Someone is keeping an eye on the future. Thank God it’s not me
I HAD, IN THE BEGINNING, never heard of Google Glass, but that was part of the point. This was June, and Glass, as time-strapped “wearable computing” enthusiasts had quickly taken to calling it, had come to market just two months earlier, and then only in the most limited of limited releases. Just ten thousand had been made available, the first 2,000 sold to those fortunates who had attended Google’s 2012 I/O conference in San Francisco and witnessed the Glass demo, for which a series of hands-free-videotaping parachutists, stunt-bicyclists, and rappellers were employed to deliver the device to Google cofounder Sergey Brin, who was already wearing one. Another 8,000 went to the winners of a Twitter contest, who described their “use case” (clearly a more specific term than mere use) for Glass under the hashtag #ifihadglass, and were rewarded with the $1,500 opportunity to buy one.
The winners, chosen from 150,000 entrants, trended axially toward outsize accomplishment: there were entrepreneurs aplenty; marketing and advertising creatives; engineers, professors, and activists; and, of course, celebrities, a wide-ranging group that included both Gary Shteyngart and Soulja Boy. (In a happy karmic twist, LeVar Burton won a pair but turned it down, calling it a “downgrade” from his Star Trek VISOR.) No date had yet been set for a wider commercial release, and sightings of Glass in the wild, as I understand tech people jokingly refer to off-campus realms, were rare.
I had on a couple of occasions seen Glass. They resemble a pair of lensless spectacles that evoke both the hokey futurism of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the ill ease of a gawky teen burdened with orthodontic headgear. The frames soften the sci-fi overtones a bit, glossed in one of five colors with paint-chip monikers—Charcoal, Tangerine, Shale, Cotton, Sky—calibrated to roil the blood of America’s naming professionals. My Glass sightings had been chance encounters in the subway: a portly fifty-something white man seated across from me on the F train, Sky frames perched on his nose like a pair of readers; an African-American fellow in a crisply tailored business suit, his Shale Glass competing for space on his shaved pate with a pair of cherry-red Beats by Dr. Dre headphones.
I have nothing against folks so inspired by new stuff that they’re willing to wait in line for it. I’ve just never wanted to be one of them. Let someone else decipher the riddles of the damn thing, whichever damn thing it might be. Let the other guy endure the first-generation costs. Then, later, when my priced-to-move version goes a little sideways, and I can’t figure out if it’s broken or just contemplating its mortality, there are people I can pester with questions. It’s Ludditism as a life strategy.
Glass, I discovered, had from its inception been extensively covered in both the tech and the mainstream media, subject to the usual descriptors: “revolutionary,” “disruptive,” “paradigm shift,” “game changer,” “transformational,” “next generation,” and so forth. The first wave of early adopters even had a title for their adventurously connoted and intelligently branded club: the Glass Explorers.
It was these Explorers who finally drew my attention. They had, it seemed to me, been bestowed with a privilege greater than mere ownership: They struck me as an object lesson in the virtues and perils of early adoption, an allegory of consumerist anxiety and desire, and a prism through which to comprehend the contemporary faith in the transformative power of commercial products. I decided to have a look at them myself.
“I’M A BIG NERD,” Lori Shearer told me as she slipped her white-framed Glass from her gold Kate Spade purse. “This is my only cutting-edge thing.”
A digital marketing executive with iCrossing, Lori had won her Glass by tweeting an offer for “A Date with Google Glass.” The dates, she explained, would not be of the romantic sort, but more a chance to be “a Guest of Glass”—a way for non-Explorers to share in what she called the “unique opportunity to own and preview one of the coolest technology releases in years.”
Lori had allowed me to tag along as she “dated” one Michael Breach, a barista at the in-office café of Jack Studios, a large commercial film and photography space in Chelsea. Breach was known for his ability to craft lifelike portraits—of Madonna, Amanda Bynes, Biggie Smalls, Edward Norton—from the crema of his coffee drinks. He had turned this talent into a form of minor celebrity, with appearances on television programs like The Couch, The Chew, Good Day New York, and Good Morning America, plus branding opportunities with companies like Nescafé.
