Through a Google Glass, Darkly
Surveillance of, by, and for the people
Apr 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 31 • By MATT LABASH
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.”
Since the Glass announcement, I’d tried repeatedly to get a test ride with The Future on my face in order to write about it, but received no cooperation from Google’s media gatekeepers. So when I spied my first Glasshole there in Austin in March 2013, my reaction was twofold: (1) I really need to punch that guy in the throat. (2) I wonder if he would let me try them on?
I didn’t, even though he wouldn’t. He claimed he was forbidden by his terms of service to let others try the Glass. (Not true, it turns out.) What I did do, however, was bypass the media stiff-armers by applying online to become a Glass Explorer.
To my surprise, an Explorer invitation arrived in my inbox in February. Unlike many of the early adopters and developers who were admitted, I don’t exactly live on the bleeding-edge of tomorrow. Over the years, I’ve cultivated a reputation as a cyber-skeptic, as technology too often nowadays seems to be less about complementing our humanity than obliterating it. While I’m not exactly a Luddite—I carry a phone, albeit a dumb one, and I spend a good half of each day in a screen’s glow, like the rest of God-fearing America—I have with some regularity thumped tech-triumphalists with subtly titled articles like “Down with Facebook!” “The Twidiocracy,” and “Why iHate Steve Jobs” (God rest his soul).
As my puzzled wife said upon hearing the news, “They’re Google. Didn’t they Google you?”
Apparently not. All I had to do to join the community of 10,000 or so invitation-only attention-jockeys and guinea pigs was pay Google $1,500 ($1,633.12 with tax) to help them test their new product, for which they will gain access to additional data while reaping all the financial rewards. (Welcome to Web 2.0 economics.)
Sitting in a cavernous loft over the Chelsea Market in Manhattan, which serves as one of three Explorer “base camps,” I have become that which I loathed: a Glasshole. I am here to pick up my Glass and to receive instruction on how to use it. In the lobby, I run into suspiciously chipper twentysomethings with full-bodied hair and strong jawlines, the kind of faces that greet you in high-end cults, like a Scientology center or an Apple Store.
I meet my Glass Guide, Danielle. She is young and blonde, and bears some resemblance to the actress Alicia Silverstone. I pull out a micro-recorder, asking if she minds if we document the experience. She doesn’t. She is wearing Glass, too, as do all the Glass Guides. With camera lenses embedded in our titanium eyewear, we are all documentarians now, although she asks me not to photograph other Glass base-campers when I pull out a traditional camera. It’d be a shame to violate their privacy while they’re learning how to violate everyone else’s.
Danielle pulls my Glass out of a box that’s as big as an old family Bible. I’d had a choice of five colors, some of them subdued like “shale” or “charcoal.” But upon consulting my color wheel, I’d opted for tangerine, which screams “look at me.” After all, what’s the point of wearing Glass if you don’t want to be noticed wearing Glass?
I slip them on, and it’s about as bad as I expected. Not a good look for me, or possibly anyone. I look like a short-bus version of LeVar Burton’s character Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Except La Forge was blind, and he wore a prosthetic device to restore his sight. Whereas I just look like a pretentious tool with a child’s toy strapped to my head. When I affix the slide-on shades, it might be even worse. They smack of goofy-dictator glasses, making me resemble a cut-rate Kim Jong-un.
Google recently inked a deal with Luxottica—makers of Oakley and Ray-Ban glasses—to design more aesthetically appealing Glasswear down the road. But for now, “I look like a freak,” I tell Danielle. “No, you don’t,” she says unconvincingly. Plenty in the press have made fun of Glass’s dopiness. Valleywag’s Sam Biddle, Glass’s tormenter-in-chief, holds that Glass is “only slightly less stigmatized than a giant swastika or swath of acne.” But never underestimate what society will end up considering acceptable. How else to explain a country where it’s possible to buy men’s jeggings (jean leggings)?
Danielle adjusts the nose stems so that the Glass prism—the eye-screen—sits slightly above my right eye. The idea, says Danielle, is that Glass should be unobtrusive, putting aside the fact that you have a computer attached to your face. But in reality, at least in order for me to properly see it, the screen covers the top third of my right eye. To see Danielle without looking at it, I have to tilt my head up at a 20-degree angle. If you’re not continuously using it, the monitor shuts off. But even when the screen goes dark, it’s like looking through the bottom of a dirty Coke bottle, or having what ophthalmologists call a scotoma—a spot or hole in your visual field. You can reactivate your screen either by tapping the touchpad with your finger or by deliberately jerking your head back so that your screen clicks on. But doing so makes you look like you’ve just been rear-ended by an imaginary car.
Danielle shows me all the tricks. Tapping the touchpad over your right temple is the equivalent of “enter,” while swiping it scrolls the text in front of your eye. Two fingers held down, while moving your head, turns your cranium into a human cursor. She calibrates my eye, so that I am able to take a picture just by winking. I take several of her, whether she knows it or not. It might seem kind of creepy, but hell, it’s her product. And besides, I like to think I’m operating in the spirit of Google’s Eric Schmidt, who once said, “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.”
She also shows me the voice commands, suggesting we have Google translate something into Japanese. I say, “Okay, Glass, Google, How you do say, ‘Get me out of here,’ in Japanese?” Google returns a page from the Lost in Translation screenplay—the Sofia Coppola film that was set in Japan. We try again. This time, a voice comes through the transducer (a speaker that makes sound by vibrating the bones in your head), saying watashi o koko kara tsuredashite kudasai. I’m assuming it’s the correct Japanese translation. Though how would I know? That’s what I use Google for.
Danielle is patient. Our scheduled hourlong orientation takes two hours with all my questions. I’m a slow learner, but there’s a lot to remember. When I gather my belongings, and the big family-Bible box, I shake it, asking her where the instructions are. There aren’t any, she says. “Why don’t they have written instructions?” I ask. Even Slinkys come with operating instructions. “That’s a good question,” she says. “Is print dead?” I press, now troubled. “That’s what I was told in my communications class,” she responds flatly.
