Preserving the Person in the Emerging Kingdom of Technological Force

What does Iceland look like through Google Glass? Turns out it looks kind of like Iceland. Consider this stunning set of photographs showcasing a tool built by Silica Labs which allows users to post images from Glass directly onto their WordPress blog. If you click over to see the images, you’ll notice two things. First, you’ll see that Iceland is beautiful, something you may already have known. Secondly, you’ll see that pictures taken with Glass look, well, just like pictures not taken with Glass.

There’s one exception to that second observation. When the user’s hands appear in the frame, the POV perspective becomes evident. Apart from that, these great pictures look just like every other set of great pictures. This isn’t a knock on the tool developed by Silica Labs, by the way. I’m not really interested in that particular app. I’m interested in the appeal of Glass and how users understand their experience with Glass, and these pictures, not markedly different from what you could produce without Glass, suggested a thesis: perhaps the appeal of Glass has less to do with what it enables you to do than it does with the way you feel when you’re doing it. And, as it turns out, there is recurring theme in how many early adopters described their experience of Glass that seems to support this thesis.

As Glass started making its first public appearances, reviewers focused on user experience; and their criticism typically centered on the look of Glass, which was consistently described as geeky, nerdy, pretentious, or silly. Clearly, Glass had an image problem. But soon the conversation turned to the experience of those in the vicinity of a Glass user. Mark Hurst was one of the first to redirect our attention in this direction: “The most important Google Glass experience is not the user experience – it’s the experience of everyone else.” Hurst was especially troubled by the ease with which Glass can document others and the effects this would have on the conduct of public life.

Google was sensitive to these concerns, and it quickly assured the public that the power of Glass to record others surreptitiously had been greatly exaggerated. A light would indicate when Glass was activated so others would know if they were being recorded and the command to record would be audible. Of course, it didn’t take long to circumvent these efforts to mitigate Glass’s creep factor. Without much regard for Google’s directives, hackers created apps that allowed users to take pictures merely by winking. Worse yet, an app that equipped Glass with face-recognition capabilities soon followed.

Writing after the deployment of these hacks, David Pogue echoed Hurst’s earlier concerns: “the biggest obstacle [facing Glass] is the smugness of people who wear Glass—and the deep discomfort of everyone who doesn’t.” After laying out his tech-geek bona fides, even Nick Bilton confessed his unease around people wearing Glass: “I felt like a mere mortal among an entirely different class of super-connected humans.” The defining push back against this feeling Glass engenders in others came from Adrian Chen who proclaimed unequivocally, “By donning Google Glass, you, the Google Glass user, are volunteering to be a foot soldier in Google’s asshole army.”

Hurst was on to something. He was right to direct attention to the experience of those in the vicinity of a Glass user (or, Glassholes, as they have been affectionately called by some). But it’s worth pivoting back to the experience of the Glass user. Set aside ergonomics, graphic interfaces, and design questions for a moment, though, and consider what users report feeling when they use Google Glass.

Let’s start with Evernote CEO Phil Libin. In a Huffington Post interview late in 2012, he claimed that “in as little as three years” it will seem “barbaric” not to use Google Glass. That certainly has a consciously hyperbolic ring to it, but it’s the follow-up comment that’s telling: ”People think it looks kind of dorky right now but the experience is so powerful that you feel stupid as soon as you take the glasses off…”

“The experience is so powerful” – there it is. Glass lets you check the Internet, visualize information in some interesting ways, send messages, take pictures, and shoot video. I’m sure I’m missing something, but none of those are in themselves groundbreaking or revolutionary. Clearly, though, there’s something about having all of this represented for the user as part of their perceptual apparatus that conveys a peculiar sense of empowerment.

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google appearPhilbin was not the only one to report this feeling of power. Robert Scoble declared, “I will never live another day without wearing Google Glass or something like it. They have instantly become part of my life.” “The human body has a lot of limitations,” software developer Monica Wilkinson explained, “I see [Glass] as a way to enhance our bodies.” Writing about his Glass experience on The Verge, Joshua Topolsky was emphatic: “I won’t lie, it’s amazingly powerful (and more than a little scary) to be able to just start recording video or snapping pictures with a couple of flicks of your finger or simple voice commands.” A little further on he added, “In the city, Glass make you feel more powerful, better equipped, and definitely less diverted.” Then there’s Chris Barrett who captured the first arrest on Glass. Barrett witnessed a fight and came in close to film the action. He acknowledged that if he were not wearing Glass, he would not have approached the scene of the scuffle. Finally, there’s all that is implicit in the way Sergey Brin characterized the smartphone as he was introducing Glass: “It’s kind of emasculating.” Glass, we are to infer, addresses this emasculation by giving the user a sense of power. Pogue put it most succinctly: Glass puts its wearers in “a position of control.”

