First-Person Futurism with Google Glass
by Jeremy Johnson
by Taylor Hallett
Glass: On “the Verge” of What?”
On February 22nd, 2013, an article featured on The Verge exposed one of Google’s great forthcoming innovations: Google Glass. Google Glass is a multi-media device that operates on an eyeglass frame. The device works by voice command and its screen is situated on the right side of the eyeglasses. The Verge states that it is a website with the intent of exploring “the intersection of technology, science, art, and culture.” With a device like Google Glass being explored so thoroughly in this article (entitled “I used Google Glass: the future, but with monthly updates”) and its accompanying videos, it is clear that The Verge is living up to its stated mission. We as an audience should be careful, however, when taking in this information presented by The Verge.
While the videos featured here portray a boundless optimism for the potentials with Google Glass, there is a clear marketing scheme underlying the presentation and a denial of giving any consideration to some of the product’s potentially harmful effects. Some of the issues with Google Glass that this feature neglects to discuss are the epistemic divisions occurring between self and sense, and subsequently entrepreneurship of sense that this product could create, and a lack of clarity whether Google Glass is an experiment in augmented reality or simply another social networking device.
The optimistic mood carried throughout the Google Glass feature on The Verge creates an atmosphere of friendly invitation for the viewer. In the main video, it feels almost as if one is being invited into “the lab” with the personalities behind the product’s inception. The futuristic connotations of such a product are played on with relaxing electronic ambient music pumping quietly in the aural periphery. The protagonist of the exposé, Joshua Topalsky, has a relaxed yet exciting conversation about the device with product director Steve Lee and lead industrial designer Isabelle Olsson in the Google headquarters at New York City.
One of the claims that Lee and Olsson consistently reiterate in the feature is that by bringing technology closer to our senses it becomes less intrusive in our daily lives. The way this point is made in the presentation suggests a kind of confirmation bias on the part of the Google employees. Olsson and Lee do not bring up any counterpoints to this argument or offer any qualitative or quantitative studies to support their own argument—that Google Glass offers a solution to the plague of distracting technology.
“A key problem of us solving that problem was bringing technology closer to your senses,” says Lee in the main video on the page. “That was sort of a hunch we had… that if did that it would allow you to connect in a faster way,” (Topalsky, 2013)
With this, we can see an assumption being made that the problem had been “solved,” and that Glass is the “solution.”
Olsson goes on to show Topalsky one of the earlier prototypes of Google Glass. This has the effect of bringing us “in” as the audience into the “lab.” We gain insight into the long creative process that has no doubt been behind Google Glass and experienced it first-hand and as if we are part of the team. Olsson goes on to explain and reaffirm Lee’s earlier point:
“Finally, I could wrap my head around this idea that we need to remove technology but still wear it,” (Topalsky, 2013).“Doesn’t it seem weird to you that in order to get people having more human interactions… that we have to augment ourselves with Glass?” Topalsky says later in the video. “Have we done something wrong?” The use of “we” once again has the effect of bringing us into the creative process behind Google Glass and warding off suspicion of there being any negative aspects of Glass. We are eased of our concerns with the applications and uses of the product and how it could potentially hijack our daily lives and habits.
Toward the end of the main video, Ollson points out the paradox underlying their proposition that Topalsky alludes to with his above questions. This is the paradox that technology has to be more efficient to be less distracting… But there isn’t anything overtly paradoxical about that statement—however by addressing the issue of distracting technology as being a paradox between convenience and mobility, Ollson is able to address the viewer’s concerns of that balance being too difficult to manage with Glass.
In the second video featured on the page we are taken through how it feels to wear and interact with Google Glass through a montage of video clips. We are shown what the product is capable of through videos done with the product itself. This complimentary video has an interesting purpose in relation to the rest of the feature. It is meant to simultaneously describe and define what kind of experience using this product can be for its user.
The applications of Glass that this video promises has the effect of both exploring the product and creating limitations for its functions. The potentials of capturing the first-person experience are relegated to typical actions of everyday common people. The examples we are given include a parent taking their daughter to a ballet class and people taking panoramic videos in hot air balloons. Although these are interesting directive applications of Glass, they are also contrived.
The wearer of Glass in each of the videos interacts with the product in a fun and playful tone, reinforcing its assumed potential for enhancing life. Social pressures associated with having access to technology like Glass from nearby persons in the videos is unfelt and presumed to be non-existent in the videos. Also, the pop-up features of glass aren’t shown as being distracting in any sense, and if they are portrayed it is clearly timed to appear at a convenient moment. Overall, this video and the rest of the presentation featured on The Verge fails to address a core issue of the product—the epistemic division occurring between one’s self and one’s sensory experience.
By creating a product that can directly capture a mock version of subjective experience we are left with a profound and infinite amount of potential applications. In the instance of Glass, Google is left in an awkward position of simultaneously having to calm its consumer base from being too overwhelmed by these applications and also needing to stimulate the curiosity of their consumer base with these same potentials that Glass offers for Google’s immediate marketing goals.
Perhaps a subsequent consequence of Glass being introduced into contemporary social life on a mass scale is the entrepreneurship of one’s own literal vision and subjective experience. Rather than bypassing the narcissism and social malaise that distracting technology creates, Glass would actually advance it to new levels and thus theoretically ‘resolve’ it—individual perception and experience could actually become the gateways to interaction and perspective taking. If McLuhan’s assertion that “the medium is the message” still rings true, then how will that truth come to be applied to Google Glass?
