Dreams Made of Glass

New cyber world or total surveillance horror? Google Glass can be both.

The idiots have long been among us. Normal-seeming fellow human beings who suddenly speak to no one. They run through the streets babbling. “Is he?” one asks oneself, then looks, until the other turns his head and over his ear is a headset. Aha! The supposed idiot was just on the phone.

Soon, there will be more of these fellow human beings, and they will talk to their glasses. At some point in the next few months they will turn up — the first models for Google Glass. Their wearers will look as harmless as Sergey Brin on the subway recently. In a snapshot that a passenger posted on the Internet recently, the bearded multibillion-dollar co-founder of Google sits on a train in New York with a woolen hat on his head and a plastic bag in his hand. Apart from having no lenses and the frame being a little thicker on one side, his eyeglasses seem normal at first glance.

Secretly Photographed

The high-tech optical aid is connected to the Internet and has a camera; it records pictures and sounds and reacts to voice commands. The most important part of Glass is the screen, a small transparent cube over the right eye and probably the reason why Brin is staring into the snapshot. Unlike many other people on the subways in New York or Berlin, he does not look down at the touch screen of a smartphone but looks straight ahead. Perhaps he is looking at an Excel spreadsheet on his screen. Maybe he is filming the unwitting photographer.

The possibility of undetected observation causes discomfort. A café in Seattle has already declared a Glass ban. A “Stop the Cyborgs” campaign has taken off in London. What seemed for a long time like just a hobby for Brin, who leads Google X, a department of tinkerers, has now become suitable for the masses. The first ordinary users were able to apply for a Glass model a few weeks ago for $1,500. However, analysts anticipate that Glass and similar products will soon be available for $400.

So, Soon We’ll Be Surrounded By Fellow Men Filming Us?

The areas of application actually appear to be virtually limitless. In Google’s advertising videos, people wear them during hot air balloon rides, trapeze acrobatics or marriage proposals — activating videotaping with the command, “OK, Glass. Record a video.” Videos and pictures can be posted directly to Facebook via an Internet connection or broadcast live. Glass can also navigate to the nearest bookstore using arrows, read an incoming email aloud or look up how Schalke played against Dortmund.

Designer Diane von Fürstenberg wore Google Glass to New York City’s Fashion Week, tried them on on models and friends and produced an aesthetically pleasing short film of the fashion world from a first-person perspective (viewable on YouTube under “DVF through Glass”). There is hardly a professional group that Google Glass would not assist, including the police (“OK, Glass. Scan and verify vehicle owner.”); doctors in the operating room (“OK, Glass. Show me the anatomy of the right chamber of the heart.”); lawyers (“OK, Glass. Google paragraph 16 of tax law.”); soccer referees (“OK, Glass. Rewind.”); and not much imagination is required to predict its application in pornography.

Brin has announced that the use of the Internet should become more social and masculine, again thanks to Glass. After using Glass for a while, he realized how strange and “emasculating” it is when people are glued to touch screens with both their eyes and fingers. The notion of “masculine” may be worthy of discussion, but whoever thinks this is absurd should take a look at the Tumblr blog, “We Never Look Up,” which features pictures of “digital autistics” bent over screens, oblivious to the world.

With Google Glass people will, in fact and once again, direct their gaze upon the world and their fellow human beings, but this is exactly what is causing their trepidation. Every glance of a fellow human being is potentially recordable, and there is no red light to warn if a recording is in progress with Glass. Observers warn that it is a police state come true. As Maik Söhler has already noted in the taz [Die Tageszeitung], privacy rights already ensure that not everyone can publish personal photos of just about anyone. But what about non-public photographs? Will etiquette soon demand removing the glasses before a confidential conversation?

The phenomenal series “Black Mirror” shows what could lie ahead. Like all of his friends, the main character of the third episode, the lawyer, Liam, wears an implant behind his ear with which he records everything. He mistrusts “organic memories” and searches through his picture archives until he finally finds proof of his wife’s infidelity.

Zealous Searching

As always, the truly horrific scenarios do not concern the private sphere. In the face of drones with high-resolution cameras and facial recognition software and data centers, through which all communication in the U.S. is monitored in real time, Google’s glasses are the lesser problem, writes Jon Evans on TechCrunch. At least citizens can monitor the state back through the glasses. But what law will regulate when the government is allowed access to the database of Glass users in order to secure evidence in case of a serious crime? In an episode of “Black Mirror,” travelers at the airport must play their experiences in fast forward for customs officials. “Everything in order. Have a good trip,” says a uniformed guard once convinced that the civilian has behaved impeccably. Gaps in the memory of the video recording would certainly have caught his attention.

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