It is possible to make too much of these statements. Other have found that using Glass makes them feel self-conscious in public and awkward in interactions with others. But Glass has revealed to a few intrepid souls something of its potential power, and, if they’re to be trusted, the feeling has been intoxicating. But why is this?

Perhaps this is because the prosthetic effect is especially seamless, so that it feels as if you yourself are doing the things Glass enables rather than using a tool to accomplish them. When a tool works really well it doesn’t feel like your using a tool, it feels like you are acting through the tool. Glass seems to take it a step further. You are not just acting through Glass; you are simply acting. You, by your gestures or voice commands, are doing these things. Even the way audio is received from Glass contributes to the effect. Here’s how Gary Shteyngart described the way it feels to hear using Glass’s bone transducer: “The result is eerie, as if someone is whispering directly into a hole bored into your cranium, but also deeply futuristic.” That sounds to me as if you are hearing audio in the way that we might imagine “hearing” telepathy.

In other words, there is an alluring immediacy to the experience of interacting with the world through Google Glass. This seamlessness, this way that Glass has of feeling like a profound empowerment recalls nothing so much as the link between magic and technology so aptly captured in Arthur Clarke’s famous third law: ”Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Clarke’s pithy law recalls a fundamental, and historical, connection between magic and technology: they are both about power. As Lewis Mumford put it in Technic and Civilization, “magic was the bridge that united fantasy with technology: the dream of power with the engines of fulfillment.” Or consider how C. S. Lewis formulated the relationship: “For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.” Sociologist Richard Stivers has concluded, “Without magic, technology would have no fatal sway over us.”

So it turns out that the appeal of Glass, for all of its futuristic cyborg pretensions, may be anchored in an ancient desire that has long animated the technological project: the desire for the experience of power. And, privacy concerns aside, this may be the best reason to be wary of the device. Those who crave the feel of power—or who having tasted it, become too enamored of it—tend not to be the sort of people with whom you want to share a society.

It is also worth noting what we might call a pervasive cultural preparation for the coming of Glass. In another context, I’ve claimed that the closest analogy to the experience of the world through Google Glass may be the experience of playing a first-person video game. To generation that has grown up playing first person shooters and role-playing video games, Glass promises to make the experience of everyday life feel more like the experience of playing a game. In a comment on my initial observations, Nick Carr added, “You might argue that this reversal is already well under way in warfare. Video war games originally sought to replicate the look and feel of actual warfare, but now, as more warfare becomes automated via drones, robots, etc., the military is borrowing its interface technologies from the gaming world. War is becoming more gamelike.”

If you can’t quite get passed the notion that Google Glass is nothing more than a white-tech-boy-fantasy, consider that this is Glass 1.0. Wearable tech is barely out of the toddler stage. Project this technology just a little further down the line–when it is less obtrusive, more seamless in its operation–and it may appear instead that Philbin, Scoble, and Topolsky have seen the future clearly, and it works addictively. Consider as well how some future version of Glass may combine with Leap Motion-style technology to fully deploy the technology-as-magic aesthetic or, also, the potential of Glass to interact with the much touted Internet of Things. Wave your hand, speak your command and things happen, the world obeys.

But letting this stand as a critique of Glass risks missing a deeper point. Technology and power are inseparable. Not all technologies empower in the same way, but all technologies empower in some way. And we should be particularly careful about technologies that grant power in social contexts. Power tends to objectify, and we could do without further inducements to render others as objects in our field of action.

In her wise and moving essay on the Iliad, Simone Weil characterized power’s manifestation in human affairs, what she calls force, as “the ability to turn a human being into a thing while he is still alive.” Power or force, then, is the ability to objectify. Deadly force, Weil observes, literally turns a person into a thing, a corpse. All less lethal deployments of force are derivative of this ultimate power to render a person a thing.

It is telling that the most vocal, and sometimes violent, opposition to Glass has come in response to its ability to document others, possibly without their awareness, much less consent. To be documented in such a way is to be objectified, and the intuitive discomfort others have felt in the presence of those wearing Glass is a reflection of an innate resistance to the force that would render us an object. In his excellent write up of Glass late last year, Clive Thompson noted that while from his perspective he was wearing a computer that granted quick, easy access to information, “To everyone else, I was just a guy with a camera on his head.” “Cameras are everywhere in public,” Thompson observes, “but one fixed to your face sends a more menacing signal: I have the power to record you at a moment’s notice, it seems to declare — and maybe I already am.”