I’d met Lori at the studio, a converted loft with walls and exposed pipes painted white, high-ceilinged rooms constructed from sheets of glass. Blue velvet chairs and sofas formed a waiting area, set off by a green object that was either a very uncomfortable chair or an artwork.
“Look at that,” Lori said, noting a sign cut into one of the transparent walls: Glass. “That’s perfect.”
Breach, a sallow-faced redhead in a gray shirt and blue jeans, stood behind the three-sided coffee bar, surrounded by hipsters of every fashion predilection—skinny-jeaned, throwback-jerseyed, lightly S&M-clad, and more—lounging on bar stools awaiting their lattes.
Lori—whose clothing skewed sporty yet glamorous—seemed both in awe of and at ease with this contemporary, curated setting. She jumped right in, pulling the device free of her cascade of blond hair and handing it to Breach. She walked him through some basic commands, the e-mail and text functions, directional aids (“Sometimes I’ll ask it where the best whatever restaurant in the neighborhood is….”), and search, before teaching him how to shoot a video.
“Say Okay, Glass,” she instructed him, and he did.
“Record a video.” The Glass default settings, she told him, stop recording after a Vine-like ten seconds. To continue, though, all one had to do was tap the frame and it “would keep rolling for however long.”
She asked if I wanted to take a turn with Glass but I declined. In part this was due to its expense and fragility: I didn’t want to be responsible for breaking it. But it was also kind of dull. It’s no secret that at this stage of its (very early) development Glass doesn’t do anything with which a smartphone owner would be unfamiliar. Fans of augmented reality—think of the heads-up displays installed on the Terminator—have been quick to point out the device’s limitations in this regard. Glass pushes notifications to you, and the map function appears in one corner of your vision. Those imagining a full-bore computer overlay separating your world from the actual world will be disappointed. Most of its features require Internet connectivity, so continued dependence on that smartphone in your pocket is required.
I don’t feel qualified to offer a product review of Glass. But I don’t think I’m wrong. A June 12 “teardown” published by Sean Ludwig in Venture Beat called Glass “modest hardware” that is “begging for an upgrade,” with a Google X-branded circuit board, TI OMAP4430 processor, [and] 16GB of SanDisk flash memory”; a “tiny screen” with “native resolution of 640-by-360 pixels”; and a “paltry 570 mAh battery,” which accounted for why “the damn thing doesn’t last but a few hours before it needs to be recharged.” (Full disclosure: I added the word damn. )
Along with questions about utility, a design debate emerged at the outset of the Explorer program. Could people be convinced to wear this glasses-like piece of equipment all the time? Or will they prefer their Internet of Things in some other form? Perhaps the smartwatch approach, flipping through e-mails and weather forecasts on something that resembles a conventional timepiece? How about a life-logging wristband with functions that track your sleep patterns and transgressions against healthy dietary practice? Or will it be something else entirely, and will Glass come to be regarded as this decade’s Segway—the thing that was supposed to change everything but never did, because it looked ridiculous, or cost too much, or because the pointy-heads in Mountain View never figured out how to use it?
Glass is admittedly a “beta phase” product, no different, several people told me, than Gmail’s first exposure to the public. No one expects it to be perfect. “There’s no such thing as a truly private beta anymore,” Matt Buchanan, the science and technology editor for the New Yorker website, told me. “They’re very explicit that it’s new. No one is pretending it’s a finished product.”
Lori suggested that Breach do a cappuccino version of Prince, the singer having reentered the zeitgeist that day by opening a Twitter account.
Breach fell to it, chopping through the foam with bamboo toothpicks, his eyebrows knit in concentration.