Glass Guides promise that you’ll attract a lot of attention. But back on the street afterwards, I’m not quite the freak show I expect to be, as jaded New Yorkers walk by, uninterested. A guy in a hard hat does approach me, wanting to know how he can get Glass. I tell him no release date has been announced yet, nor has an official price. It’s expected to retail considerably cheaper, but if it stays $1,500, I tell him, he might want to mug an Explorer in the meantime. “Oh no,” he says, “Not a chance, man. With that GPS, they’d find me faster than they find you.”
When I ask my cab driver how he’d feel if I were taping him right now, he practically yawns. “I’m totally fine with that.” The government spies on us all the time, he says. From speed cameras to IRS snoops to the DARPA drone camera that can catch you waving from 15,000 feet. My cabbie makes a fair point. In fact, after Edward Snowden’s leaks about the NSA’s surveillance and data-mining program, few seemed terribly shocked by the private-public partnership the arrangement suggested, whereby the NSA helped themselves to the servers of giant tech companies like Google and Facebook. It’s an operation Google and others explicitly denied knowing about, while the NSA’s general counsel recently testified that they consented to the spy agency collecting their users’ data all along.
In Penn Station, I hardly garner a sideways glance. On the Acela train back to D.C., everyone in my car is so absorbed in their own electronics—their iPads, their iPhones, all of their iSundries—I find it impossible to raise iBrows, since I can hardly make contact with the iBalls under them. An attractive businesswoman, Kimberly Shells, is sitting across from me. With earbuds inserted, she is lost in her own iWorld. Or so I think. After watching her pick mixed nuts out of a cup for a while, I decide to break the ice by winking a picture of her, then asking her if she wants to see it. I expect her to tell me to get bent, or to call the authorities. Instead, she smiles warmly, if slightly warily. “Oh, I was wondering what that is. I thought maybe you had an eye handicap or injury.”
When I inform her of my exalted status as a Glass Explorer, the guy next to her asks if I’m selling them. In fact, I explain, I had to pay 1,500 bucks for the privilege of wearing these. “I would think they’d pay you,” says Shells. I ask her if she might wear them when they’re finally released. “Uhhh, no,” she says, not wishing to offend. “It’s just . . . I don’t want the Internet on my eye. I’m already as connected as I need to be.”
From the looks of the hunchbacked, thumb-clacking herd around us, so is everybody else.
Sleeping with your smartphone
Believe it or not, there is an animating idea behind Glass, besides the propensity of overeager technologists to foist “solutions” on us for problems that don’t actually exist. Watch Glass propaganda videos on YouTube, mostly shot on Glass, and you’re inundated with fun, dynamic people skydiving and fencing and twirling tow-headed youngsters around in idyllic settings. You’re told how Glass is supposed to reconnect you with your life, restoring you to the moments that smartphones take you out of. Wearing Glass, you will once again stand up straight and make eye contact with the world, instead of staring down like a thumb-pistoning Quasimodo. A be-Glassed Sergey Brin, in that most life-affirming of all settings—the TED talk—went so far as to call smartphones “emasculating.” And perhaps Glass is virility-restoring, or at least it seemed to do the trick for Brin. As Vanity Fair and other outlets reported, the married Brin allegedly carried on a lengthy affair with Amanda Rosenberg, a Glass marketer who sometimes modeled the smartwear.
But low blows aside, Brin’s point is taken. For he’s 100 percent correct about one thing: We do have a smartphone problem. According to Pew Research, in 1995—just 19 years ago—only 3 percent of Americans had ever signed on to the Internet. Today, according to a Mobile Consumer Habits study by Harris Interactive, nearly three-fourths of survey respondents reported being within five feet of their smartphones a majority of the time: Twelve percent admitted using it in the shower, 19 percent in church, and nearly 1 in 10 confessed to having used their phone during sex.
According to a TeleNav survey, 33 percent would rather give up sex for a week than give up their phones, while 22 percent would give up their toothbrush (40 percent of iPhone users). Twenty-two percent would rather skip seeing their significant other for a week than miss out on their one true love—their phone. According to an infographic by Online Psychology Degree (sorry, but in this dumbed-down smartphone age, infographics qualify as peer-reviewed studies), 90 percent of 18-29-year-olds sleep with their smartphone. A McCann Worldgroup study found that over half of 16-22-year-olds would rather give up their sense of smell than live without their technology.
The problem, then, is not overstated. So what’s the solution offered by the technology company that wants to be the “third half of your brain”? Google’s answer is to take all that technological distraction that you’re constantly fishing out of your pocket, that causes you to disengage from the world around you, and to put it smack in front of your eye. Because that ought to increase “mindfulness,” as the TED-talkers like to call it. Smart contact lens aspirants will have to wait slightly longer for them to actually put the Internet on your eye, though perhaps not too long, since Google just applied for the patent, and is already testing smart contact lenses to monitor diabetics’ glucose levels.
There has been, to be sure, a fair amount of Glass backlash, which is catnip for the easily bored tech press. In San Francisco, Glass Explorer Sarah Slocum claimed to be the victim of the first Glass hate crime when her Glass was ripped from her face by a hostile bar crowd who didn’t care to have a camera pointed at them. Slocum claimed she wasn’t filming until she was threatened (part of the problem with Glass is that a non-Glass-wearer never knows). But her own footage, which she later posted, shows her giving even better than she got, saying, “I want to get this white trash on tape.” (Reporters also discovered that Slocum, before she ever donned Glass, had been hit with a restraining order for filming her neighbors in their home.)
