Google Glass: Who is really watching whom?

Google Glass: Who is really watching whom?

Summary: As we move into a world of ubiquitous computing, we need to decide what it means.


Last week was the annual Future In Review conference, which looks at how trends in science, technology and economics are shaping the next three to five years.

It's a fascinating event, one that raises many more questions than answers — leaving you with much to think about and ready to ask the next question, the one that will (hopefully) give you the answers you're looking for.

One of the trends that this year's event addressed was the rise of augmented reality devices, and the growth of ubiquitous sensor networks. We're building a world where processors are going to be everywhere, in the shape of paint-on sensor networks that use energy harvesting techniques to power mote computers, and where the Internet of Things blends cloud and compute in devices we're wearing.

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this trend is Google Glass. It's not the first augmented-reality wearable-computing device (I first saw one at a party in north London in the late 90s, where the wearer found his chord keyboard increasingly harder to use, the more of the host's family-made limoncello he drank, culminating in his inability to log in to his device at all), but it's certainly the prototype for the first commercial, consumer version. That's a big step for any project, coming out from the lab and into the street.

Vint Cerf was wearing his Glass at the event, and in conversation with Larry Smarr about the early history of the internet, he touched on the social aspects of Glass — comparing its face-to-face camera with being recorded under the table at a meeting — while describing it as an instantiation of the ubiquitous computing work of pioneering computer scientist Mark Weiser.

What became clear is that Google sees Glass very much as a prototype still, and is using it to understand how people might use such a device. Smartphones may have put computers in pockets, but they're not truly ubiquitous computing, as we have to pull them out to check them, switching contexts from the world we're in, to the world of the screen. Glass is designed to avoid that context switch, with information an "OK Glass" away.

Cerf wasn't the only person thinking about Glass. Science fiction author David Brin has touched on the social implications of devices like it in his novels Earth and Existence, and in his book The Transparent Society. In Earth, ubiquitous computing devices have changed the way society is policed, making individuals — and organisations — more accountable for their actions. As Brin talked to fellow writer and futurist Brenda Cooper, it wasn't surprising that their on-stage conversation would cover Glass.

There's an interesting question at the heart of Google Glass, and of Brin's thinking about the evolution of a transparent society. What exactly is the purpose of Glass? Is it to be yet another probe for Google's machine learning system, looking to add additional contextual cues to the questions we ask? Or is it a tool for opening up society, providing a channel for what Brin calls "sousveillance" (a term he coined in conjunction with wearable computing pioneer Steve Mann), where the underdog looks back at those in a position of power?

Organising all the world's information will include things we don't want to be organised — and Glass is an ideal tool for capturing that information. When we ask Glass a question, we're not just showing Google where we are, or how fast we're going, we're also giving it sensors that (if not now, in the prototype, but in the future with devices with more memory and greater bandwidth) will let the system see just what's around us — how crowded a street is, who we're talking to, whether it's dark or light, wet or dry. Google might know not just what we're asking, but also why.

Even so, Brin remains hopeful, citing recent legal decisions in the US that make it lawful for citizens to record police officers in public places. Glass may be just another probe for Google, but the street, as Brin's fellow science fiction author William Gibson noted, will always find its own uses for that technology.

If a Glass video convicts a corrupt police officer (much as the omnipresent dash cams in Russia have begun to recivilise the country's road anarchy), or helps provide evidence that uncovers commercial conspiracies, will that balance the tables? Brin suggests that these tools are a choke chain on vested interests, giving the rest of us the power to pull back on the levers of authority.

Brin sees sousveillence as a tool for looking back up at the governments who are looking down on us, Big Brother-style; he's told us in the past that the worst problem with this is Little Brother — everyone spying on everyone around them, which he suggests can be dealt with by people developing social conventions to go with the new technology. But government isn't the only institution watching us any more. How far does it give us a tool for looking back at those who make the technology we look with?

Does Glass make Google, or any of the other networks that collect information from you and use it to derive context, any more transparent to you? The complexity of the modern world means that the levers of power are increasingly invisible. Was a decisions that affect you made by people or algorithms, by elected bodies or corporations?

