Through the Watching Glass

On privacy, etiquette, and the ever-expanding Glasshole


When my partner Billy Agan first told me the story, he called them “Google Goggles.”

“Matt Hunt keeps coming in to Telegraph wearing those Google Goggles and he won’t take them off. It’s like if someone came in holding a camera at eye level — I’d tell them to put that away, too. But he won’t do it.”

“I would normally avoid someone with them, but I’m at work, he’s staring right at me, and I can’t go anywhere.” Billy has worked in Oakland bars and restaurants since 2009.

“I saw other people getting creeped out by it. And because he was a regular, I thought I could tell him to take them off while he was in there. I didn’t think it was going to be that big of a deal.”

On three occasions before requiring Hunt to leave, Billy had asked him directly. I once witnessed this: Hunt walked in donning Glass, Billy asked that he remove it, Hunt laughed, walked behind the bar, and poured himself a beer. Matt ran Telegraph’s social media accounts in exchange for free food and drink, and took the same liberties afforded to actual employees.

Billy just sighed. Matt later told me, “I thought he was joking.”

A few days later, Billy had had enough. He tells it this way: Matt walked up to the bar to order a beer on a busy Friday night. Billy demanded he remove the Glass or leave. Billy yelled. He stood on top of a box and yelled some more. Matt ignored him until Billy grabbed him by the arm and delivered him to restaurant security, who escorted him out.

Later Matt said that Billy, as staff and not owner, had no right to ask him to remove the Glass or leave, and that while, yes, he was ejected for wearing Glass, Billy assaulted him and called him a “faggot.” Witnesses don’t support the claim, and the police report Matt filed against Billy later that night is essentially blank, but he maintains his version of events.

“I didn’t use any slurs,” says Billy. “I called him an ‘asshole.’”

Two witnesses do recall Matt telling Billy, though, just before he was escorted out:

Over the last year, much has been written about the changes coming to the Bay Area through an influx of new money and influence from a once-again burgeoning technology sector. Symbols of a new, disruptive, tech-driven wealth have come in the unlikely form of, among other things, luxury buses and head-mounted computers.

It would be fair to say that lately, urban techies and their attendant trappings have come under attack. When PR writer Sarah Slocum’s Google Glass sparked an altercation in San Francisco bar Molotov’s last week, her supporters and detractors fell along familiar and well-worn battle lines: “Cyborgs” vs. “Luddites;” “techies” vs. the rest of us.

Slocum went so far as to call the incident a “hate crime” against her. She didn’t start this fire, but Slocum reveled in the resulting attention, and despite claiming not to use her Glass to film unsuspecting bar patrons and staff, then revealed a video of her doing exactly that.

But despite recent tensions, these relations are not strictly new. This has always been a tale of two cities, of with and without. Someone has always felt entitled, someone has always felt aggrieved. And one form or another of an intellectual, “creative” class has always thought its labor and cause a higher kind than that of others.

In the days after Billy asked Matt to leave the bar, he fretted over the potential loss of his job. Matt had taken the restaurant’s social accounts hostage, and Billy’s boss was receiving hate mail.

“I had to dance with the devil to get my accounts back. I told him whatever he wanted to hear — that I’d fire Billy, that I’d do whatever,” Telegraph owner John Mardikian tells me. “I tell my employees that if someone or something is making them uncomfortable, they should do what they feel is appropriate. I didn’t have an issue with Google Glass before, but I wasn’t there. I investigated this myself. I wasn’t going to fire Billy just because Matt was embarrassed.”

Tech still thinks it’s the scrappy rebel when it’s looking more like the ruling class: A white man with a $1,500 face computer trying to cost a brown man his minimum wage job.

When Google Glass first became available last spring, the publicity was positive, but the public reaction was mixed. Some said that even despite its apparent usability or its creepy spy capacity, it just looked too aggressively goofy for the broader public to embrace.

“To be fair, there’s every possibility that Google Glass will change society just as deeply and profoundly as did the Segway, a technologically nifty machine that now serves primarily to identify its owner as a complete dork with far too much money,” Chris Clarke wrote at KCET last year.

Google readily admits that Glass is in a beta stage. While users aren’t trading in their hardware regularly, there are monthly software updates, and the company hopes that a new prescription eyeglass interface will make the technology look more, well, normal.

And if they’re not hoping, they’re politicking. Last week Reuters revealed that Google had hired lobbyists to fight distracted driving legislation in several states that are attempting to ban Glass on the road.

“While Glass is currently in the hands of a small group of Explorers, we find that when people try it for themselves they better understand the underlying principle that it’s not meant to distract but rather connect people more with the world around them,” Google told Reuters.

(This was, word-for-word, the same prepared statement I received from a Google spokesperson when I asked about the technology’s unexpected social consequences.)