Even “technology evangelist” Robert Scoble (his actual title when formerly working for Microsoft), who has said he’d gladly give away his “privacy for utility” and who’s proven it by photographing himself wearing Glass in the shower, has decided he can gain even more attention by stink-eyeing Glass. While still hoping Glass comes to fruition (he vowed once to never take Glass off), Scoble has publicly questioned whether Glass is doomed, since Google has tarried so long in bringing it to market. Besides, Scoble noticed that Google cofounder Larry Page gave a TED talk without wearing his Glass (gasp!).
Google itself has signaled awareness of the PR speed bumps, recently issuing a “Top Ten Google Glass Myths” release, as well as a Dos-and-Don’ts list for Explorers: “Do ask for permission before taking photos or videos of others. . . . Don’t be creepy or rude (aka, a ‘Glasshole’).” But anyone who thinks/prays that Glass is sunk might want to guess again. First, do not invest much meaning into Glass’s two-year beta run. Another Google service you might have heard of, called Gmail, spent five years in beta, and seems to be humming along just fine. (Over half-a-billion users at last count.)
And though there were only about 10,000 Explorers before a mass one-day-only April 15 sale to the public, it seems as though every single one of them has starred in at least two stories. From the sheer tonnage of Glass-related journalism landing in my inbox each day (brought to me by, what else, Google Alert), it’s clear that you’d be mistaken to underestimate the appetite of the American sheeple when it comes to devouring whatever feed their technological shepherds pour into the trough.
Every industry, it seems, is practically salivating to embrace Glass, even if they’re not quite sure why. Hotels have promised a spin on Glass to their customers, and a cop has testified that Glass doesn’t get in his way even while he’s shooting. (Why take the chance? Do you really want to explain to the family of the 3-year-old you errantly gunned down that you had an incoming text?) Numerous medical types are now experimenting with Glass, seeing if they can beam up patient X-rays, for instance, during a surgery. Because what you really want when your surgeon is putting the finishing touches on your triple bypass is him worrying about why he’s down to one bar of WiFi access.
German researchers have declared they can use Glass to boost ATM security, even though numerous hackers have already proven Glass’s camera is hackable. A Tokyo restaurant is experimenting with letting people use Glass to page through the entrees and place an order, as opposed to the much less cumbersome process of opening a menu. Three NBA teams have now threatened to use Glass as part of the “in-game experience.” Former NFL punter Chris Kluwe insisted—at a TED conference!—that he thinks players wearing Glass could make the NFL safer (an idea too stupid to elaborate on). A USC professor is about to teach a Glass journalism class (see Kluwe explanation). And a lactation specialist has completed a trial using Glass to teach women how to breastfeed (see Kluwe and USC journalism parentheticals above).
How ridiculous has the Glassolalia gotten? Well, former third-grade teacher Eric Toth of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List (he made the cut after Osama bin Laden was killed) was sentenced to 25 years for making child-porn videos in the elementary school at which he worked. But when discussing with the judge the lifetime supervised release he will be subjected to upon leaving the clink, he suggested authorities make him wear Google Glass, monitoring him through it to ensure he stays away from children.
No one would say giving a convicted child-pornographer a stealthy face camera is a good idea. But punishing him by making him wear Glass? Toth might be onto something.
In your face
Over the several weeks I wear Glass, I feel like I’m being punished myself. For it is anything but convenient. Since Glass doesn’t neatly fold up like glasses when you remove them, I have to carry around a Google-issue reinforced pouch, as big as a small purse. (Apparently, in Brin’s world, a man-purse is less emasculating than an iPhone.) Since I can nearly hold my breath longer than its battery lasts, I also carry around a mobile charger. When I’m not near my home WiFi, I need a Bluetooth connection, which means tethering my Glass to a smartphone. This means I now have to carry a smartphone, which I didn’t do before I had Glass, and which Glass is purportedly intended to free us from. The cheapo Walmart Android I buy turns out not to be Android-y enough for Glass, so I have to upgrade. I also continue to carry around my old dumbphone—just to remind me of a simpler, happier time.
A slim minority of people, of course, carry smartphones to perform archaic tasks like actually making phone calls. But as everyone else knows, a smartphone is only as good as its apps, and Glass’s are both limited and no great shakes. Yes, Glass comes equipped with some semi-enjoyable Pong-level games such as “Clay Shooter,” so that I can use my cursor-head to blast clays during lengthy editorial meetings. Colleagues find the spectacle dorky enough that three of them whip out their smartphones to click pictures of me, causing me to threaten violence if anyone posts them to Twitter. With or without Glass, we are already a surveillance society.
But for the most part, other than the ever-present camera, Glass has left out the sexy/spooky stuff. In a studied effort to seem less creepy, Google is forbidding developers from adding facial-recognition apps to the official Glassware store, even though some have already been created, such as NameTag. For now, Glass is holding the moral line on that particular privacy concern, a policy which I’m dubious will continue, since Google’s historic attitude toward privacy was best voiced by trusty Chairman Schmidt: “If you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
But even if Glass never officially sanctions facial recognition, Facebook has just announced its own DeepFace software, which recognizes human faces with 97.25 percent accuracy (the human brain does the same with 97.53 percent accuracy). So ID’ing strangers could soon be as easy as winking a picture on your Glass, sending it to your Facebook page, then waiting for a match. So much for an anonymous stroll in the park.
Google has also taken the high road by banning Glass porn apps, although that hasn’t stopped porn app developers from preparing for the eventual moratorium lift. MiKandi, a “mobile adult software applications store,” has already shot the very first porno with performers wearing Glass. Another developer has come up with “Sex With Glass,” in which two Glass-wearers can see what their partner is seeing as they have relations. In other words, the Ultimate Selfie.
But even if Glass made this app available, there’d be no cause for me to download it. Not only does my wife, Alana, not have her own Glass, she makes perfectly clear when I return home wearing it, “I’m planning on staying as far away as possible from you for the next several weeks.” Indeed, I come in for some rough familial treatment over my new eyewear. My mom refers to them as “your dork glasses.” My children are horrified, begging me to take them off when I pick them up from school. “Please, Dad, don’t roll down the window and talk to anybody,” says Luke, my 14-year-old.