“I go into this state of meditation,” he mumbled as he whipped a stirrer in a circular motion, perfecting Prince’s curls. “It really clears the mind.”
Lori hung back, snapping photos on her iPhone—I did, too—of Breach and his work, which was uncanny and creepy in equal measure. She asked him not to look up, so she wouldn’t be caught on video. “I’ve been in so many!”
Lori had told me that she was a recent migrant to New York, a southerner who’d grown up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and started her working life in Atlanta. She wanted to learn her new city and gain access to some of its more interesting inhabitants, and she was using Glass to help, with mixed results so far.
To the good: she’d been invited for a studio tour at Nicole Miller’s atelier, enjoyed a Chinatown greenmarket jaunt with Top Chef chef Edward Lee, and scored a bottle of scent from a custom perfumer in Nolita called Le Labo. She’d attended a party thrown for the Major League All-Star Game, at which she’d met several players for the New York Mets. To the less than good, but still pretty awesome: an encounter in Montauk with Andy Dick, whom she described as a “D-List actor, in pretty rough shape.” He wanted, she said, to have her use Glass to videotape him doing “everything in reverse.”
As Mark Zuckerberg once wrote, “Personal relationships are the fundamental unit of our society. Relationships are how we discover new ideas, understand our world, and ultimately derive long-term happiness.” Lori’s dates exemplified his point, however insubstantial it might be. For her, Glass wasn’t simply a tool to make friends, or even to explore the city, but a way to allow the people she dated to demonstrate their best attributes to her.
Certainly she got pleasure and status from the dates. On her website, where she kept a running catalog of her Glass-based social life, she notes that “Glass can only truly be mine as a selected Explorer,” and that she had a preference for “high profile” people. But ultimately, this wasn’t about her. She had leveraged the technology, and her access to it, to promote other people, and for no benefit to herself other than the pleasure of being around their talent. That’s hard to dislike.
An appreciative crowd had gathered as Breach worked, drawn to Glass. A Zooey Deschanel look-alike pronounced it cool and mentioned that she’d read about it. An emo boy rubbed his stubble with envy and scarfed down the free cookies laid out on the countertop. The studio manager, a stone-faced English woman with a brush-cut burst of spiked hair tamed into a pompadour, at first wanted to kick us out, then grew antic once she realized Glass had come to her studio. She demanded to wear it, offered us a tour, and slipped me a business card.
I asked Breach if people usually ended up drinking his creations. “Most people do,” he said. “Though they’re not really meant for that.”
“I’ll definitely drink one,” Lori said, and Breach looked a bit crestfallen. I changed the subject. What did Lori think of Glass?
“I like to promote things through social channels,” she said. “And this is such a unique time, with the access to technology before anyone has it. For me, it’s like bartering with people.”
She didn’t care that Glass, for all its charming modishness, was a somewhat empty vessel. Google had sent her a consumer questionnaire several weeks after she’d purchased hers, but she never filled it out. She hadn’t attended a Google+ Hangout to complain about its power cord. She knew there were hardly any apps for Glass, and there wouldn’t be for another year, and that her phone already did everything the device could do, and more. Her adoption wish was only tangentially related to technology—it was activated by Glass, not animated by it.
Watching Lori and Breach toying with device, the studio folk murmuring appreciatively at their every gesture, I was reminded of that old joke: “Do you realize if it weren’t for Edison, we’d be watching TV by candlelight?”
I REMEMBER READING ONCE that three phases governed the adoption of new technology. Phase One, went the theory, lasts until our twenties, during which time we celebrate every advance, no matter how nominal or financially disadvantageous. iPhone, great! Twitter, terrific! The Cloud…heavenly! Phase Two commences at about age thirty, when, as a cohort, we remain open to the idea of new technology in all its splendiferous iterations, but have grown so wise and embittered that we must understand, and be reasonably assured of, its utility. Technology for those in Phase Two derives its value from its potential as tool. It is adopted only insofar as it is well constructed and efficient to operate, and solvable problems exist for it to address. (One could refer to this as the Apple phase.) Phase the third, the last stop on the wheel of our tech consumerism, starts when we turn forty, when anxiety caused by all things space-age threatens to overwhelm us, and we resist it with fervency.