We're at an intriguing point in the history of computing, one where the shift from visible devices to invisible has begun. It's not a post-PC world, it's one of ubiquitous and ambient computation, where cloud computing and pervasive sensor networks begin to change the way we interact with the world around us.

Devices such as Glass are just an interim step on that inevitable journey, but that doesn't mean it's the wrong time to start discussing the social impact of it and the wearable computing devices that will follow.

Brin hopes they'll remind governments and the powerful that they're dogs not wolves — and maybe the world that results will be a fair trade for our becoming the ubiquitous eyes for machines that are looking for better ways to sell us things. We have important choices to make, and we need to be sure we're not just walking blindly into AI-mediated corporate feudalism.

In tomorrow's ubiquitous computing world, who watches the watchers? Hopefully it'll be us, and not just the never-sleeping machines.

Topics: Emerging Tech, Google

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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  • N.W.N.M

    No way near me. Don't want to be filmed without my consent, don't want anyone who could be watching an information layer, related or unrelated to the present situation, being near me. I have no need for anyone who thinks to be Iron Man close to me.
  • It is about more that who is wearing the camera

    To quote Richard stallman "Mutual snooping may work against the thug on the street but it will never work against the thug in an office"

    Wearable surveillance may help you catch the odd cop beating up a protestor however it is does not provide a counter-veiling force to entrenched bureaucratic power structures. Indeed it reinforces power imbalances since all the information gathered by consumer devices like glass flows to data aggregators like Google and through legal snooping the state and corporate powers.
    • Clarification

      Quote was not accurate it was more of a paraphrasing of Stallman's comment and argument in this article:

      Don't surrender the privacy battle
  • Hard to be transparent about applied math

    If you don't believe in math you surely don't believe in statistics. If you disbelieve the scientific method, make a good guess (hypotheses) then prove it. If you think its all deductive, rather than retroductive then magic answers must come from spying. Google is just the Nielson Rating raised to the forth power. Transparency is knowing that Google cares not about the name associated with 1 in 1,000,000,000,000 instances, but you do, if it helps Google help you find what you want. Kinda like Tom Cruise's 'show me the money'.
  • Google hype

    "It’s not the first augmented-reality wearable-computing device (I first saw one at a party in north London in the late 90s...) ... but it’s the prototype for the first commercial, consumer version. That’s a big step for any project, coming out from the lab and into the street."

    AR does not need to be wearable. Once you put aside the wearable aspect, it becomes clear just how dated Glass looks. And yes, wearable AR has been around for years. Google Glass is a good name, but pretentious and not very meaningful. I prefer to call it Google Goggles.

    Google Goggles just does what existing solutions already do, merely moving the screen component to a visor. AR is old news. Integrated visors have been around for ages too.

    Indeed, this is the primary reason why Google has so badly missed the point with Glass. It could and should have been a light-weight peripheral device that plugs into a smartphone, run by an app. The tech in Glass is pointlessly duplicating functionality already available on the phone sitting inside the wearer's pocket. It appears that some at Google did realise this, but the corporation was so hell-bent on launching a big new stand-alone device, to satisfy internal neuroses arising from PR needs and outright vanity, that they went ahead regardless.

    If there is a market for wearable AR, it won't be Google Goggles.
    Tim Acheson
  • Bisson

    The author of the article above looks like the sort of chap you might well see around wearing Google Glass. But his Google-worship and hype here go to far even for other Google fanboys.
    Tim Acheson
    • Ad Hominem fallacy

      Now that's classy. No, it's not.
  • Might want to pull that dictionary out . . .

    "Smartphones may have put computers in pockets, but they’re not truly ubiquitous computing, as we have to pull them out to check them, switching contexts from the world we’re in, to the world of the screen."

    I think you misunderstand the word "ubiquitous." Google Glass may be more convenient, but smart phones are currently more ubiquitous. It's up to market forces whether or not Google Glass ever becomes as popular as the cell phone.

