Google Glass was launched without any clear explanation of what it was supposed to be used for. When promotional videos started to show people going about their daily routine, it quickly became clear that what we were being sold wasn’t a gadget, it was a lifestyle. The actual product was the intoxicating prospect of instant access to information. Glass offered to be much more than a device, it was a ticket into an exclusive club that promised special abilities.
In a much celebrated launch, Google allowed early adopters to shell out $1,500 get an early version of Glass and be part of its “Explorer Program.” But this wasn’t so much a product rollout as it was a social experiment. Through this strategy, Google was able to get thousands of people to challenge society’s conventions on privacy and connectedness without having to address it directly.
Over a year later, Glass has yet to gain mainstream acceptance. Society remains largely unmoved. Instead, in some places, it has become a divisive and controversial technology. It appears the experiment has backfired – but Google knew this could happen.
The hype is fading, the wheels of the bandwagon are falling off, but Glass is far from gone. In part, because it is actually quite a useful and promising technology. Augmented reality and wearables could provide significant benefits to our lives in certain situations. What’s strange is Google chose not to focus on this; instead of showing the many ways Glass can enrich the work of doctors, fire fighters, or extreme athletes, the company chose to let the technology loose into the world to see what happened.
Speaking to Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici, the executive in charge of marketing for Glass admitted that the company deliberately decided to roll the product out in this way. He explained, “I see it as quite a necessary symptom of a company that’s trying to be disruptive.” Yet he sees Glass’s greatest weakness as its lack of availability – completely sidestepping the most important issues and fears that Glass creates. That’s a problem for all of us, not just for Google’s bottom line.
Since its initial release, legions of techno-optimist supporters have contradicted themselves constantly about the promise and perils of the device. On one hand, they want to convince us that Glass is a revolution because it’s not like a smartphone, it allows for many new possibilities. But when it comes to discussing the social implications, they begin to mention how we are comfortable with smartphones, and argue that the products aren’t that different. Rather than engage in a substantive debate about consent and sharing, they’d rather convince you that “privacy is dead.”
Technology enthusiast Robert Scoble says the ingredient Google is missing is empathy. In a broader sense, when someone looks at you with Glass it is the equivalent of having a smartphone pointed at you – even though the devices aren’t always recording, there are different conventions to pointing cameras than talking on phones. It’s not techno-phobic to prefer not to be recorded when speaking with friends, it’s natural. And there is no widespread opposition to wearable technology, you don’t hear about people being harassed for wearing a FitBit.
Glass is different; When you wear Glass you are challenging the social values of the people around you on behalf of the world’s most powerful corporation.
Whether this version of Glass is a commercial success remains to be seen, but a whole host of competitors are working on their own glass devices. Over time, the design problems will be worked out, it’s likely that “smart” glasses will be indistinguishable from regular ones. If we are to get to a point where people can feel comfortable wearing the technology, and have the people around them feel unperturbed as well, there are two underlying issues that must be addressed.
The first is the fading allure of a completely connected lifestyle. A decade of smartphone usage is starting to wear us down; Glass represents our worst fears about never being able to unplug. Established technology companies seem especially unprepared to handle these changing sentiments. To the vast majority of people, the argument that Glass gets technology out of the way by putting it directly on your face is not convincing, and quite unsettling.
The second is that we need to rethink the notion that we have no expectation of privacy in public. This was once a common sense observation used to protect the work of journalists; what it has become is something entirely different. This idea wasn’t built for a time of ubiquitous sensors, smart cameras, and analytics. It was never meant to be used as a blanket justification for private companies to track, measure, and analyze your every move outside of the home. It’s becoming an anti-social corporate bludgeon used to exploit your personal information – and we should reconsider how far we are willing to let it go.
A world of ubiquitous Glass requires different priorities than the one of today. Nobody wants a world where they feel uncomfortable speaking in public or they are harassed for what they choose to wear. Google’s strategy has shown that we are not ready to have this thrown at us, but we could gradually get there one day. We haven’t seen the last of Glass – and it surely hasn’t seen the last of us.
Check out my upcoming book, Identified: Why They Are Getting To Know Everything About Us