The truth that seems to be implied with this presentation is that messages of raw subjectivity are transferable. To think of Glass as technology that is capable of capturing that message alone would be startling to many. But the ability to transfer that lucid data to another person in an instant implies a new dimension of subjectivity being explored, related with, and defined. Each of these aspects implies an examination of our notions of privacy as well.
Absurd, yet pertinent questions of privacy would come to the minds of persons infatuated with Glass—”is this moment of subjective experience something I feel comfortable sharing with my friends?” For our sake, we might want to ask, “How do my visual and eye-contact behaviors reflect my personality? My soul? Am I comfortable with these tendencies being shared and held in a place where they are capable of being examined or potentially scrutinized?”
In cinematic history, first-person edits have often been symbolic undertakings which imply a direct relation to the audience. There is a tenuous breaching of the “fourth stage” in these moments, although that breach is rarely self-referenced or if so, it is directly mocking itself for doing so (Monty Python). From the standpoint of the audience, these moments carry a special significance, for they are moments when we get a glimpse at the process of production as well as an understanding of plot. They are often climactic moments, and undertakings that demand respect from the audience for the production process itself (a la Psycho, Twyker, etc.).
With these cinematic devices being the only real consistent reference point that common people have for the process of exchanging or relaying subjective data (in a videographic and literal form), the gap from this to the possibilities that Glass opens up seems like a large one that will certainly take time to be bridged.
An Ambiguous Audience
Finally, Google Glass still faces the task of clearly identifying what purpose it is offering to serve its consumers. Whether Glass is supposed to be an aid for augmented reality or simply another networking device remains somewhat unclear, as Roberto Baldwin clearly points out in his article featured on Wired. Baldwin writes: “Where is Google really going with Project Glass?” … “is the company working on two different delivery systems?” (Baldwin, 2012).
If Glass is to be applicable in people’s daily lives, than this distinction is going to be one that Google has to make, and soon—especially considering that Glass could be released by the end of this year, according to Lee, (Topalsky, 2013). Baldwin continues by featuring a technical critique of Glass from Blair MacCyntire, director of Augmented Environments Lab at Georgia Tech.
“For true augmented reality, the display would have to dynamically focus, which would require additional hardware on the glasses to read your eye.”
“Google has created a level of over-hype and over-expectation that their hardware cannot possibly live up to,” (Baldwin, 2012).
Certainly, there are many possibilities that we can look forward to with Google Glass. In the future, however, Google should be aware of the impressions they are making with similar exposé features and how they could affect consumer’s perceptions of their products. With Glass, Google is asking for a lot from all parties involved—we will just have to step back and see how they manage it.
Putting an innovation like Glass in the context of the current infrastructural technological malaise reveals many subjects for consideration. A recent satire by The Onion captures a convincing portrait of current dispositions towards technological innovations comically entitled: “Nation Starting to Realize New Era of American Innovation Never Gonna Happen.” What The Onion does here brilliantly is point out that despite the fact that innovative personal devices such as Glass continue to be introduced to the American public, there is still a common sense that infrastructural and societal innovations are still far on the horizon from being introduced into our everyday lives.
Unfortunately, what devices like Glass do is reinforce this same sense of lethargy and ambivalence that is already widely prevalent. Once again, the individual is made the locus of our technological innovations rather than there being a broader focus on the space of our collective and societal needs. With products such as Glass, the individual is continually idealized as the cyborg: an adaptive and ostensibly ‘connected’ demigod which external reality is revolving around. We should give notice to how this removes responsibility from the individual to be connected somatically to their environment. Meanwhile, our shared inhabited spaces are neglected a sense of importance and consequently crumble under the wreckage of this same indifference and complacency that is further compounded by devices such as Glass.
How can Google and other proponents of Glass reconcile the fact that these innovations reinforce these common themes of narcissism and indifference to our common and shared conditions? Meanwhile, infrastructural advances in Asia and Europe continue to put the United States to shame. Is Google veering the discourse of technology itself and its utility in society towards the individual simply by creating this product?
The combined effects of products like Glass create and help to further the myth of the sovereign individual detached from the circumstances of the broader societal ecosystem. This “myth of the sovereign” will continue to be perpetuated as long as products such as Glass are prioritized and fetishized over our societal infrastructural needs.
Of course we can always cross our fingers for Google high-speed rail…
Taylor Hallett is currently a student at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC, with a focus in English Studies, Sociology & Anthropology, and Film. He hopes to apply these skill sets in future endeavors through mixed-media journalism, ethnographic writing, and documentary film production. Taylor is from Philadelphia, PA.
Topalsky, Joshua. “I used Google Glass: the future, but with monthly updates.” The Verge. 22 Feb. 2013. Web. 07 Mar. 2013. <http://www.theverge.com/2013/2/22/4013406/i-used-google-glass-its-the-future-with-monthly-updates?fb_action_ids=616923891666857>.
Baldwin, Roberto. “Google Glasses Face Serious Hurdles, Augmented-Reality Experts Say.”Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 03 Apr. 2012. Web. 07 Mar. 2012. http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2012/04/augmented-reality-experts-say-google-glasses-face-serious-hurdles/
“Nation Starting To Realize New Era Of American Innovation Never Gonna Happen.” The Onion. April 22, 2013. Issue 49-17.