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Google Glass, Witch! Witch! Fear of the Gargoyle!

27 March, 2013 - Source: Else

A look at Google Glass. By Warren Hutchinson

  •  Excitement in the air for Google Glass
    Excitement in the air for Google Glass

People see Google Glass and shout 'Witch! Witch!' but this response is a total waste of time and misses the real point and impact of this product. As this exciting and challenging device emerges from Mountain View we should be having a balanced debate about privacy concerns, benefits and progression rather than simply decree it as the Devil's work.

While at SXSW the week before last, I was one of the privileged one thousand or so who got to see Timothy Jordan from GoogleX demonstrate Google Glass and explain the design principles for it. 

I think it's fair to say that there was excitement in the air – we'd all seen the videos and read the blogs, but at SXSW we were going to see it for real and hopefully find out a lot more about designing services for it.

Google Glass Product

Usual misgivings

One of the common misgivings I hear about Google Glass is to do with privacy.

It is a natural reaction to a product such as this and I think the ensuing debate will be one of the most significant impacts of the Glass project. I don't personally think that the product itself is the real story here, wonderful though it is, I think that the presence of the product in the mainstream is going to force the debate on some very important issues regarding the wearable tech / internet of things / web3.0 agenda.

Let's not underestimate the significance of Glass as a product though, since computers moved from mainframes into homes and subsequently to our hand, the next logical step is to be wearable and if Google get this out by the end of 2013, this will be a landmark moment, albeit a geeky bespectacled one.

That said, the only real difference between Glass and a mobile phone is that you don't have to get it out of your pocket to use it – okay, this is a tad disingenuous because with a phone at least you know that someone is filming because due to the fact that they are holding it up in front of you, but still, it is the same tech, reconfigured.

In fact, it is this new and emerged behaviour of holding a phone up at 'life events' that was the catalyst for Glass in the first place and it's all part of the GoogleX initiative to develop 'Moonshots'.

Google say "Moonshots are seemingly impossible and yet impossibly-important ideas that through science and technology can be brought to reality. Google[x] is a moonshot factory full of optimists who are focused on changing the world by seeking out massive unsolved problems that — when solved — will profoundly and positively alter the way we live"

So the motivation seems entirely un-evil.

Driverless cars, talking shoes, – here come the Gargoyles


If you've ever read Neil Stephenson's sci-fi thriller, Snow Crash (1991) the implications of constant data capture and subsequent privacy impacts are neatly played out. 

The central character is Hiro and he is a high-speed Pizza Delivery guy, the world as we know it has dissolved from nation states into franchises and everything carries targeted advertising. However, in this world people live two lives, one real and one online (remember this was written in 1989-91). In his (second) life, Hiro is a powerful hacker and one of the founders of the online virtual environment.  

However, explaining the plot of Snow Crash is a digression, find our about the book here, what is interesting about Snow Crash and relevant to Google Glass are the characters called Gargoyles.

Gargoyles are people who walk the real world laden with cameras, recorders and other sensory equipment. They constantly record what is going on and upload to the central database. Then, if at any time the data they uploaded is used for something, say as evidence in a crime etc then they get paid.

If you want to make yourself paranoid about the existence of Gargoyle's today have a read of 10 signs that Snow Crash's Gargoyles Already Exists

These fears, founded or unfounded, are the basis for how people react to Google Glass. You'll hear comments such as "I don't want to be recorded" or "You won't know who is recording what and when" or "Who owns and accesses that data?".

All valid concerns, sure, but they need framing correctly.

The wearable tech agenda is significantly important and along with the 'Internet of Things' form the basis of web3.0. Glass is a mainstream playground item, an artifact that contextualises the fast approaching boils that we need to lance, and it is mainstream enough that these boils will be lanced publicly. Glass will be very easy to develop services for and as such we'll quickly see services being launched that push the envelope of our social norms and possibly our laws.

Is the privacy angle an overreaction? No, but quite possibly.

Stop The Cyborgs is a UK based group set-up in direct response to Google Glass they state "The aim of the movement is to stop a future in which privacy is impossible and central control total." 

They have even produced a couple of signs that can be used to prevent the use of 'surveillance devices' on company premises or even ban Glass specifically.

It suggests that they misunderstand what Glass is for to call it a 'surveillance' device, it's no more a surveillance device than my smartphone.

But with respect to this privacy outcry the arrival of Glass doesn't change the current law, it's still 'not okay' to record conversations and film without someone's permission and besides, everything that Glass does can already be achieved with other devices at a fraction of the cost. For years you have been able to buy tiny buttonhole cameras or concealed microphones. 

So is the issue that Google has the data?

More than likely.

A Seattle coffee shop called 5 Point Café has already banned people from wearing Google Glass in it's stores, it probably has the dubious honour of being the first in the world to do so.

Josh Topolsky (The Verge) experienced a similar response in Starbucks (full demo video) he recorded on Glass, but this actual film crew were asked to cease. In your face Starbucks.

The privacy impacts aren't new

Glass is challenging, I get that, but there are a swathe of challenging products and services in our midst that should be debated alongside Glass. It's this challenging stuff that's interesting – because of what it is and what it challenges us to think about.

The conspiracy theorists would be quick to point out 1.8 Gigapixel drones that fly over the US recognising people by their gait from 15,000 ft…(found on this TechCrunch article) There is supposedly one CCTV camera for every 30 people in the UK. Our smartphones alone already contain a HUGE amount of data about our whereabouts, so much so that it's possible to determine the location of the owner with over 80% accuracy based on previous usage..!

Some other freaky scary for you

23andMe.com is a different but equally interesting proposition that Esther Dyson is behind as VC. For a fee you can obtain yourself a home genome kit in order to discover, not only you ancestry but also your propensity for different illnesses. The aim is to help people better manage their life and their health through an understanding of what they may face and subsequently what medicines are likely to suit them better. 23andMe could help people live longer through corrections to lifestyle and better targeted medicine choices. Imagine the disruption the Health and Insurance industries, but what about the privacy concerns?

Getting slightly more 'Inner Spacethere is also a pill that message your phone when you take it. When you swallow it, the coating reacts with your stomach acid and it turns into a transmitter and sends your smartphone a message that can be relayed to your doctor.

Or how the service that will send an SMS to a farmer when his cows are perfectly in season for the Bull. WHAT ABOUT THEIR RIGHTS!?! 

What now?

So, has the horse bolted? Should we give-up? Should we wear tin foil hats and move to deepest Montana and hoard baked beans and bear traps?

Of course not, but let's not get trussed up in Daily Mail headlines such as "Google's sinister glasses will turn the whole world into search giant spies", let's have a balanced discussion about privacy impacts, benefits and progression. Let's use the innovation to have the debate, not try and kick it all into touch and ban it outright.

Pointing at Google Glass and screaming 'Witch!' is a waste of time.

Anyhow, as soon as we can get our hands on Google Glass and start playing with it, we will.

And we'll film you. While you sleep.

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