    "Devices such as Glass are just an interim step on that inevitable journey . . ."

    The journey isn't inevitable. Nothing is inevitable. Plenty of good ideas have gone nowhere. Plenty of inventions have failed, despite the dreams of their makers.

    " . . . but that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong time to start discussing the social impact of it and the wearable computing devices that will follow."

    Indeed. We should discuss the impact - and whether or not we should ultimately accept such a technology. Treating it as "inevitable" will taint the discussion, however.
    • What I mean by ubquitous computing

      Ubiquitous computing, as discussed here, is the term used by Xerox PARC scientist Mark Weiser to describe a world where the underlying processing technology was disconnected from user experience, and where computers become part of the background. His 1991 Scientific American piece is perhaps the best place to start:

      Other similar terms are Pervasive computing and Ambient computing.
  • Google Glass is the proverbial solution looking for a problem...

    Smartphones are ubiquitous because they solve a problem everyone has - they have become a primary communications channel. All the other cool stuff smartphones do would never have made its way into our pockets if not for that one simple fact; even though many of us seldom use them as phones anymore.

    To become ubiquitous, tech has to solve a problem that affects the masses without becoming too intrusive on our daily lives. What problem does Google Glass solve that will make us all want to look like dorks? Certainly filming misbehaving policemen is not of primary concern to most people. Augmented Reality? Are people really gonna spend all the effort involved to be able to see the name of a store virtually plastered to the storefront? Probably right below the real signage? Do you think your Mom cares? I don't think so. Maps and directions? Got it - my Garmin GPS lives in my car, is there when I need it, and isn't in the way when I don't need it. Call me a Luddite but I just don't see it.

    At some point off in the future, certain types of wearable tech will undoubtedly make it's way into our daily lives - probably driven first by companies improving business processes and then to consumers where bleed-over is appropriate; if you think about it, that's how we got smartphones. But, society will have to evolve a lot before something like Google Glass will become ubiquitous.
    • See above...

      ...for a fuller discussion of what ubiquitous computing is, and links to further information on the topic.
  • Privacy begets trust

    The whole invasion of privacy thing makes me shudder. In Soviet Russia, people learned never to speak their real feelings, even to their spouses, about much of anything, for fear it trickled back to the KGB. Because none of us can possibly know where our recorded speech an (now) every day actions can end up (in court? in your bosses' email? on youtube or the New York Times? with homeland security?) and how they might be construed, mis-construed, tampered with, falsified, photoshopped, etc I suggest the following:

    Legally, in my jurisdiction and I believe many others, my image belongs to me and cannot be taken without my consent, unless taken in a public place by a news reporter for legitimate news purposes. So tell every Google Glass wearer you meet to take the pernicious things off in your presence, they are infringing your legal rights, and preventing you and them and everyone else from acting 'real', rather than on stage.
  • Google-Glass

    I am the President & CEO of the JSC South Kuban Design Factory in Russia. If one of my engineers are coming up with the idea of Google-Glass, I will fire him immediately. Technology has no limits, but consumers have. And consumers all the time bringing out of control engineers down to earth.
    Google-Glass is not a consumer product.
  • Google glass

    I will not let anyone wearing such on my property. I will avoid any area that encourages it use. It is invading my privacy.
  • My Two Cents

    Glass is nothing more than a way for Google to grab even more data, and in greater detail, from all the tech fanboys who grab hold of any new technology like it was the Holy Grail. My home and vehicle will be "No Glass" zones, and I will avoid the sorts of places where Glassholes will congregate. There is nothing at all positive about Google. Oh, I forgot to add "Glass". Either one is true.
    Iman Oldgeek
    • I Like That

  • Running scared...

    All those with something to hide running scared Eh! Let them hide away, about time....
  • What a curious idea...

    A right to privacy in a public place.

    Guy comes into your home with em on, by all means tell him to remove them if you want, or leave if he doesn't.

    Guy walks by you on the street, get over yourself, go home if you don't like it?
  • Special Edition Google Glass

    This is more of a problem with the new Special Edition Google Glass IMO: