Project Glass is scary enough to deserve some respect

People seem ready to hate Google Glass!

Yesterday there was the Tumblr White Men Wearing Google Glass. This is not only slightly mystifying — a Google image search for “Google Glass” returns what seems like a pretty diverse collection of testers and models — but, speaking as a white man who aspires to wearing Google Glass (at least briefly), hard not to take a little bit personally. In fairness to the Tumblr’s author, Robert Scoble is a faintly ridiculous person, and adding “screaming” and “in the shower” certainly does not yield a net improvement in gravitas. This is, arguably, another fitful effort to delineate a gendered subtext to Glass, a project started when Sergey Brin stupidly described smartphone use as “emasculating” during a TED sales pitch. (I think the most plausible reading is that he intended the word to mean “disempowering” rather than “womanly”, but the charitableness of your reading may reasonably differ.)

This isn’t the only place where people are picking sides between Team Glass and Team Glass Is Stupid And Bad. Earlier today Wired published a truly awful essay by Marcus Wohlson predicting Glass’s failure for different (though still Scoble-related!) reasons. It begins by erecting a geek/nerd continuum best left to Joss Whedon fan boards, goes on to a question-begging explanation of Segway’s lack of success, and concludes by belittling Glass’s lack of coolness — as if coolness was an objective quality rather than something constructed collectively by people like the author himself. It’s a bit mind-boggling that anyone could so thoroughly fail to see the arbitrary nature of culture. (The best reply to the Wired piece is probably this great post by Bianca Bosker discussing the history of eyeglass adoption. But for a shortcut, the next time you see a world leader wearing a business suit, reflect on whether Europeans just happened to come up with the objectively awesomest formal attire.)

Watching people declare their tribal loyalties is fascinating and wearying. It’s not surprising behavior, exactly: this product launch is a big, SEO-worthy cultural event, and one wouldn’t want to be caught un-jaded. Certainly I don’t: I’ve cheerfully presented from a slide deck making dumb Dragonball Z jokes at Glass’s expense.

Nor should consumer tribalism be surprising to anyone who’s read John Gruber’s ongoing project to construct a theodicy of Apple, or anyone who has spoken to a teenager for thirty seconds. For people who don’t enjoy getting angry about sports or religion or nationalism or politics, consumer gadgets seem to fill the void.

Still, in this case I can’t help being irked by these reactions. I tend to emotionally align against new tech products (“that’s dumb/it’s been done”), so this might seem hypocritical.

But don’t you have to respect the ambition of Glass? This is the most daring project I’ve seen in ages. Not just automation of an existing system of transport/food delivery/coupons. Not a privatized homage to NASA triumphs of decades past.

Consider what a persistent connection to the network means. Already I find myself giving up on learning certain classes of information — why would I need to remember a friend’s address or a bus schedule or a business’s hours? Those parts of my mind now exist in my phone, and sure, the retrieval times are poor, but the integrity and capacity are excellent. Narrowing the latency of that interface further would be a profound change.

And that’s to say nothing of the implications of persistent enmeshment in the conversations and status competitions of social media. You can take your strange, geographyless social universe with you on the go! On your head (if not yet in it)! You will be fully in one place even less often than you are now. If Twitter is like telepathy, Google Glass strives to be like astral projection*.

I suspect that humans’ individual nervous and collective social systems aren’t currently capable of dealing with this. Either Glass will flop or we will. For what it’s worth, I think the former is pretty likely (battery or input bandwidth are where I’d place my bets) and, failing that, the latter is all but certain. But I don’t really know. I am certain, though, that Glass is a wildly ambitious transhumanist project, a crazed conceptual art piece being executed on a massive scale with, mystifyingly, real engineering and industrial muscle behind it.

I have no idea if it’ll succeed; I have no idea if I want it to succeed. But carping about its coolness is like complaining about the case color of the first A-bomb. To hell with that. Even the privacy argument about Glass strikes me as shallow.

The question is: what does Glass and its successors aim to turn us into? Is it something we want to become, or can become? And if it’s to fail, can it please, please be for reasons more profound than fashion or lack of 4G?

* ask me about my Doctor Strange-themed trend piece pitch!

UPDATE: This is also dumb!

16 Responses to “Project Glass is scary enough to deserve some respect”

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    If Google Glass is the Newton, what does the iPhone of this technology do to us?

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