To say nothing of their alleged incompetence behind the wheel, Glass “Explorers” have undoubtedly become connected to one another. The devices are still rare, and can’t be readily bought (though purchase codes now go for as low as $25 on Craigslist); that exclusivity binds the Explorers together into an exclusive community. Explorers not only use the devices, but develop software and hardware improvements for them, solving one anothers problems. But this specialness also promotes the idea that each user is an ambassador for the product, the kind of relationship one wouldn’t usually expect — or perhaps want — with the manufacturer of one’s consumer technology.

To this end, Google recently released suggested “do’s and don’ts” aimed at, well, connecting those Explorers a little more to the world around them, a world that is still largely bereft of face computers projecting an augmented experience of reality.

There’s a case to be made that wearable technology can connect oneself to one’s environment more than it isolates, by providing context that we otherwise wouldn’t see. But often it’s the rest of the world that bears the burden of that. The data ones face collects could be used and monetized by Google or the third-party applications Glass runs. While that may be the choice of the wearer, there is little to no agency on the other side of the Glass eye prism.

“Wearing Google Glass automatically means that all social interaction you have must be not just on yours, but Google’s terms,” Adrian Chen wrote at Gawker almost a year ago, when we all first cringed in fear.

“Glass has become second nature to me,” says Washington, D.C.-based early adopter and Glass developer Noble Ackerson. “I have yet to have a terrible experience publicly wearing Glass and I have worn the device at least every day for nearly a year.” Ackerson bought his Glass about a month after Chen popularized the term “Glasshole.”

“There are, however, times that I find it is either polite or convenient to park or leave Glass behind. Polite in situations like meetings, interviews and generally gatherings where I wouldn’t need my smart phone either,” he says. “Convenient to use my best judgement and caution on occasions where the street, subway, or bar may warrant some keen situational awareness.”

Glass evangelists point to a Time piece from last spring, decrying fears of these new face-phones as unfounded. The author pointed to late-19th century paranoia that Kodak cameras would chip away at our personal space in public.

But Kodak cameras did play a part in that chipping, as did the next 120 years of advances in camera technology. Those gadgets melted into our lives. There are now whole websites devoted to making cruel fun of embarrassing photos of people taken in public likely without their permission or knowledge. At best, we take this behavior for granted; at worst, we laugh along with it.

Still, I perhaps naively thought that I could avoid the influence of Glass in my own life.

I was wrong.

“He yelled, ‘All you have to do is take them off!’” Billy’s coworker Zach Keiler-Bradshaw tells me a week later. “Matt was just ignoring it. I saw Billy touch him — it was after a lot. But no slurs were said.”

A week after the incident, the Telegraph restaurant Twitter account went on a hateful anti-tech, anti-gay tirade for several hours. Besides the owner, Matt was the only other party with access to the account, and there’s strong evidence that he sent the tweets. Mardikian pursued legal action against him, and Telegraph now has an explicit “no Glass” policy.

One after another, customers wearing Glass have been more quietly asked to remove them or leave other Oakland bars and San Francisco coffee shops. Other restaurants and cafes across the Bay Area have banned the devices preemptively. These weren’t stunts for media attention, but attempts at heading off the kinds of disruption that other establishments have reluctantly weathered in favor of trying to keep camera-shy staff and customers comfortable.

At Nabeel Silmi’s Grand Coffee in San Francisco last week, a customer had to be asked to leave because they refused to take off their Glass.

“We ask that guests, whether using a disposable camera or wearing Glass, ask permission before photographing,” Silmi says. This gives anyone who does not want to be in the shot a chance to leave the frame.”

When the Glass came in the mail, Billy was more excited than I was to try it out. (There are dozens of the devices available on Craigslist in the Bay Area for less than what Google sells them for, but ours was a generous loan from certified Explorer Molly Crabapple.)

While Billy and I shot videos and searched for cat pictures with our new face gadget, some are applying Glass’ capabilities to more professional endeavors.

North Carolina firefighter Patrick Jackson developed an app that routes relevant information directly to his eyeballs in case of an emergency — everything from maps to urgent communications. For now, Glass isn’t compatible with the oxygen masks firefighters are required to wear while in action, but specialized designs could solve this problem in the future.

Similarly, some doctors are using Glass in order to better serve their patients. Charts and scans can be easily queued up on ones eye prism more quickly and painlessly than rifling through papers in front of a nervous patient, and the head-mounted camera can help serve as a learning tool by recording a surgeon’s vision while performing complicated tasks. The New York police are currently trying out the new technology, and other police departments are considering it, too. Even some “professional activists” are trying to get their hands on Glass, “a potential force multiplier,” “a powerful weapon.”

But for everyday use, I’m left wondering: What is the point? After several weeks using Glass, I still struggle to see the appeal and the particular specialness. The voice activation isn’t Siri-smart. The prism’s display blurs, and I strain my eyes trying to read the small text. It doesn’t seem less rude to glance up and right to the tiny screen than to look down and away at my smart phone to check an incoming text or email.

