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.