In John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live, a drifter in Los Angeles finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see a world that is subliminally programmed and electronically manipulated. Billboards and bus stop shelter ads are revealed as immense Helvetica commands to “OBEY,” “CONSUME,” and “SLEEP.” The wealthy and powerful are unmasked as hideous-looking aliens with skull-like faces.
The sunglasses of They Live were sci-fi MacGuffins. The spectacles developed by Google are real-world marvels.
If you haven’t heard of Google’s “augmented reality” glasses yet, you will soon. The devices allow all your social media alerts, email and web feeds to float in your visual field at a simple voice command. Want directions to the nearest sushi joint? Videorecord a friend’s skateboard trick and post it online immediately? Capture overheard conversations on the bus? Just talk to the headset.
Much of the tech buzz on the cyborg-ish glasses has involved their “dork factor.”(Google is leading a social media blitz to win over Early Adopter hipsters and geeks, and partnering with Warby Parker, a youth-friendly marketer of designer glasses.) But there’s been little on the immense social dislocations the new tech may portend. Beyond the issues of safety for drivers and pedestrians equipped with the attention-fracturing specs, there’s a host of new questions about digital etiquette. How do you know someone with Google glasses is not being distracted while you talk to them? Or for that matter, that they’re not videorecording your exchange and sharing it online?
The specs are part of the company’s project, Google Glass, which will be integrated with the other apps the tech firm has made available to the masses: Google Plus, Translate, Calendar, Photo, Drive and all the rest.
Tech blogger Mark Hurst at Creativegood.com nails the potential social fallout: “First, take the video feeds from every Google Glass headset, worn by users worldwide. Regardless of whether video is only recorded temporarily, as in the first version of Glass, or always-on, as is certainly possible in future versions, the video all streams into Google’s own cloud of servers. Now add in facial recognition and the identity database that Google is building within Google Plus (with an emphasis on people’s accurate, real-world names): Google’s servers can process video files, at their leisure, to attempt identification on every person appearing in every video. And if Google Plus doesn’t sound like much, note that Mark Zuckerberg has already pledged that Facebook will develop apps for Glass.”
In the future, any conversations recorded through the specs could potentially be geotagged, attached to the speakers’ identities, and called up on a keyword search any time in the distant future by law enforcement agencies, intelligence gathering firms or justice institutions, and fed through speech-to-text apps as hard copy. (But if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about, right?)
As Hurst points out, the problem isn’t so much at the user end; it’s for everyone else. All it takes is one person wearing the glasses on a bus to funnel all the other passengers into the facial recognition/movement-tracking Borg. And if Google contact lenses are to follow, there will no way of knowing who’s wearing them.
Combine the above with the vast domestic surveillance state under construction that makes CCTV cameras seem like Fisher-Price toys. Last January, the Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Programs Agency (DARPA) released details of its ARGUS-IS 1.8 billion megapixel camera. From 17,500 feet, Argus-equipped drones are capable of making real-time video feeds of urban activity, right down to an inch of pavement.
I’m not saying Google is playing footsie with the U.S. national security apparatus. I’m saying the company’s private apps are a natural fit for the all-seeing panopticon state, by normalizing electronic omniscience as hipster cool.
The sunglasses of John Carpenter’s film awakened street people to the awful truth. In contrast, we’re talking about a real-world scenario where glasses offered by a company whose motto is “do no evil” turns consumers into sleepwalking cyborgs, performing profit-line tricks of public reconnaissance. However, a backlash may already be building. Last week the Seattle dive bar 5 Point announced a ban in advance on Google glasses. “And ass kickings will be encouraged for violators,” reads a post on the bar’s Facebook page. Hmm. I seem to remember They Live devolved into a punch-up at the end, too.