In public, I am far more self-conscious. Even in situations where I might like to use the Glass — to read a sign, take a picture — I often decline when I see others staring, looks of trepidation on their faces more than judgment. In close quarters, the voice commands become less convenient and more irritating, a public announcement that I have a $1,500 face gadget and no, it can’t always understand me very well.

I truly feel naked with the technology, but in less of a digital-utopia and more of an emperor’s-new-clothes kind of way.

“In its obviousness, it announces an entitlement. It doesn’t have the decency to realize it’s being creepy,” one Glass user in the tech industry told me on condition of anonymity. “I had no bias against it when I got it. I just realized it’s good for basically nothing except being a jerk.”

Do you know how often you’re surveilled in a single day? It’s probably hard to even count.

Since the National Security Administration’s digital dealings became public last spring by way of Edward Snowden’s leaks, it’s become harder to delineate what our expectation of privacy can be in 2014 America, bill of rights or not.

But for all the anxiety about its use as a covert surveillance tool, Glass is not actually very good at that. Snapping pictures is simple and extremely discreet, but when recording a video, the prism illuminates. Any number of other, cheaper cameras would make for a better mode of secret filming.

Still, on its surface, the gadget perpetuates a dynamic that looks like a privileged class — both private citizens and corporations as well as secretive government forces — purchasing the tools to surveil those without means.

“Glass is definitely for now a plaything for a privileged few. And I think that, coupled with how deeply weird and noticeable it is, is what makes it a class divide on your face,” Wired writer Mat Honan tells me. “Glass is a terrible surveillance tool, at least in its current form. Absolutely useless.”

This future is nearly here. The city of Oakland is currently embroiled in the process of finalizing a plan for a surveillance fusion center that would combine public camera footage with social media streams, license plate reader photos and other forms of data in a project bankrolled by the Department of Homeland Security.

It’s hardly a paranoid fantasy to imagine that Google Glass users in the city might find their “lifecasting” streams directed into this big data pool. This dystopian vision only grows darker with the growing potential for tying in facial recognition software.

It takes me a while to build up the courage to take the Glass out into the general population. It’s not just the reactions I fear — I don’t feel like myself.

At Dogwood bar in Oakland, Billy and I take turns wearing the Glass for a couple minutes until we notice how uncomfortable nearby patrons are getting. As we’re leaving, the man working the door asks us what it is. Billy explains.

“Oh, yeah, I’d ask someone to take that off next time.”

Private-public gathering spaces like bars and restaurants play a huge part in our social lives, and present all kinds of potential privacy problems. Many have internal closed circuit camera systems to ostensibly protect from theft or exonerate the establishment in a case of alleged over-serving customers. The San Francisco police department even tried to force bars in the city to film their customers at all times as a requirement for a liquor license, though has relented on this policy with some privacy-minded bar owners.

These aren’t truly public houses — private owners can dictate their own private rules, presuming they do not discriminate against protected classes, and presuming they still have enough customers who want to play by the rules they set in order to stay in business.

In 2011, one startup attempted to set up dozens of San Francisco bars to livestream their occupants, providing the rest of the public with a view inside a previously closed-door nightlife scene from the comfort of their own homes. The concept didn’t go over well with bar patrons or the American Civil Liberties Union. Less than three years later, Barspace.tv is now a curated selection of search-engine-optimization garbage. The project appears to be dead.

We stop at a taco truck on our way home. I am still wearing the Glass and I am more conscious of it than ever, after midnight in this neighborhood with a median household income of less than $30,000. After we order, an Oakland police patrol car rolls up, and a young cop steps out.

Billy approaches him with confidence.

“Hey, have you seen these before?” Billy holds out the Glass for the officer to inspect, but he looks incredulous.

“No, what is that?”

“It’s Google Glass. It’s like a small computer, that can take photos and video. The NYPD has them now. Maybe you will soon too.”

The cop looks uncomfortable and shuffles backward a half step. “Oh, I hope not.” Then he smirks and gingerly holds up his department-issued chest camera, the kind local police departments are required to use (but don’t always).

While tools can certainly facilitate bad behavior, technology does not breed human monsters.

This is essentially the defense of the aggressive, entitled Glass-wearer: We’ve already decided against privacy, we’ve given it up, there’s nothing left to preserve, and to wish or work toward any other future is to be an enemy of technology’s promise.

In many ways this particular new tech does not necessitate new fundamental relations — it just reveals how deeply we’ve already broken those relations and how much we’ve already lost.

We do not need to redefine etiquette for a new century of innovation — society needs to decide where its values truly lie.

Caught in large-scale government and corporate surveillance dragnets, we often have little to no choice in how we, our images, our data, ourselves, are mined, commodified, used for purposes beyond our control. But in our daily personal relations, in this, perhaps, we still do. At least sometimes. At least I’d like to think so.

When all was said and done, Billy wasn’t fired. He still works at Telegraph, and still worries about what Matt’s claims might do to his reputation. When all was said and done, he doesn’t think he had a choice.


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