The Magazine

Through a Google Glass, Darkly

Surveillance of, by, and for the people

Apr 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 31 • By MATT LABASH
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“Just because something bears the aspect of the inevitable one should not, therefore, go along willingly with it.” ​—​Philip K. Dick

The first time I saw someone wearing Google Glass in the wild, I was standing at a friend’s party at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin​—​the place where the tech world gathers each year to gleefully discover what next big “innovation” will eventually displace you. The party hotel was trendily down-market, a retro motor-court, but one where the house marinates its own cocktail olives while serving pepper-glazed bacon at Saturday jazz brunch.

As I stood there among media types and Nerd-World machers, draining my fourth Lone Star beer, trying to drown out the sound of all the buzzwords​—​disruption! .  .  . big data! .  .  . The Cloud!​—​that’s when I saw him, with the future sitting on his face, or at least what will become the future if Google has its way. And with $59.8 billion in annual revenue and 70 percent of the world’s advertising-optimized Internet search market in its back pocket (figures I just Googled), Google often has its way.

There he was in his Google Glass, which, if you’re a shut-in who’s escaped the last two years of unremitting hype, is Google’s foray into wearable face computers. Not yet released to the public (it’s currently in its beta phase, and is in the hands of developers, “Glass Explorers,” and tech-world beautiful people, such as they are), Glass essentially puts a smartphone, including camera, videorecorder, and Internet, on your eye. The Glasshole, as the Glass-wearing elect are now commonly called, stood there in his lensless frames. Or not so much frames, as a titanium bar draped across his brow, to which is affixed a rectangular three-quarter-inch LED display over one eye, and a colorful plastic “touchpad” arm that rests over one ear and also holds the circuitry. Curiosity-seekers, ooohing-and-ahhhing, thronged like he was a carnival exhibit. A Glassholier-than-thou shadow crept over his countenance, his facial muscles toggling between smugness and self-consciousness. As with most Glassholes, it wasn’t entirely clear if he was wearing Glass, or Glass was wearing him.

Even as both female and male partygoers crowded in to touch the Next Big Thing, he looked like a dorky android. That’s android as in “robot with a human appearance,” not to be confused with the Android operating system, which powers 79 percent of the world’s smartphones (as well as Glass itself), and which Google owns. The same way it owns YouTube and all manner of reality-bending interests. The same way it owns Boston Dynamics, which makes military robotics that some think could replace soldiers. The same way it owns artificial intelligence outfits like DeepMind Technologies​, ​which some think could help outsource our thinking to computers, more than we already do.

The same way that Google owns you. Or at least your data, which they scoop up as you beaver away for free on their services, Googling and Gmailing and texting and YouTubing and mapping and street-viewing and book-searching. Your interests, your communications, your location, your aspirations, your porn predilections​—​it’s all right there in the data. You might think of yourself as more than the sum of your data. But the 1s and 0s don’t lie. Your data might reveal a truer version of you than the version of you that you prefer. And all of these you-generated data feed Google’s insatiable algorithmic maw, which helps them tailor and target ads to you. This makes Google​—​already your trusted uncle or your know-it-all Big Brother​—​ever-smarter. And they claim it makes you smarter as well, as more and more of your data float Google’s world-domination operation. “We want Google to be the third half of your brain,” Google cofounder Sergey Brin has said, like a character from a Philip K. Dick dystopia, by way of Yogi Berra.

Getting right up to the creepy line

"Project Glass” was announced in April 2012, an outgrowth of the semi-secretive Google X division, populated by a group of moon-shot engineers who strive to make science fiction science nonfiction with endeavors like Project Loon (which seeks to bring Internet access to the world via balloons floating in the stratosphere) and driverless cars. “Your car should drive itself,” Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt has said, demonstrating Google’s typical light touch. “It’s amazing to me that we let humans drive cars. .  .  . It’s a bug that cars were invented before computers.”

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