Forty-year-olds are are suspicious of many things, but perhaps especially so of technology, because of its newness, its ruthless tang of abandonment. By the time we enter our fifth decade, we know that anything our retail overlords pass off as progress is really just another exhausting distraction, another complex variable introduced into the runic algorithms of our lives, another way to screw us royally. Phrase Three extends until death, or at least until we reach that stage of retirement when one’s children, now grown, begin to insist that we “stay active.”
Not coincidentally, I’m forty years old. Phase Three: the Age of Bile and the closing of my American Mind. In my defense (and forty seems an age that begs for an explanation), I’ve done my best to learn how to stop worrying and love the tech. I blog. I am an enthusiastic user of social media, as those who have become inured to the photographic charms of my three adorable children can attest. My DVD player has been undone by the on-demand delights and temptations streaming from my Roku box. I have an iPhone in my pocket, a MacBook Pro at home, and hell, I’m writing this story for Medium and not for a legacy print monthly that earns its keep with ads for luxury watches and cologne. I like to think of myself as an abiding second-phase kind of dude, one who neither pushes technology away angrily, nor amorously-desperately clutches it close.
These phases are, of course, not limited to technology. I discovered Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue on a shelf in a Bleecker Street music shop when I was fourteen. I brought it home and listened to it, alone, for days. I can still recall the thrilled electric jolt at being exposed to it, at the realization of its existence, that music this gorgeous and strange could be made, that emotions like this could be generated by sound. You can only imagine my shock when I discovered another copy among my father’s vinyl albums, next to the Pete Seeger and the Brahms and the Beethoven that I wouldn’t learn to appreciate for many years. (My father says I have this story all wrong, but he gave his permission to use my version, which has a tidier narrative arc.)
I assumed that these discoveries would continue, that my life would be filled with comparable mysteries investigated and revealed. I’ll leave it to the reader to imagine if that is what has transpired. New clothes and cars, concepts and paradigms, social cues and cultural norms—these excite young people because they signify a tomorrow fashioned with themselves in mind. They expand the conception of what is possible, and give us leave to partake. They don’t even have to be genuinely new—only new to us.
I MET MAGDA SCHOENEICH at one of those Upper East Side bar and grills that do a good business in early dinners for retired folks and a solid happy-hour trade. Magda was late, held up by traffic from her office in New Jersey, where she worked as a corporate strategist for a large pharmaceuticals firm. I was sipping a seltzer, watching the dull-eyed professional waiters, in red jackets and crisp white aprons, as they worked the dining room, when a tall, muscular man with a graying flattop, dressed brightly in Bermuda shorts and a pink cashmere vest, handed me a white—or should I say Cotton—pair of Glass.
“And you are Ted?” he asked in a heavy Eastern European accent. I admitted that I was. He smiled, enjoying my confusion, and left. (Mysterious as this all seemed, the man was only a friend of Magda’s doing her a favor. She hadn’t been able to bring her Glass to work with her, and she wanted to make sure that she had it when we met.)
Magda had evidently put her Glass to some use. It looked a bit worn, the white enamel on the frames scuffed. I liked that. It reminded me of the dinged X-wing fighters in the pre-prequel Star Wars: the imperfections make them real, help us suspend disbelief. I slid it onto my face and tried to turn it on, jabbing a finger at the power button on its right side. Nothing happened. I tried swiping a finger along the frame, tapping at it, even bobbing my head back and forth, as I had seen Lori do, but no luck. I removed them from my head and studied them for a while, searching for a hidden panel, some Latin inscriptions, anything. Helplessly, I glanced around the room, hoping for some geek who could operate Glass on instinct. The sexual buzz of the happy hour was nearing its peak, and no one paid me the slightest attention.
