Who’s Afraid Of Google Glass?

“First you see video. Then you wear video. Then you eat video. Then you be video.” — Pat Cadigan, Pretty Boy Crossover

Sheesh. A whole lot of people who presumably have never actually seen Google Glass in action appear to be really upset. “People who wear Google Glass in public are assholes,” says Gawker’s Adrian Chen. “You won’t know if you’re being recorded or not; and even if you do, you’ll have no way to stop it,” doom-cries Mark Hurst.

Seriously, people? Seriously? DARPA has built drone-mounted 1.8-gigapixel cameras that can recognize people waving from 15,000 feet. Gait recognition software is good enough that they probably don’t even need to see your face. Oh, yes, and they’re working on legions of drones the size of insects, too, while they’re at it. There’s already one closed-circuit camera for every 32 people in the United Kingdom. And the NSA is building a new 65-megawatt data center in Utah to parse this brave new world of big data.

Meanwhile, everywhere you go, hardware is getting faster, software is getting better, everything is being networked. We’re marching boldly into a panopticon future. I’ve been writing about this for years. And now, suddenly, you’re irate about the potential privacy repercussions of a few geeks bearing glasses? What is wrong with you people? Where have you been?

I think cameras on the glasses of random passersby are among the least of your privacy concerns. At least there’s a red LED that winks on when Google Glass is recording, so you’ll know that you’re suddenly starring in your interlocutor’s home video. As panopticons go, the Google Glass version is pretty mild-mannered and half-hearted. The recent spate of furious privacy concerns are enormously overwrought compared to how much we should be concerned about our governments.

But there’s something about being caught on video, not by some impersonal machine but by another human being, that sticks in people’s craws and makes them go irrationally berserk. If these were glasses that recorded audio and took still photos when the wearer double-blinked, would anyone be near as upset? Hell, no. But video is somehow primal; video hits us where we live. (That’s why it’s so insanely popular. Did you know that YouTube is arguably the world’s second most popular social network?)

To a limited extent I actually want Google Glass surveillance, in an uneasy Pandora’s-box kind of way. I want police officers, border guards, and other authorities to be required to wear them every moment that they’re on duty, and I want that data to be available to those who report police brutality or other abuses of authority. (I’ve been saying that for five years, ever since I was mugged at gunpoint in Mexico City. Pretty sure it would have made a big difference to, for instance, my friend Peter Watts.) I want street protestors to be videoing the authorities at all times. I do not trust the powers that be.

If pervasive, ubiquitous networked cameras ultimately make public privacy impossible, which seems likely, then at least we can balance the scales by ensuring that we have two-way transparency between the powerful and the powerless, rather than just a world where the former spy on the latter; and we can give people the tools required for online and/or personal privacy, such as pseudonyms and easy-to-use strong cryptography.

That’s not to say I’m feeling all Panglossian about Google Glass. (Panglassian? Sorry.) My concern is far more petty: it’s that other people’s videos are almost uniformly terrible.

I know a little about moving pictures. I’ve done camerawork for TV shows, just helped build a site that shows curated movies, and I take the odd pretty good photo, if I do say so myself. But video is hard. Much harder to do well than pictures, which anyone can get right now and again via trial and error. Take a look at Vine, or Takes: one reason they’re only a few seconds long is that, if they were any longer, almost all examples of the form would quickly be revealed as nearly unwatchable crap.

Don’t get me wrong, putting new tools in everyone’s hands, and making them easier, inevitably leads to some awesome outsider art, and that’s always been doubly true for video. Take my friend Count Jackula’s series of horror-movie reviews, for instance, which increasingly have become hilarious short films in their own right.

So let’s hope the next generation, born in video, will use it more fluently, and find ways to make use of the petabytes of data that Google Glass or its ilk will generate. And that’s “will” not “may.” Yes, it’s entirely possible that Google Glass is like Apple’s Newton, 10 years ahead of its time, but —


— something like it is coming, sooner or later, almost inevitably. We may ultimately need augmented reality glasses in order to filter out all the bad videos of other people’s mediocre augmented realities. Maybe that’s what Pat Cadigan meant by “then you eat video.” On my bad days I feel like we’re all about to drown in a sea of awful home movies, while being tracked by drone- and signpost-mounted surveillance cameras 24/7/365; like we’re all sleepwalking onwards into a really tacky dystopia. Brace yourselves.

Image credit: I for one welcome our insect-drone masters, by yours truly, on Flickr.