When we go out to a restaurant one night, and I try to show off my Glass to the in-laws, telling them I will Google directions to the southern Maryland spot just 20 minutes from our house, Glass refuses to connect until we’re pulling into the parking lot. Once it finally does, it gives us directions to some location in Oklahoma. My 79-year-old father-in-law openly scoffs at my cutting-edge technology: “Next time we go out, I’ll bring my rotary-dial phone.” In the parking lot, we run into one of my son’s teachers, Mr. Forrester. I ask him if he’d like to try on Glass. “No,” he says. “It’s just not my thing, I don’t need augmented reality. I don’t even like regular reality.”
Inside the restaurant, as the kitchen staff files by to curiosity-gawk, and patrons spy what could be their facial future, a waiter hands us hot towels. “Is there any way you could put that over your head?” Luke asks. In the car on the way home, Alana is as accepting as ever: “It annoys me to look at you every time I see those things draped on your nose. I just want to smack you.” But I get the last laugh, when I accidentally wink a picture of my shoe.
I spend an entire day signing up for Glass apps, everything from horoscopes to weather alerts to multiple news sites, most of which are pushed in viewable cards to your scrollable “timeline.” A new card announces itself with a “clink” through the bone-vibrating transducer. The transducer, which is great for hearing clinks, isn’t so great for hearing phone calls. When I try to talk to my wife via Glass, thinking perhaps it will go better if she doesn’t have to physically see me, it sounds like she’s being waterboarded by Larry Page on the other end of the line.
But so many clinks come my way, one friend even starts calling me Colonel Clink. I get clinked when “lunacy” comes in from my Word of the Day app. I get clinked when fellow Glass Explorers in my region “discover” something new. For instance, Tysons Corner Mall was discovered by some Explorer named Drew. (Great job, Drew. Tysons Corner is the largest mall in the area and has been here since 1968. You’re a regular Shackleton!) I get clinked by the never-ending headlines from the unceasing news stream now constantly flowing in front of my eyeball. Essential, breaking-news developments, at least half of which seem to be selfie-related: Colin Powell’s 60-Year-Old Selfie Schools Your Mirror Pic; Madonna Instagrams Photo of Her Armpit Hair.
I’m also regularly clinked by my blogger friend Jim Treacher, who has unfortunately discovered I’m on Glass, and who now serially texts commands to my Glass from his lair in Indiana: Okay, Glass, which wine goes best with Chicken McNuggets? . . . Okay, Glass, tell me what to say to these people pointing and laughing at me.
Glass’s voice recognition is a bit spotty. When my dad visits, and I ask Glass to Google one of his childhood classmates, Bucky Sabina, Glass returns results for porn star Sabina Black. My dad says thanks but no thanks. Next time he’ll just try Classmates.com. Another time, when I’m voice-texting Treacher, and want to tell him to forward something, saying “send that right over,” Glass reads my utterance as “send that ass right over.” I see the words appear in my prism, but fail to cancel in the split second Glass gives me before sending. Treacher’s now wondering if I’ve changed more than my aversion to new technology.
My other apps don’t work so swimmingly, either. Though I’m not Jewish, I sign up for the “Jewish Guide for Glass” just for the test-drive. One day, while walking around D.C., I hear a clink. Glass tells me I’m at a particular synagogue. I’m not, but I’ve just walked in front of Loeb’s Deli, so maybe close enough.
When I hit up my recipe finder, I decide to keep it simple, asking Glass for a recipe for “fried bologna.” It returns recipes, in order, for “egg in a hole,” Stromboli, a drink called “Liquid Nuclear Spice,” and green bean casserole. When I try again with shrimp scampi, I am told instead how to fix “Flora’s Simple Deviled Eggs.” And to think we used to be stuck with cookbooks. How did we live that way?
Even with the misfires, as the days drag on, I find myself using Glass more and more. Not because I’m interested, or even out of journalistic duty. But because it’s literally right in my face. I can either look around it, or look directly into it, and the latter seems easier than the former. I use Glass by default—because it’s always there.
With my ancient flip phone, I rarely, if ever, have the problem of getting pulled away from the physical world when I’m not near a computer. It’s the whole reason I still carry one—because I abhor the electronic monitoring bracelet. But now that the computer is right on my eye, my standards slacken. When playing tennis with Luke, I get some decent point-of-view footage of him during a volley. But between points, I find myself asking Glass to Google Roger Federer’s backhand, even as my own suffers thanks to my partially Glass-obstructed vision.
After a long fishing drought because of all the brutal winter weather, I find myself fly fishing one day with Glass. Ordinarily, there is little in this world that absorbs me as singularly as fishing. And I do hook up with a rainbow trout, which grudgingly takes my Zug Bug. Except instead of just living in that moment, I figure I’d better get a photo of it with Glass. But my wink function is on the blink. So I nearly kill the fish before I can release it, after fiddling around by hand, scrolling for the right screen. Then, of course, I have to voice-text fishing buddies that winter is over. Then a clink alerts me to a Mashable story: “8 Ways Tech Has Completely Rewired Our Brain,” which a Glass app narrator reads to me. The waterboarded narrator talks about “phantom vibration syndrome,” detailing a survey in which 89 percent of undergraduates report having the sensation that their phone was vibrating even when it wasn’t.
Here I am, standing in one of my favorite places—thigh-deep in water—where I should be communing in the moment with some of my favorite people (fish). But instead, I find myself anticipating the next face clink. Here’s one now. It’s Treacher, again: Okay, Glass, remove the entire concept of living in the world with other human beings.