Later on in her reflections on the Iliad, Weil observed, “The man who is the possessor of force seems to walk through a non-resistant element; in the human substance that surrounds him nothing has the power to interpose, between the impulse and the act, the tiny interval that is reflection.” Curiously, Google researcher and wearable-computing pioneer, Thad Starner, has written, “Wearables empower the user by reducing the time between their intention to do a task and their ability to perform that task.”

Starner, I’m certain, has only the best of intentions. In the same piece he writes compellingly about the potential of Glass to empower individuals who suffer from a variety of physical impairments. But I also believe that he may have spoken more than he knew. The collapse of the space between intention or desire on the one hand and action or realization on the other may be the most basic reality constituting the promise and allure of technology. We should be mindful, though, of all that such a collapse may entail. Following Weil, we might consider, at least, that the space between impulse and act is also the space for reflection, and, further, the space in which we might appear to one another as fully human persons rather than objects to be manipulated or layers of data to be mined.

The blog is out of commission, but you can sign up for my newsletter, The Convivial Society, here.

Google Glass: Technology as Symbol

[Note: This post first appeared on Medium in July. At the time, I mentioned it on this blog and provided a link. I’m now republishing the post here in its entirety.] 

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, Freud reportedly quipped, and sometimes technology is just a tool. But sometimes it becomes something more. Sometimes technology takes on symbolic, or even religious significance.

In 1900, Paris welcomed the new century by hosting the Exposition Universelle. It was, like other expostions and worlds’ fairs before it, a showcase of both cultural achievement and technological innovation. One of the most popular exhibits at the Exposition was the Palace of Electricity which displayed a series of massive dynamos powering all the other exhibition halls.Among the millions of visitors that came through the Palace of Electricity, there was an American, the historian and cultural critic Henry Adams, who published a memorable account of his experience. Adams was awestruck by the whirling dynamos and, perhaps because he had recently visited the cathedral at Chartres, he drew an evocative comparison between the dynamo and the power of the Virgin in medieval society. Speaking in the third person, Adams wrote,

As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring — scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair’s-breadth further for respect of power — while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.

Writing in the early 1970s, Harvey Cox revisited Adams’ meditation on the Virgin and the Dynamo and concluded that Adams saw “what so many commentators on technology since then have missed. He saw that the dynamo … was not only a forty-foot tool man could use to help him on his way, it was also a forty-foot-high symbol of where he wanted to go.”

Cox looked around American society in the early 70s, and wondered how Adams would read the symbolic value of the automobile, the jet plane, the hydrogen bomb, or a space capsule. These too had become symbols of the age and they invited a semiology of the “symbolism of technology.”

“Technological artifacts become symbols,” Cox wrote, “when they are ‘iconized,’ when they release emotions incommensurate with their mere utility, when they arouse hopes and fears only indirectly related to their use, when they begin to provide elements for the mapping of cognitive experience.”

Take the airplane, for example. In his classic study, The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation, Joseph Corn summarized a remarkable article that appeared in 1916 about the future of flight. In it, the author predicted trans-oceanic flights by 1930 and, by 1970,the emergence of “traffic rules of the air” necessitated by the heavy volume of airplane traffic. Then the timeline leaps forward to the year 3000. At this point “superhumans” would’ve evolved and they would “live in the upper stratas of the atmosphere and never come down to earth at all.” By the year 10000, “two distinct types of human beings” would have appeared: “Alti-man” and “ground man.” Alti-man would live his entire life in the sky and would have no body, he would be an “ethereal” being that would “swim” in the sky like we swim in the ocean.

As Corn put it, “Alti-man was nothing if not a god. He epitomized the winged gospel’s greatest hope: mere mortals, mounted on self-made mechanical wings, might fly free of all earthly contraints and become angelic and divine.”

This may all sound tremendously hoaky to our ears, but Corn’s book is full of only slightly less implausible aspirations that attached themselves to the airplane throughout the early and mid-twentieth century. And it wasn’t just the airplane. In American Technological Sublime, historian David Nye chronicled the near-religious reverence and ritual that gathered around the railroad, the first skyscrapers, the electrified cityscape, the Hoover Dam, atomic bombs, and Saturn V rockets.

