I See You: The Technopanic over Google Glass
Google Glass isn’t available yet. Even so, the technopanic it’s inspiring is rising to full swivet. But I say there’s no need to panic. We’ll figure it out, just as we have with many technologies—from camera to cameraphone—that came before.
The greatest compilation of worries to date comes from Mark Hurst, who frets: “The most important Google Glass experience is not the user experience— it’s the experience of everyone else. The experience of being a citizen, in public, is about to change.” [His typography]
This is the fear we hear most: That someone wearing Glass will record you—because they can now—and you won’t know it. But isn’t that what we heard when cell phones added cameras? See The New York Times from a decade ago about Chicago Alderman Edward Burke:
But what Mr. Burke saw was the peril.
“If I'm in a locker room changing clothes,” he said, “there shouldn't be some pervert taking photos of me that could wind up on the Internet.”
Accordingly, as early as Dec. 17, the Chicago City Council is to vote on a proposal by Mr. Burke to ban the use of camera phones in public bathrooms, locker rooms and showers.
His fear didn’t materialize. Why? Because we’re civilized. We’re not as rude and stupid—as perverted—as our representative, Mr. Burke, presumed us to be.
How will we deal with the Glass problem? I’ll bet that people wearing Glass will learn not to shoot those around them without asking or they’ll get in trouble; they’ll be scolded or shunned or sued, which is how we negotiate norms. I’d also bet that Google will end up adding a red light—the universal symbol for “You’re on!”—to Glass. And folks around Glass users will hear them shout instructions to their machines, like dorks, saying: “OK, Glass: Record video.”
That concern raised, Hurst escalates to the next: that pictures and video of you could be uploaded to Google’s servers, where it could be combined with facial recognition and the vastness of data about you. Facebook can’t wait to exploit this, he warns. But this is happening already. Every photo on my phone is automatically uploaded to Google; others do likewise to Facebook, each of which has facial recognition and information about us. Hurst acknowledges that we’re all recorded all day in public—remember: it is public—by security cameras. But the difference here, he argues, is that this data is held by companies. Big companies + Big Data = Big problems, right? That’s the alarm Siva Vaidhyanathan raises:
But what’s to investigate? Should governments have investigated Kodak cameras when they came out? Well, Teddy Roosevelt did briefly ban cameras in Washington parks. In 2010, Germany’s minister of consumer protection, Ilse Aigner, decreed that tying facial recognition to geolocation would be “taboo”—though one could certainly imagine such a combination being useful in, for example, finding missing children. To ban or limit a technology before it is even implemented and understood is the definition of short-sighted.
Hurst also fears that the fuzz and the Feds could get all this data about us, these days even without warrants. I fear that, too—greatly. But the solution isn’t to limit the power of technology but to limit the power of government. That we can’t is an indication of a much bigger problem than cameras at our eyelids.
I agree with Hurst that this is worth discussing and anticipating problems to solve them. But let us also discuss the benefits alongside the perils, change to welcome balancing change we fear—the ability to get relevant information and alerts constantly, the chance to capture an otherwise-lost moment with a baby, another way to augment our own memories, and other opportunities not yet imagined. Otherwise, if we manage only to our fears, only to the worst case, then we won’t get the best case. And let’s please start here: We are not uncivilized perverts.
Yes, I’m dying to get a Google Glass and get my head around it and vice versa. But rest assured, I will ask you whether it’s OK to take a picture of you in private—just as I ask whether it’s OK to take or share your picture now or to tweet or blog something you say to me. We figured all that out. We will figure this out. We have before. No need to technopanic.