Nonetheless, everybody wants one
Despite the familial heckling, what’s most surprising about my weeks with Glass is not the hostility, but how nonchalantly most accept it, with plenty lustily embracing it, even when it violates their privacy.
Sure, there are skeptics. A homeless woman, wearing a rain tarp and guarding her trashbags on the streets of D.C., immediately recognizes what I’m wearing. “Ohhh! You got the Google Eye Glass!” (A recent survey showed half of all Americans recognize Glass, even though it hasn’t been commercially released—a rather remarkable feat of Google hype.) When I ask to take her picture, she refuses, walking away, saying, “I’m scared of you. You’ve got the camera.”
Then there is my bartender, Joseph, at Townhall, a D.C. watering hole. I work his customers with Glass, and while he’s friendly to me as I explain my journalistic/sociological project, he says if this picture-taking face atrocity ever catches on, “It’s just another reason for me to throw you out of the f—ing bar.” He understands the guiding philosophy of Glass, and knows Google is peddling it as a seamless part of your technologically integrated future. But he’s not buying it. “You know what’s seamless?” Joseph discourses. “Breathing. That’s seamless. Your f—ing heart beating is seamless. That—” he says, pointing at my tangerine dream, “is not seamless.”
He’s not a big fan of the Google-ization of America. He thinks it’s crippling us. The thirtysomething Joseph says a while back he dated a girl in her early twenties. She lived in Connecticut, and she was driving down to see him. Along the way, her phone died. “It was like a disaster,” he says. “She didn’t know what road she was on, and didn’t know how to call collect. She stopped at a gas station, where she Googled my name. She called me, and was in a panic. I was like, ‘Where are you?’ She said, ‘I don’t know. On the highway.’ I said, ‘Is it a big highway? Is it 95?’ She said, ‘I think that’s what it’s called.’ ”
Joseph, however, admits that as a part-time landlord, he has leaned on Nest, a service Google recently purchased for $3.2 billion that lets you remotely climate-control your properties. Nobody’s pure. Even Joseph recognizes that technology is infiltrating every area of our lives. Especially with “wearables,” which are all the rage, and of which Google Glass is only the start. Many tech tea-leaf readers say that soon enough, everything from your earrings to your jogging shoes will be as smart as you are.
And most of those I encounter aren’t like Joseph. Walking down the street in Georgetown, I experience plenty of noncommittal, if curious, eyeballs. People look at you like you’re either a B-list celebrity or you’ve been in a disfiguring accident, or maybe like you’re a B-list celebrity who was caught in a house fire and escaped with second-degree burns. But nearly everyone who makes contact does so because they want the Glass experience: How do I buy it? When can I have it? Please, can I try it on?
At Victoria’s Secret, I ask a saleswoman to hold up some panties so I can photograph them with my Glass. “For my girlfriend,” I say as an unconvincing afterthought. She willingly goes along. When I start aiming for the dressing room, she does tell me no photography is permitted in the store. I tell her I could be winking more pictures right now. But instead of regarding me as some suspicious pervert, as she likely would if I were behaving this way with a normal camera, she says, “That’s really neat!”
One Sunday, I take my youngest son, Dean, to church while wearing Glass. Not to our regular church—my wife refuses to be seen with me there. But to Middleham Chapel, one of the oldest Episcopal churches in Maryland (founded 1684). I’m sure the minister is perfectly adequate, but I don’t really hear him. I have too many clinks coming in on my feed: NJ Governor Christie at CPAC. Not to mention Treacher: Okay, Glass, search Google Images for this type of sore. Also, I was achieving a new personal best on Clay Shooter, as my cursor head nearly knocked into the septuagenarian lady next to me. At least until I catch an elbow from my 11-year-old. “Dad,” he says through clenched teeth, “I can hear you,” he says of me blasting virtual clays out of the sky. I have to figure out how to mute this thing. Also, I hope the minister winds it up soon. My battery’s running low, and I’m not about to break out my mobile charger. That would be in bad taste.
Finally, it’s Eucharist time. Dean’s pretty thrilled to receive communion. Back in our evangelical church, they serve grape juice instead of wine. He can’t believe they’re not going to card him. While the priest is serving us at the altar, I wink a few pictures. I might be a Glasshole, but it still feels sacrilegious. So I confess to the priest in the receiving line after church. “Wow, that’s cool!” he says.
On the streets of D.C. one afternoon, I pass a homeless guy named Mark Parker. Caked in filth, he sits Indian-style on the ground, holding an “I’m hungry” cardboard sign. I feel like I should give him a few bucks, though I’m sorta busy with my feed: Rihanna and Drake Are Back Together for Real this Time. But he calls out to me: “Cyborgs live!” Mark’s very excited. He knows what Google Glass is, and this is his first time seeing it, so I let him have a go. “Too bad you don’t have another camera,” he sympathizes. “You could take a picture of me with them on.”
“This is neat!” he says. “How much are they now?” I break the bad news. “Oh my God!” he exclaims. He thinks he’s going to wait until the price comes down, into, say, laptop range. I ask Mark if it isn’t more important that he buy something like, you know . . . food. “It depends on day-to-day,” he says. He tells me he has a blog—washingtonwordwarrior.blogspot.com—and sometimes he gets an ad or two, and can afford a little more. (Google ads, he says, don’t pay much.) I give Mark 10 bucks and tell him to buy something to eat, not to put it in his Glass fund. “I won’t, I promise,” he says. “They’re still a little out of my reach.”
I wear Glass to all manner of places where I expect to get thrown out—where I probably should get shown the door. But I pass through unmolested, or at least get much further than I would expect to. I wear Glass to a District Court hearing one day, as I have to go before a judge to attempt to get a driver’s license point removed for a speeding ticket. The sign on the courtroom door warns: “No weapons, cameras, videos or cellphones.” I’m three-for-four, four-for-four if you count the ability to trample privacy with my face computer as a weapon.
