, there are early adopters who start using it and everyone else sees the very worst in the technology: These people ultimately belittle, dismiss and make fun of those who use it. But in spite of this initial negative reaction, the technology eventually finds its way into the mainstream, and the early fears and misinformation fade away.
I first noticed this phenomenon at the turn of the century when Dean Kamen invented the Segway self-powered scooter. You may recall when it came out. People dismissed it as a gimmick. I remember having a debate in an email discussion group about it. I thought it was cool. Most people thought it was useless or silly.
And while the Segway never gained mass usage, it certainly found its niche in areas like city tours.
Today, we see a similar level of fear and loathing around Google Glass. People have had a visceral reaction to the announcement of a wearable computer, and mostly, people have gone to the worst place possible — that it would be used by pervs and spies to surreptitiously take pictures and videos of us. Never mind that we are constantly being photographed with smartphones. For some reason, that device sitting on your face made all the difference.
Fairly soon after Google announced Glass, a bar in Seattle banned them. Not long after that, the term “glasshole” entered the popular lexicon, a word specifically created to belittle early adopters as pretentious posers.
In an interview at SXSW last week, Kamen suggested that this initial pushback is just human nature and people have a natural fear of the unknown. “Almost everybody is reluctant to change almost everything. Whatever you learned as a kid you want to keep always,” he told me.
Kamen said people often lack the imagination to see a purpose for the new technology. “People today wonder what’s the point of Google Glass.” He pointed out that people had a similar reaction 30 years ago when the personal computer came on the scene. They wondered why individuals would ever need computers. That was something for the military or business, and of course over time we adopted computers and now we couldn’t imagine life without them.
At another session this week at SXSW called Glassholes: The Cultural Dissonance of Technology, a panel dug into the reasons behind the Glasshole phenomenon and what makes people reject it out of hand, often before they’ve ever even seen, never mind used, one.
Patrick Miller, senior creative director at Deeplocal, said that even though we are used to being photographed without our permission with the proliferation of smartphones, and we are sharing large parts of our lives with mobile and social tools, there is still this gut reaction around the lack of permission we feel with Glass.
“Wearables remove our ability to filter it and control [these interactions] the way we want to,” Miller said.
And yet for all the negative reaction, there remains a big curiosity about them. A friend who owns Glass says he likes to wear it to conduct video interviews with startups because it’s easy to record the video without a device coming between him and the interview subject, and he can upload the video to YouTube seamlessly from the Glass interface when it’s over. Yet whenever he conducts these interviews, the subjects inevitably want to try it. People may fear them, but there is massive curiosity around them.
Timothy Jordan, staff developer advocate at Google, who also spoke on the SXSW Glasshole panel, obviously sees it differently. He emphasized the convenience of having this device on your face, but he said Google certainly recognized there needed to be a conversation about how these devices work in practice in the real world, which is precisely why they created the Explorer program.
“Many of you know we did the Explorer program,” Jordan explained. “The reason we did this was to have this conversation. Technology gives you more options, but it’s your choice what you would do with it. We didn’t want to have this conversation just internally. We wanted to expand.”
But Miller shot back, saying that it’s not always quite that simple. “We have choices about how we use these devices, but people being recorded don’t have a choice,” he said.
Jordan acknowledges that it’s both necessary and healthy to talk about the privacy implications of new devices like Glass. “Privacy is an important conversation to have, but it’s hard to give one answer that this is the right way to do things. We all live in different communities and have different sets of norms,” he explained.
And as though to prove we are making this up as we go along, just last week in Massachusetts we saw this defining of norms in action when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that upskirting, the act of taking a picture using a mobile phone up a woman’s skirt without her permission, was not illegal because there was no law against it. The court wasn’t sanctioning the behavior, only acknowledging that without case law they couldn’t convict this person of a crime. Within days of the ruling the legislature crafted a law and sent it to the governor for his signature. This was a case where the law caught up with the technology and defined a social norm in legal terms on the fly.
And over time, it’s entirely likely that similar situations will pop up with Glass and we will have to define social and legal norms about how it’s acceptable to use them.
As Kamen says, it’s up to us to figure out how to use technology in an intelligent way. “Technology makes it so easy to innovate. Memory is free. Bandwidth is free. A lot of people innovate what they can innovate instead of what they should innovate, and we are losing the opportunity to do real change.”
Glass probably does represent an opportunity for real change on some level, but as I found when I tried it, it’s not for everyone, privacy implications notwithstanding. As a society, people have to define new norms as each technology comes hurtling toward us, whether that’s Kamens’ Segway, the iPhone, Google Glass, 3D printers or whatever comes next.
No matter what we do, one thing is clear: We are only at the beginning of technology acceptance cycle when it comes to wearables like Glass, but given the number of sessions devoted to it at SXSW, I’m confident that we will be seeing wider adoption before you know it.
And as that happens, we are sure to forget the debates we had about these devices in the early days — just as we always have.