Taking an even broader historical perspective, the late David Noble argued that the modern technological project has always been shot through with religious and quasi-spiritual aspirations. He traced what he called the “religion of technology” back from the late medieval era through pioneering early modern scientists to artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

The symbolism of technology, however, does not always crystalize society’s hopes and ambitions. To borrow Cox’s phrasing, it does not always embody where we want to go. Sometimes it is a symbol of fears and anxieties. In The Machine in the Garden, for instance, Leo Marx meticulously detailed how the locomotive became a symbol that collected the fears and anxieties generated by the industrial revolution in nineteenth century America.

As late as 1901, long since the railroad had become an ordinary aspect of American life, novelist Frank Norris describes it in The Octopus as “a terror of steam and steal,” a “symbol of vast power, huge, terrible, flinging the echo of its thunder, over all the reaches of the valley,” and a “leviathan, with tentacles of steel clutching into the soil, the soulless Force, the iron-hearted Power, the monster, the Collussus, the Octopus.”

The sublime experience accompanying the atomic bomb also inspired fear and trepidation. This response was most famously put into words by Rober Oppenheimer when, after the detonation of the first atomic bomb, he quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

This duality is not surprising given what we know about religious symbols generally. Drawing on sociologist Emile Durkheim, Cox noted that sacred symbols “are characterized by a high degree of power and ofambiguity. They arouse dread and gratitude, terror and rapture. The more central and powerful a symbol is for a culture the more vivid the ambiguity becomes.” The symbolism of technology shares this interplay between power and ambiguity. Our most powerful technologies both promise salvation and threaten destruction.

So what are the symbolic technologies of our time? The recent farewell tour by the space shuttle fleet evoked something approaching Nye’s technological sublime, and so too did Curiosity’s successful Mars landing. Neither of these, however, seem to rise to the level of technological symbolism described by Cox. They are momentarily awe-inspiring, but they are not quite symbols. The Singularity movement certainly does contain strong strands of Noble’s “religion of technology,” and it explicitly promises one of humanity’s long sought after dreams, immortality. But the movement’s ambitions do not easily coalesce around one particular technology or artifact that could collect its force into a symbol.

Here’s my candidate: Google Glass.

I can’t think of another recent technology whose roll-out has occasioned such a strong and visceral backlash. You need only scroll through a few months worth of posts at Stop the Cyborgs to get a feel for how all manner of fears and anxieties have gathered around Glass. Here are some recent post titles:

Google Won’t Allow Face Recognition on Glass Yet

Überveillance | Think of it as big brother on the inside looking out

Consent is not enough: Privacy Self-Management and the Consent Dilemmas

Stigmatised | Face recognition as human branding

The World of Flawed Data and Killer Algorithms is Upon Us…

Google Glass; Making Life Efficient Through Privacy Invasion

Glass has appeared at a moment already fraught with anxiety about privacy, and that was the case even before recent revelations about the extent and ubiquity of NSA surveillance. In other words, just when the fear of being watched, monitored, or otherwise documented has swelled, along comes a new technology in the shape of glasses, our most recognizable ocular technology, that aptly serves as an iconic representation of those fears. If our phones and browsers are windows into our lives, Glass threatens to make our gaze and the gaze of the watchers one and the same.

But remember the dual nature of potent symbols: we have other fears to which Glass may present itself as a remedy. We fear missing out on what transpires online, and Glass promises to bring the Internet right in front of our eyes so we will never have to miss anything again. We fear experiences may pass by without our documenting them, and Glass promises the power to document our experience pervasively. If we fear being watched, Glass at least allows us to feel as if we can join the watchers. And behind these particular fears are more primal, longstanding fears: the fear of loneliness and isolation, the fear of death, the fear of insecurity and vulnerability. Glass answers to these as well.

Interestingly, the website I cited earlier was not called, “Stop Google Glass”; it was called, “Stop the Cyborgs.” Perhaps Google Glass is the icon the Singularity project has been looking for. Glass is not quite an implant, but something about its proximity to the body or about how it promises to fade from view and become the interface through which our consciousness experiences reality … something about it suggests the blurring of the line between human and machine. Perhaps that is the greatest fear and highest aspiration of our age. The fears of those who would preserve humanity as they know it, and the aspirations of those who are prepared, as they see it, to trascend humanity are embodied in Glass.

Long before he visited the Exposition Universelle, Henry Adams wrote to his brother:

You may think all this nonsense, but I tell you these are great times. Man has mounted science and is now run away with. I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of man. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control. Some day science may have the existence of mankind in its power, and the human race commit suicide by blowing up the world.