As I’m called before the judge, I activate my videocamera. Maybe he’s so busy he doesn’t care. Maybe he has no idea what I’m wearing. He never asks, and he dismisses my point. While I take a seat, waiting to get processed, a bailiff swoops in like a bat out of hell and tells me I have to remove “that,” whatever it is. (Bailiffs must not read TechCrunch like homeless guys do.) But it’s too late. Unbeknownst to him, I already videotaped the entire proceeding.
Recently, an Ohio Glass-wearer was pulled out of a movie theater and questioned by federal authorities, who suspected him of piracy. (Though he wasn’t taping.) But when I go to the movies at D.C.’s E Street Cinema, I pass through without a hitch, even stopping along the way to buy a Foster’s Lager at the concession stand. I take my seat in Her—the Spike Jonze film that’s set in the near future, where a man (played by Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his operating system (who is never seen, since “she” is artificial-intelligence software, but who is given voice by Scarlett Johansson). Without a peep from fellow filmgoers or (I’m relieved to say) federal authorities, I effortlessly video-tape—without doing anything to call attention to myself—a few minutes of a man and his computer bringing each other pleasure. It’s a love scene that is perhaps the perfect metaphor for our time. (Note to Feds: I subsequently erased it and did not distribute it.)
On another outing, I light out with my brother-in-law, Eddie Logan, for a night at Maryland Live! Casino in Hanover, Md. Scores of casinos throughout the country have already banned Glass, for obvious reasons. But this one is still uncharted waters. Before entering, Logan gives me his strategy. He doesn’t want to sit next to me at any gaming tables, but rather, across from me, “so I can video-tape security slamming you up against the slot machine.”
But his fears are unfounded. As I steel myself while we walk through security, the door guy asks, “Hey, what do you think of Google Glasses?” We talk Glass for several minutes, until I ask him if he’s going to let me in. Sure, he says. So long as I’m not lingering around tables photographing cards or people. His security colleague walks up on us. I tell his friend I just winked a picture of him, does that bother him? “Not at all,” he says, “I’m very photogenic.”
Once in, however, I do, in fact, linger like a bad cold, as well as photograph people while walking right up behind blackjack and poker players. My brother-in-law wants to warm up on slots, and after hitting for a few hundred bucks, he’s ready for blackjack. He takes a seat at a table, and I stand behind and off to the side of him, with a view of others’ cards. Logan, who is very lucky by temperament, gets blackjack three times in a row. I could swear on a stack of Glass operating instructions (if they had any) that I had nothing to do with it. But if I were one of his tablemates witnessing his sidekick with the face computer, I’d certainly be suspicious.
Standing off to my left, not five feet away, is a pit boss. I’m girding to get thrown to the floor by security, but instead, she asks what I’m wearing. I explain Glass, and its functions, saying I can even do Google searches. Like this one, and then I say, “Okay, Glass, Google ‘counting cards.’ ” The cardinal no-no at a blackjack table. I ask her if she wants to see my counting cards results, and I slide the glasses on her, but the screen goes black in the handoff, or maybe her eye isn’t in alignment. “It’s just because of me,” she says, taking the rap. “I’m blind, I know.” Yes, she is blind, to the cheating possibilities of the shiny-new technology I’m showing off in front of her. “You’ll just have to take my word for it,” I say.
I leave Logan to his winnings, and go fetch us drinks at the bar, where I wink several more photos of casino patrons. Finally, a jacketed security tough swoops in. He seems to know the score and says I either have to remove Glass or leave. I tell him I’d prefer to leave. I’m missing out on a lot of virtual life and need to get back to my feed: Shaq: I Spend $1,000 a Week on Apps; Robots Could Take Over Half of American Jobs. But first, I tell the burly bouncer, I’d like to get a picture for the road, of the only man in this Godforsaken place who has the smarts to stop me. “Uhhh, sure,” he says uneasily. I take one, but it doesn’t turn out. Glass doesn’t have a zoom. I break the bad news, informing him we need another go. To my surprise, he sits still for retakes.
Google is watching you
One man who’s not sitting still is Adam Wood, who helms “Stop the Cyborgs,” a U.K.-based group that was launched to protest Glass and to sound the alarm about the coming onslaught of wearables. I make Wood for a card-carrying Luddite, but I’m mistaken. He’s a software developer and machine-learning expert who has a Ph.D. in kernel methods (a class of algorithms for pattern analysis). He used to be a “classical engineer,” he says, in our lengthy correspondence, “in love with cool technology and not thinking too much about the political and social implications.”
Then Glass came along, and he realized there’s a big difference between techies playing with this stuff in a lab versus what it looks like when “data-mining corporations . . . annex private property and occupy people’s bodies. People think of devices as an extension of their body, when it is actually an extension of the data-mining corporation that built it.” Since wearable tech isn’t put back into a purse or pocket, the social signals indicating someone might be recording are lost. But even more worrisome, Wood says, is that “normalizing wearables is a step towards making mass use of implantables acceptable. After all: ‘Isn’t a smartphone just a phone with a few added features, a wearable device just like a smartphone but on your body, and an implant just like a wearable device but under the skin?’ ”
To the uninitiated, this might sound like the paranoid delusion of the tinfoil-hat set—laughable, even. But guess who’s not laughing at all at these prospects? Google.
The same Google whose cofounder Page once told Steven Levy (author of Google biography In the Plex) that he foresees Google searches taking place “in people’s brains. . . . Eventually you’ll have the implant where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you the answer.” The same Google whose chairman, Schmidt, said, “I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.” The same Google whose chief economist, Hal Varian, has said that he thinks the next stage is implants and that “you will be continuously connected to the web in 2020.”