Magda came soon after. She collected her Glass from me and hung it over her shoulder, attached its charger, and then plugged it into a wall socket. (Sign you’re Phase Two: You can’t distinguish between broken and out of power.) A former professional ballroom dancer, Magda, originally from Poland, had a punk-rock sense of style, intelligent eyes, and a sweet smile. She had, she told me, lived in Korea, Russia, and Germany, among other countries, and she spoke English with a clipped precision.
Her initial idea for Glass, the one she had proposed when she applied to get one, had been to use it as a tool in her work as a dance teacher, which she does in her spare time, mostly helping children. With her connections in the dance world, she was able to convince championship-level ballroom dancers to record themselves dancing while wearing the device. The first-person videos shot with Glass offer a unique instructional opportunity, and they have been a success with her students. “Kids go wild once you show them,” Magda said.
She seemed equally excited about the things Glass would eventually (maybe, possibly, kinda, sorta) do: Doctors would use it for clinical observations, retailers could reinvent the notion of the focus group and consumer feedback, mechanics could keep their schematics grease-free as they rooted about in something’s innards.
These predictions for Glass, while impressive, didn’t have much to do with how it affected Magda’s life. What interested me about her relationship to the device was how conscientiously she used it (and refrained from using it), bringing the sensibility of a corporate professional—organized, practical, comfortable with limits—to complex social interactions.
She had crafted a set of social rules that governed her use of the device. “I wouldn’t have taken it to this bar if I wasn’t talking to you,” she said, in part from concern that a drunken reveler might damage it, but also because it attracted so much attention to her, not all of it welcome. She leaves it home when she goes on dates, or on a hike, or when she expects to have a meaningful conversation. But when she does wear it, she said, strangers still stop her on the street and ask for a spin, as do children, and people she meets in restaurants and other public spaces.
Magda struck me as a confident and upbeat person, well equipped to moderate the level of her Glass-inspired interactions. The same could not be said of all Explorers, one would imagine. Most people when they first see it are probably like me: too preoccupied for it to make an impression. But plenty do notice it, and while some are thrilled, others are confused by it, and not a few feel afraid. To wear Glass requires an equanimity that not all people possess.
People who wear it without reservation have been dubbed Glassholes. PC Magazine ran an article on Glass’s “White Male Problem.” Glenn Derene, a longtime editor and writer for Popular Mechanics, now at Consumer Reports, told me that he viewed Glass’s video features as a “blunt invasion of privacy that frankly speaks to the egotism of the people wearing it.” Noam Chomsky, somewhat predictably, has called the device a “dream that Orwell couldn’t have concocted.” Rebecca Solnit has compared it to the dystopian future in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron.” Bars in Seattle have banned the device for fear that shameless Glass-wearing patrons might surreptitiously photograph other drinkers.
The device has also been criticized for acting as a barrier between its wearers and other people, and by extension, from reality. Glass, Derene pointed out, conflicted with what folks in the tech-world call infosnacking. “Smartphones are the functional equivalent of a table with snacks on it,” he explained. You can indulge or abstain, as the mood strikes. “Glass,” he continued, “is like having the appetizer plate on your face.” Gorging is unavoidable. Google rejects this notion, asserting instead that it is the smartphone, which we spend so much time looking down at, that is the real social alienator. Glass allows for technological access and eye contact, thus encouraging a higher level of engagement.
Sergey Brin put forth this rationale last February in a TED conference presentation during which he compared Glass to a smartphone and suggested that the head-lowered gaze was somehow emasculating. “We all use these touch phones, which you can’t even feel,” he said. (Not sure what he meant by that, but hey, who’s the visionary? Not me.) “Is this what you were meant to do with your body?” Brin claimed that they had tried “to make something that frees your hands [and] frees your eyes”—the ocular freedom being achieved by putting “the display up high, you know, out of your line of sight.”