We might think all that nonsense, but it wasn’t that long ago that fears of a nuclear winter gripped our collective imagination. More recently, other technological scenarios have fueled our popular cultural nightmares: biogenetically cultivated global epidemics, robot apocalypses, or climate catastrophes. In each case, the things we have made “become Death, destroyer of worlds.” With Glass, the fear is not that we will blow up the world or unleash a global catastrophe. It is that we will simply innovate the humanity out of ourselves. Remembering how the story turned out, we might put the temptation this way: If we will place Glass before our eyes, they will be opened, and we will become as gods.

Of course, reading the symbolism of technology is not quite like reading palms or tea leaves. The symbols necessitate no particular future in themselves. But they are cultural indicators and as such they reveal something about us, and that is valuable enough.

Borg Complex Alert!

BorgIt’s been a while since I’ve had occasion to point out a Borg Complex case, but the folks at Google have seen fit to help me remedy that situation.

At MIT’s EmTech conference last Thursday, the head of the display division at Google-X, Mary Lou Jepsen, gave us a few gems.

Speaking of Google Glass and its successors, Jepsen explained, “It’s basically a way of amplifying you. I’ve thought for many years that a laptop is an extension of my mind. Why not have it closer to my mind, and on me all the time?”

Why not, indeed.

In any case, her division is hard at work. They are “maybe sleeping three hours a night to bring the technology forward.”

“It’s coming,” she added. “I don’t think it’s stoppable.” Then why, I ask, lose so much sleep over it. One really ought not wear oneself ragged over something that’s bound to come to pass inevitably.

But, as per Mr. Brin’s directives, she wasn’t saying much about what exactly was coming. Whatever the next iteration of wearable computing looks like, Jepsen tells us “you become addicted to the speed of it, and it lets you do more fast and easily.”

Concerns? Never you mind. Remember Mr. Schmidts’s comforting assurances: “Our goal is to make the world better. We’ll take the criticism along the way, but criticisms are inevitably from people who are afraid of change or who have not figured out that there will be an adaptation of society to it.”

Silly fearful critics. Don’t they know resistance is futile, society will be assimi … er … will adapt.

Don’t Worry, You’ll Get Used To It


Last week I came across this image in a short post at MIT Technology Review titled, “Growing Up With Google Glass.” To be clear at the outset, this image was photoshopped to accompany the story. When I posted the image to the Borg Complex tumblr, I offered it as a Borg Complex Rorschach test: What do you see? An inevitable future? Nothing to worry about? The advance of civilization? Then you may suffer from a Borg Complex.

I don’t, in fact, believe this to be an inevitable scenario, but it does strike me as entirely plausible. The post concludes with this:

“Most people at some point or another will have experienced a moment in which they realize the generation behind them has a very different relationship to technology – and hence to the world – than they do. Glass, which mediates a person’s relationship with the world more directly than other technologies, will likely produce its own share of such moments.”

Quite honestly, I’m not sure I fully get the sense of that paragraph. But it seems to suggest that there will come a time when this will be a perfectly ordinary scene and, when that time comes, people will look back on whatever apprehension we may now feel and think it quaint.

This is a common rejoinder to critiques of new technology. It goes something like this: “When a new technology appears, it always elicits concerns that in retrospect turn out to be overstated or misguided. Likewise, whatever concerns or apprehension we now experience will prove to be unfounded.”

I suspect this is sometimes true enough. But is it always? Consider this liminal moment with regards to Google Glass. We are at that stage in the life of a technology when its future remains remarkably malleable. Google is pushing to allay concerns and to naturalize the device, but not without resistance and opposition. You may look at this image and feel apprehensive. If, several years hence, it turns out that Google Glass (or something like it) becomes a taken-for-granted device – and scenes like the one imagined above become commonplace – will that necessarily mean that your concerns were misguided? I don’t think so. Could it not also be the case that genuine and substantive moral reservations were gradually eroded and then forgotten altogether. Eventual acceptance of a given state-of-affairs, after all, is no guarantee of its moral superiority. Consider it a future-tense extension of the naturalistic fallacy: simply because something comes to be the case, it does not follow that it ought to be the case.

Some time ago I cited Evernote CEO Phil Libin’s Borg-ish assertion, speaking of Google Glass style devices: “It’s going to seem barbaric to not have that stuff.” Perhaps. What he didn’t acknowledge is that such a judgment might itself be the symptom of a prior, forgotten slide into barbarism.