Whether ever fully realized or not, these notions go several privacy-ticks beyond Google’s usual cavalier disregard. (They’ve been given the worst privacy rating of any web company by Privacy International.) What all this signals to Adam “Stop the Cyborgs” Wood is that this new wave of wearable tech means putting networked mobile sensors on people, allowing those who control the technology to build a giant control loop, with we-the-people herded right into the middle of it. The sensors already know everything about you—from who you are to where you are to what you’re doing. Crunching these data can have ramifications on everything from insurance risk to productivity to sociability to political inclination. (There are already stories of companies using wearables to monitor their employees’ health and even their sleep habits.)
The natural terminus, asserts Wood, as society becomes both techier and control-freakier, is that your behavior will be monitored by algorithms. “And if devices become very popular,” he warns, “opting out will have a high cost. After all, ‘How can people trust you if they don’t know your trust rating? Surely you must have something to hide?’ ” Wood asks, “How long before you get advised [by your employer]to go to bed earlier on week nights at your next performance review? . . . Fundamentally, we need there to be spaces which are unconnected, moments which are unmonitored, and we need data to be imperfect.”
Weirdly, my own trust rating already seems to have taken a hit with Google. In the middle of reporting this piece, I get an unsolicited email from Chris Dale, who heads Glass’s communications shop. He says he “heard through the grapevine” I was working on a story, and would love to help out. Fair enough. I’ve had proactive flacks do that before. But a week later, when I email him to ask some anodyne questions about the mechanics of the Explorer program, he expresses concern.
His concern is “that some folks who ran into you while you were wearing Glass out in public remarked that they felt you were being obnoxious and confrontational and a little evasive in terms of who you were and what outlet you were representing.” Strange. I thought nearly all of my interviews were friendly. And even if I partially played the role of the Glasshole, I nearly always let people know who I am and what I was up to. But even if I didn’t—how does he know? I didn’t speak with anyone in the field who worked for Google. Who would go through the trouble of tracking down some flack in Mountain View, Calif., to report me? And anyone to whom I was being even marginally “confrontational” likely would have seen it that way because I’d sometimes argue on behalf of their privacy, even as they seemed perfectly willing to abdicate it.
Like a principal summoning a wayward student to the office, Dale, who in addition to heading Glass’s communications outfit seems to think he’s my editor, asks me to call him. I pass, telling him I’d just as soon keep our exchange in print, so I have a clear record of what gets said. After disabusing him of whatever he is “hearing second-hand” (his words) and explaining my reporting style, I ask him six more questions about Glass. But not before telling him I’d also love to hear who his “mysterious second-hand informer” is, while he should keep in mind that “I likely have better documentation of what was said than they do.” Unless, that is, Google has hacked my Glass. Have they? No, they wouldn’t do that. Especially not after two researchers at Cal Poly came up with an app that would allow others to hijack your camera, just to see if they could. That seemed to displease Google, so I don’t think Google would do that, I jab (sending Dale a link to the Cal Poly story).
But the truth is, Google wouldn’t have had to hack my camera. Could they have seen a testy interview that I taped on Glass? Wouldn’t they have access to that data, the same way they have access to my Gmail account, to my search requests, to God knows what else? Were they spying on me? All interesting questions. But it doesn’t look like I’ll ever know the answer. Even weeks later, Dale hasn’t responded.
A follower of ‘1984’
One of my last Glass stops is a night out drinking with an old friend, and one of my favorite writers, Eddie Dean. A good ol’ Richmond boy by upbringing, Eddie has worked every gig from driving an ice cream truck in the Blue Ridge Mountains to collecting hog entrails at a slaughterhouse to bring back to the UVA medical illustrators’ department, for which he was partially compensated in free hot dogs. Eddie made his bones locally in the ’90s, writing gorgeous humanity-laden pieces for the Washington City Paper on everything from blues singer Skip James to dunk-tank carnival clowns to lost-white-trash cultural snapshots of drag racing in Manassas. These days, he writes books, such as when he helped bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley knock out his memoir, Man of Constant Sorrow.
I call on Eddie to help me change my scenery a bit. While I have plenty of roughneck bars close by where I live around the Chesapeake Bay, I want him to accompany me to some good hillbilly bars (one of his many subspecialties). I will wear my futuristic face computer into these bastions of the past and report the results.
Eddie, I should note, is one of the few people I know who are more technologically challenged than me. He only carries a flip phone in case his kids get kidnapped and he needs to know the ransom demands. He prefers offering Xeroxes of stories he likes (Xeroxes!) instead of sending you links. When I once complained about having to transcribe interview tape, he said, “I’m still transcribing 10-year-old interviews with long-dead country singers and jazz sidemen. . . . I guess we’re about as hipster as a couple of ninth-century monks transcribing Jerome’s Vulgate on a sheepskin parchment in some Saxon abbey, running out of good ale and firewood.”
Eddie’s first choice is Hank Dietle’s, a legendary roadhouse in Rockville, Md. It now sits in the bosom of yuppie sprawl, but boasts the very first beer-and-wine license ever awarded in Montgomery County. I meet Eddie in the parking lot—he comes at me with his shock of salt-and-pepper Samuel Beckett hair and a stack of Xeroxes tucked under his arm. He wants to know our plan. “I’m just trying for you not to get killed,” he says.
When we get inside, two things are immediately clear: Nobody’s getting killed, and it’s been a long while since Eddie drank here. It still looks like an old roadhouse—carved-up wooden booths, linoleum floors, pool-table rules mandating 8-ball only, as nobody needs any 9-ball nancies in here. But the crowd is—how to put it?—soft. Khakis and blue oxford shirts, a white-collar, Beltway-bandit happy-hour scrum. I tell Eddie if there are any bar-clearing brawls in here, we’re likely to finish in the top five percentile of combatants, which is sad, us being journalists and all. The barkeep still keeps a bat behind the draining-board, but whatever for? To bring down discipline if someone wears pleats instead of flat-fronts?
