Google Glass and the emerging Glasshole culture

Lifelogging augmented-reality devices such as Glass are eventually going to become commonly used technologies. But what are the cultural and sociological implications?
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

This week, Google released an early version of an SDK, as well as hardware specifications for its Glass augmented-reality monocular device, which is going to be seeded to an initial batch of select software developers and high-profile end-users.

These folks are among those who are willing to pay the early adoption fee of $1,500 and become one of the select few to wear, test, and develop software for the product.

Image: CBS Interactive

There's a not-so-flattering descriptor that has already been applied to this group of digital cognoscenti who have been seen recently at industry conferences and public venues wearing the device: Glassholes.

It could certainly be argued that whenever a new consumer technology enters society, those who are quick to adopt it are typically ridiculed by the have-nots. Eventually, many of these technologies become commonplace and are more accepted by the mainstream, particularly when they become more affordable.

This has pretty much always been the case, starting with the radio pager, then the cellular phone, text capable handsets, and then, of course, Bluetooth headsets, the smartphone and the tablet.

People who first used these things were once seen very much as elitist and not part of the mainstream, and they were considered disruptive.

To some extent, even with their popularity, they are still considered disruptive when used in various social contexts.

However, Glass is very different from all of these technologies. While it is, at the end of the day, a mobile technology platform just like a smartphone or a tablet, it differs in that it is an "always-on" technology that has one particular feature that the others do not — and that's the issue of lifelogging.

Lifelogging is fundamentally the same as having a smartphone or any small digital camera that can record and store many hours of video.

Virtually every smartphone on the market today has a built-in high-definition camera with enough onboard storage to record an entire day's worth of events, if someone wanted to use them that way and it had enough reserve battery power to do it.

But at least with these technologies, you know when they are being used. It's obvious when someone is using a smartphone or a tablet to take photographs or record video.

I'm not so sure I can live in a culture where everyone is lifelogging virtually all of the time.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, I suggest you listen to Louis CK's diatribe on the subject.

With Glass, because the device is being worn and there's no indication of when it is being used, one has to assume that the wearer is recording everyone all of the time.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I have serious issues with the notion that I could be recorded by everyone at any time. 

Look, I am aware that law enforcement and government agencies have us under surveillance, and it's not uncommon for people to be photographed and videoed hundreds of times per day, particularly if you live in a major city.

That I can accept, and it's a price that we have to pay for living in a modern society where there are people out to do us harm, and our government and law enforcement agencies need to protect us.

That's become extremely evident in recent days, as law enforcement officials in Boston sort out hundreds of hours of video, not just from stationary surveillance cameras, but from videos shot by onlookers at the marathon itself.

Sometimes, video recording at a mass scale has social benefits besides law enforcement.

Dashboard-mounted car cameras used to record footage of highway criminal activity, as well as police and government corruption in Russia, were used extensively by private citizens to video document a once-in-a-century meteor strike in Siberia in February of 2013.

Video recording can be a powerful tool, but it's also a major privacy intrusion. 

I'm not so sure I can live in a culture where everyone is lifelogging virtually all of the time. I have an idea of what one might look like, though.

In Robert J Sawyer's Hugo Award-winning science fiction novel Hominids, which is part of his Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, he portrays a humanoid society on an alternate version of earth in which virtually no crime or any form of violence occurs because every person has an implant in their body that causes all of their life events to be recorded and uploaded to a centralized storage repository.

The novel was published in 2002, but today, we'd call that centralized storage repository the Cloud. 

There's a plot element in the novel that details what happens in those rare instances in which a murder takes place and a subject goes to trial. Suffice to say that, unlike our society, where private audio and video recordings have to be submitted as evidence and might not be admissable in court, this is not the case in the world in which Sawyer has envisioned.

In the world of Hominids, a person's life is judged upon the content of their lifelogging.

My concern is not so much that people will be caught commiting crimes. For those purposes, I believe privately recorded video and audio most definitely should be considered as evidence in a court of law.

It's the things that are not so much criminal, but which are said and done in close company that make me nervous about lifelogging tech.

There are things you only say and do with close friends in confindence, others which may be revealed in private business meetings, et cetera. We all know and have seen what happens when supposedly "private" or unauthorized recordings are made behind closed doors and then leaked to the general public, either intentionally or accidentally.

It can cost someone their career. It can destroy one's personal reputation. It will most certainly cause one strife with one's friends and family. And as we have most recently seen, it can also cost you a Presidential Election.

If these kinds of devices do become commonplace — and I have no doubt that they will — then there will have to be social rules and norms for their use.

Because they are a wearable tech, and will almost certainly be integrated into regular perscription eyeglass frames, there will have to be some kind of indication (such as a LED "on air" light, or something to that effect) that they are currently recording, and there needs to be "Antiglass" technology to prevent its use by people who do not wish to be part of someone else's lifelogging activities.

I see "Antiglass" as a personal shield of sorts, that emits a radio signal that disrupts the use of Glass within a certain distance unless the wearer is legitimately using the device for law enforcement purposes. "Antiglass" could be integrated into smartphones, smart watches, or even other lifelogging devices as well.

Wide-cast antiglass fields could be set up in establishments, such as private social clubs and places of business, which prohibit the use of lifelogging functions, just as cell phone signal jamming technology is already used (albeit illegally) in some places today.

Obviously, for this type of anti-lifelogging tech to work, there has to be an agreed upon API or programmatic trigger signals that cannot easily be defeated by hackers.

But if it cannot be made to work, or if the effectiveness of the tech cannot be guaranteed, then I forsee situations where people will be forced to remove and surrender their devices in order to prevent the possibility of recording, as well as a change in our culture to be much more careful about what one says, even in very intimate situations.

And that is an Orwellian chilling effect that I think could be very harmful to the development of our society as a whole.

This chilling effect was evident in decades past in East Germany while the country was in fear of the ever-watching eyes and ears of the Stasi, which had perhaps the largest informant and surveillance network of any nation per capita in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War, the USSR included. 

For a current take on Orwellian dystopia, look no further than modern-day North Korea, where all of that country's citizens are frightened of being observed by the state, regardless of whether or not the hermit kingdom actually has the resources to do it or not.

Except that it's not the State you would need to be fearful of with technologies like Glass.

With lifelogging, Big Brother could be a recording made by your own best friend when you both went out for drinks, and who then decides to share an off-color joke you made that evening around the office.

Or one from your spouse who decides to upload candid highlights from a family event to Facebook or YouTube without consulting you first.

Will Glasshole culture create a chilling effect on society? Talk back and let me know.

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