When you hear Brin speaking in these terms, best check your wallet. Likewise, when Genevieve Bell, Intel’s in-house anthropologist (known as their Director of Interaction and Experience), goes on NPR to describe a future smartphone that will direct her past the coffee shop she’s gone looking for and into a museum to view a “piece of art…like nothing [she’s] ever seen before,” I resist. I don’t see that future as a totalitarian vision so much as one built on the exploitation of laziness and busyness, the fatigue of work and children, the stress of bills. It doesn’t harm so much as transform, devolving us into a pack of boring stooges who can’t decide whether we want a coffee or an epiphany-generating aesthetic experience.
So, Glass will free your hands, but your eyes, let alone your ass or mind, may not follow. If it gains wide acceptance, however, it could necessitate the creation of new rules of decorum beyond those forged by reasonable individuals like Magda. “Ten, fifteen years ago,” Paul Ford, the writer and technology analyst, recalled when I mentioned Sergey Brin’s speech, “if you had seen you or me screwing around with a phone, we’d be like, ‘That guy’s a dickhead!’ Rather than focusing on how Glass and other wearables change the way people think or revolutionize society, or any other such blather that people like Brin float when they want us to buy something, we should consider the ways they might alter the understanding of acceptable behavior. “For Glass to succeed,” Ford said, “requires everyone in the world to decide [that using it] is not asshole behavior to the point that we will punish that person.”
With Magda and those like her serving as an example, expect that decision to be forthcoming. Besides, even now, the social price demanded for wearing Glass isn’t that high. With a sense of mischievous good humor, Magda admitted that she sometimes enjoyed the way Glass made her stand out. “At first, you wear it all the time, and you just take careful pictures of people walking down the street, right?” she said, smiling a little. “Now, though, if I have friends who think they are so cool”—broader smile—“I can just show them down because I will be the one wearing these.”
I’D FOUND LORI AND MAGDA on a list of Explorers that Google had given me, which also included a network engineer who was once an American Idol contestant, a Broadway theater PR guy who captured the red carpet on opening night with his Glass, a vegetarian and rock climber who had been named to Forbes’s list of “30 Under 30: Social Entrepreneurs,” a beekeeper from upstate New York; a commercial-airline pilot, and an architect whom my Google contact—who sternly requested I not publish her name—described as a “go-to classic mom example.”
The Explorers, as I understood them, were akin to a very public consumer focus group. Google had invented the program to determine what was best (and worst) about Glass, and in so doing, lead both maker and market to the promised land of the killer app, at which point today’s damn thing would transition into tomorrow’s essential object.
This seemed unlikely. How could Google expect to derive anything of substance from Lori or Magda, or any layperson, however intelligent or inventive? Even from a marketing perspective—the contest, the issuance of Willy Wonka-like “Golden Tickets”—it all seemed so obvious and easy to dislike. Why not keep Glass a poorly guarded secret, strategically leaking tidbits to a salivating media, until Phase Damn Thing was complete and a working doodad could be inflicted on the unsuspecting public?
“It’s symptomatic of Google’s roots, how the people there see themselves as a company,” Glenn Derene told me. Google, he pointed out, is a software company, one whose “DNA is in engineering, iterating, cycling. They’re engineers with tons of money, and engineers noodle around with prototypes.” To put Glass in front of the public without fully understanding it, however, struck him as strange. “No one knew what the Internet was going to be,” he said. “But the Internet didn’t start as a product. It was a research tool. No one marketed it.”
One useful comparison for the Explorer program would be the 1979 release of what Mohanbir Sawhney, a marketing and technology professor at Northwestern University, called the first piece of wearable technology: the Sony Walkman. (The watch, of course, might dispute this, but I take his point.) “It was not an instantaneous success. Sony really struggled with it,” Sawhney told me. As with Google and Glass, Sony didn’t understand how consumers would use the Walkman. “It was supposed to be a social music-listening device,” he said. People were expected to listen to music together on a single, shared set of headphones. “Turned out to be the opposite.”
This line of reasoning, however, seemed only to lead me back to the beginning: Nothing I’d seen from the Explorers indicated they could help Google fill Glass’s empty vessel with market-ready usefulness. Which, all the experts assured me, was correct. They couldn’t. But no one expected them to, either.
THE GLAZED CONFERENCE TOOK PLACE in September 2013 in San Francisco’s South of Market district, on the grounds of the city’s second former mint building. “The Granite Lady” is an imposing edifice that dates to 1870, guarded by towering Doric columns and reached via a steep set of stone stairs. A monument of an earlier era’s symbols of fiscal progress, the Mint had been converted to a museum and event space.
It was crowded that damp morning with the guests of Stained Glass Labs, a cadre of investors and advisors who believe in the “innate desire for humanity and technology to blend together.” (They’ve since renamed their group Wearable World.) Joined by representatives of the tech media, the Glazed Conference would bring together a cross section of the people who make up the functional target group of the Explorer program: the app developers and associated start-up owners who will craft the device’s utility.
I had initially thought of Glass exclusively as a device, a gadget, a tool, a toy—a product. But that’s a narrow understanding of its role. On its own, Glass would capture early adopters, like the Twitter winners, and the mainstream consumers who follow their lead, for only so long. But Glass also serves as a platform, a portal through which to access Google’s existing ecosystems: the servers, search, maps, and data that comprise a sizable portion of our present online habitat. The app developers and start-up jocks at the Glazed Conference, spurred by Google’s April 2013 publication of the Glass app-programming interface—that is, detailed design instructions—mark a first step toward establishing the device’s own ecosystem, a tech biota with services and tools specific to the platform and alluring enough to anchor people to the product even after its Phase One shine has faded. This, in essence, is the purpose of the Explorer program.
Casually dressed conference-goers milled around the registration table, accepting lanyards from gorgeous female conference organizers. A few steps away, a cluster of doctoral-level math types, Asian and Russian, all wearing Glass, posed under a massive crystal chandelier for a photo with a bald, silver-goateed white man, who instead of shouting cheese, yelled, “I’m hanging out with some Glassholes!”
Robert Scoble, a well-known blogger and tech reviewer, was to deliver the keynote address to the conference in what I believe was once a bank counting room. Scoble is an unabashed pro-Glass partisan, one who has been widely mocked for having published on Google+ a self-portrait that he snapped—plump, pale, and naked—while showering with the device, and which he captioned: “You thought I was kidding when I said I would never take them off.”
Scoble, a potbellied, strawberry-blond man in his forties, pleading brown eyes obscured by an orange-colored Glass, bounded into the room and onto the stage. His speech took the form of a caffeinated, stream-of-consciousness incantation evoking the coming wearable age, one in which devices will conspire to meet our retail needs in any context. There was, and would be, “an explosion in location data” and an “explosion in social media.” Companies would enter the blast radius of this explosion. Sales prices would shift depending on the person walking the store aisles, sensors would surveil us for the betterment of our shopping lists, and the “amount of data you’re gonna have as a business owner” would astound. Those troubled by incursions into our so-called private lives were simply “retarded.”
I arranged to talk to Scoble directly after his speech, in a room set aside for journalists. For some reason a tall and sweeping caravan tent had been erected there, stocked with an ornate samovar and teacups, auburn and yellow rugs, and plump silk throw pillows. We elected, however, to sit at a bar table adjacent to the tent.
It was soon apparent that Scoble, sipping a diet soda and trying to catch his breath, would be unwilling to comment on much beyond the expected capacities of the new devices. I put to him a question about what I called “the transactional nature” of the technological environment he foresaw. He responded with a winding narrative on how Google would soon “know you’re shopping, know you’re in Stanford mall, walking around. And this thing”— Glass, or something like it—“if you turn to look at the Gap”—which, of course, you will do—“it can grab a little bit of context and serve you better, in real time, with a little bit of augmented reality.”
He almost immediately launched into another Joycean aria, this one on cameras—hands-free, of course—that could be used for hiking and mountain biking, and how they improve “trail awareness” because, he explained, “you can see the trail in real time.” That is, the camera sees it in real time, while you are there…in real time.
When I brought up the Segway comparison, Scoble displayed, if ever so slightly, a kernel of doubt: the unconvinced exception that proved the rule of his anticipatory enthusiasm.
“That’s interesting because it gets into hype and what actually shows up,” he told me. “The rich people overhyped it, right? I think Steve Jobs said the Segway was gonna change cities forever. Well, it didn’t. So there is something there. But is Glass overhyped? I don’t think so, because nobody’s even seen what it is yet, you know?” He also remarked that whereas Segway “has not changed its utility in almost a decade,” Glass “in the first six months got updated ten times, and every time they update it new things show up.”
I passed the rest of the day walking the Old Mint’s long, airy halls, stopping in at the lectures, or wandering the “demo pits” where tech companies exhibited their wares. I listened to people debate whether wearables will be the “Next Multi-Billion Market” and if “Media Companies Will Miss Wearables, Too.” (The consensus was that they would.) I met a representative from Vibease, makers of a clitoral vibrator controlled by Android (a Glass version is not planned), and someone from a scheduling-app start-up whose corporate tagline read, If your time isn’t booked, your bank accounts feels it. During the media panel, the guy from the news aggregator Topix sneered at his copanelists from USA Today and CNN, deriding their reliance on reporters and their insistence on truth—“it’s your religion,” he said—and joked to the attendees, “Once I figure out how to spam wearables, I’m gonna make a pile of money.”
I had lunch with Jon Gottfried, who had created an app that made it easier to share photos on Twitter using Glass. A cheerful young man with brown hair and an unruly beard, Gottfried owned Glass but didn’t always wear it. “As much as I believe this is a really fabulous device,” he said, “it is kind of the Model T of wearable computing, right?”
Gottfried told me that developers were attracted to Glass because it squared with the “hacker-focused” ethic of the technology world. “If you look at the early days of computing, there were a lot of hardware factors. People literally had to build their own computers,” he said. “We’ve gotten away from that as they’ve grown more polished. No one’s gonna crack open a MacBook. But it’s kind of circling back to that with wearables and mobiles.”
I liked Gottfried’s way of thinking, particularly because he had retained the ability to distinguish between the Steve-Jobs-tinkering-in-his-garage image he conjured and the consumerist police state that people like Scoble seemed to be hankering for.
“The people here are going to profit heavily from the creation of these technologies,” he said. “Go ask someone on the street, or my mother, what she thinks about the store knowing everything about her.” He paused to smile the weary smile of the ambivalent. “She’s gonna give you a very different answer than someone here creating the thing that knows everything about her.”
Outside of the tech world we hear so much about our obsolescence, our contrarian irrelevance, the end of our days. Without realizing, we slouch into a defensive, self-protective hunch when discussing the analog tasks that occupy our minds and sap our strength. Yet here, in this environment, this ecosystem, a prosperous future with me in it felt so doable. The enthusiasm for Glass and what it portended drew you in, and even I—a hopeless cynic and Phase Two rube—wanted to be a part of it.
I still didn’t want to buy Glass, or wear Glass, or allow Glass to fathom my deepest longings in a SKU code. But I did want to be included in its future, to walk the path cut by its wearable promise. If that required a willful deafness to the chirping of my critical faculties, so be it. It seemed nothing more was asked of me than to possess a store of ingenuity and optimism, and a genuine openness to adoption, which was really nothing more than change. If I offered my allegiance to it, swore fealty to the liege lords spreading cash and salvation around the Granite Lady, I would be admitted to the new era, and reborn.