Eddie feels awful. “Sorry, man,” he says. He used to write in here, and starts reminiscing about old times, when day-tippling rotgut alcoholics would push pennies over the counter for one drink. He points to the space under the pool table where you might see two guys fighting, one cracking the other’s skull against the floor like a cantaloupe. “God, I miss that sound,” he says, almost teary.
No worries, I tell him, we’ll make it work. We order a pitcher of beer, and after two glasses of lubricant, I lunge into the crowd, taping people, telling them I’m taping them, basically being a Glasshole, just trying to get a rise.
I can’t seem to agitate anybody. One guy asks me, “Can we put it on?!!!” Another tough guy wants to know, “How do you scroll?” Others take pictures of me with their iPhones. Everybody’s so used to being Instagrammed, Tweeted, and Facebooked—what’s one more on the dogpile? Most of them, I’m told, work for the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, just down the road. (“Montgomery County is totally being taken over by government drones,” Eddie says.)
Finally, a whiskered older gent in a blue-crab-adorned Maryland sweatshirt that reads “Don’t bother me, I’m crabby” squares up to me. It seems he’s been eavesdropping on my conversations, and I’m guessing he’s about to tell me where I can put my Glass, which is still rolling. His name is Charles Wilhelm, a retiree who used to work for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Just so he’s clear, I inform Wilhelm that I’m taping him with my face. Then, I prepare to take my medicine.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says. Huh? “Because you’ll find in this society, we’re all subject to videotaping.” But, I point out to him, I’m a private citizen, taping another private citizen for no compelling reason. Just because I can. What if he were here with his girlfriend instead of his wife, and I posted it on the Internet? “So?” he shrugs. “Really, so that’s it?” I ask him. “Yes,” he says, nonchalantly. “Why?” I ask. “Because I’m a follower of George Orwell’s 1984, and so I’m a believer in the concept of community observation.” I point out that I’m fairly certain Orwell was trying to make the opposite point, that his was a critique, not an endorsement, of a surveillance society.
“I disagree,” he replies, obstinately. “Because in my view, you would have less terrorism if you had more observation by the state.” I wave my hand at the surrounding khakis, pointing out that I’m fairly certain I’m not recording any terrorists in Hank Dietle’s. “That’s irrelevant,” huffs Wilhelm. “You can still explode a fairly good device.”
“And maybe this is it,” I say, pointing to my Glass.
“So what’s your point?” he asks. I tell him I’m just giving him a hard time. “Have a good evening, sir,” Wilhelm says brusquely, stomping off.
I trudge back to my table, defeated, relaying the conversation to Eddie, who is gobsmacked. “So he read  as utopia instead of dystopia?” Seemingly, he did. I give up. I return to our pitcher, and my clinks—the Glass headline feed is stacking up on me: Man Accused of Murder over Theater Texting Was Also Texting; Study: Metadata DOES Reveal Sensitive Data About Individuals; Famed Butt-Selfie Taker Jen Selter Is in ‘Vanity Fair’ Now.
Eddie is unimpressed with my clinks. He says each morning, when he wakes up, he listens to Merle Haggard to hear the voice of God. Not the greatest hits, not in the hipster way that Brooklyn-neckbeards claim to listen to Old Country. He listens to records like Haggard’s The Land of Many Churches, the gospel stuff, complete with recitations. “It’s my way of seeking the Lord. And to get rid of hangovers? It’s great. But you seek the Lord with Merle Haggard.”
To that end, Eddie wants to know something about Glass. When the clinks are always coming, how do you hear that voice, or any other voice? “I mean, who knows where it’s going to stop?” he thunders. “Can we multi-task our way to the pearly gates? Because we are not going to be able to hear that quiet voice from the Man upstairs! What if He’s trying to get in, and we’re on this?” he says, pointing to my face computer. “He might not have full access.”
These days, we blast the noise full-tilt, around-the-clock. By contrast, Eddie invokes a favorite quote, one originally attributed to the French composer Claude Debussy and improved upon by Miles Davis, which goes: “Music is the space between the notes. . . . It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.”
We pull up anchor to hit another favorite Eddie spot, JV’s, a half an hour away in Falls Church, Virginia. I call the bar to get the address and directions, by now afraid to rely on my Glass. I don’t want to end up in Oklahoma. The woman on the other end of the line tells me it’s 6666 Arlington Blvd. “Ohhh, the mark of the Beast,” I exclaim. “No, it’s not, sugar,” she corrects me. “There’s one extra 6 in there.”
We arrive at JV’s, and this is more like it. There’s a loud, live band, and people with cowboy hats instead of khakis, even if there’s still lots of e-cigarettes, instead of the old-fashioned cancer-causing kind. “There’s no escape,” Eddie shrugs. As he secures us more beer, I approach a guy at the end of the bar, the meanest-looking hombre I see in the joint, drinking Bud out of a can. He’s enough of a regular that he seems to dart behind the bar whenever it suits him. He’s tall, built like a middle linebacker, wears a sleeveless shirt and work pants.
But he’s not actually mean. His name is Kevin, and he’s a heating and air conditioning repair man. I show off my tangerine dream, and ask him to try it on. Instead, he says he’d like me to try on some “beer goggles”—trick welder’s goggles that hang on a hook behind the bar. I assent. He fetches the goggles and reaches for a “Women of Seagram’s Gin” deck of cards, which he places upright on the floor. He tells me to put on the goggles, then to kick the box over. I try, but kick a foot-and-a-half wide of the deck. Everyone has a good laugh over my vision impairment.
When I ask him to give my Glass a whirl, however, he passes. He has no interest in having the Internet on his eye, he says. Nor does he use the Internet when it’s not on his eye. I don’t know whether to pity or congratulate him, or take him to a museum as one of the last living specimens. Adopting my role as the Glasshole, I tell him, “You’re disconnected from the world, my friend.”
Kevin takes another slug of Bud, then shakes his head without remorse. “No, I’m not,” he says. “The world is disconnected from itself.”
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.
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