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This is Not what Resistance looks like – Google Glass as Technological Bribery

Is pre-emptive resistance to Google Glass going to prevent the device’s launch? Nope. Especially not if what passes for resistance are instances of a single bar banning the devices, legislators suggesting the device cannot be worn while driving, or even casinos banning the device.

Articles like David Streitfeld’s recent (May 6,2013) New York Times article “Google Glass Picks Up Early Signal: Keep Out” may present titles that suggest that some type of opposition is building, but as is clear in the article proper, Google is not being told “Keep Out” they are being told that they must, at least pretend, to address certain concerns before Glass enjoys a full public launch. The line:

“But the resistance is already under way.”

may be comforting to those with concerns about Glass, but as was noted in the first paragraph, what is passing for resistance is rather paltry (and meaning no offence, but the state discussing banning Glass while driving is West Virginia, which is not a tech hotbed on the same scale as California). The easy “resistance” quip at the outset of the article is almost there to act as a reassurance to people not intent on reading the article in whole, as if to tell those who will only read up to that line that they can conclude “well, good.” In such cases, what is being missed is the much more important element towards the end of the article where Streitfeld notes:

“Piper Jaffray, an analyst firm, estimates that wearable technology and another major initiative, self-driving cars, could ultimately be a $500 billion opportunity for the company [Google]. In the shorter term, IHS, a forecasting firm, estimates that shipments of smart glasses, led by Google Glass, could be as high as 6.6 million in three years.”

Despite Google rising to power on the back of many seemingly “free” services (Search, Gmail, Youtube [which Google bought]) Google is a company (like most companies) that is quite interested in making money (feign surprise if you like). It takes no logical leap to assume that Google is familiar with the financial projections for Glass. There is a great deal of money to be made, and by being the first serious entrant to the next technological wave (wearable technology) Google stands to define the field before other competitors have a chance. It is laughably unlikely that Google is going to be overly worried if the type of resistance it encounters is the occasional bar banning the device. And as Google’s “streetview” lawsuits demonstrate, the occasional fine is just part of the cost of doing business for a company like Google (and none of these fines have been too large).

It could be of much greater significance if a larger international company were to ban Glass from their establishments and Starbucks might be a prime example of a company that could ban the device. After all, Starbucks employees (in at least one location) already got an introduction to being surreptitiously recorded by Glass (as I describe in another piece on Glass). Yet Starbucks has not announced a ban on the device.

Streitfeld writes that:

“As personal technology becomes increasingly nimble and invisible, Glass is prompting questions of whether it will distract drivers, upend relationships and strip people of what little privacy they still have in public. “

It is a fair thing to note. Yet it should be remembered that you can fairly easily replace “Glass” in the above sentence with just about any other piece of “personal technology” and still have the sentences remain basically true. The arrival of smart-phones led to many of those same questions, and even if an argument could be advanced that such devices do “distract drivers, upend relationships and strip people of what little privacy they still have in public” the truth remains that such concerns did not prevent those devices from becoming nearly ubiquitous today. People just got used to them; deciding that trading privacy for Angry Birds was worth it.

Indeed it can be fun to pick on Google Glass (which is easy as its newness makes it look a bit silly [as this blog demonstrates {not this blog, the one linked to}]) but it is important to recognize that many of the concerns that are being voiced about Google Glass are in no way specific just to Glass. They are concerns about technology in general, and it does a disservice to the cause of seriously questioning and challenging disruptive technologies to portray Glass as the lone bogeyman.

Consider the tale with which Streitfeld ends his article. A recounting of an incident where a woman used Glass to take a picture of two rude men, and uploaded the picture to Twitter, with the result that one of the men was fired and then in the ensuing angry environ the woman was also fired. Glass is not the culprit in this story, despite it being made to seem that way, the real problem is Twitter. Had the woman in the story not had Glass she could have relatively easily snapped a picture with a smart-phone and uploaded that image instead of the one from Glass, and the end results of the story would probably be much the same. [Update: a reader has brought it to our attention that the incident described does not actually involve Google Glass. Nevertheless, the way that the incident was recounted at the end of the article does lead one to believe that Glass was involved. We recognize the error and apologize for it, the person in question did not use “Glass to take a picture of two rude men” she used another device. It is worth noting that some other sites have questioned the inclusion of this story at the end of the times piece as it is misleading.]

Discussing the invasion of privacy that Glass may represent, Streitfeld, make use of one of Google Executive Eric Schmidt’s best known statements:

“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,”

A worrisome quote indeed, but lines that were spoken by Schmidt in 2009 (before Glass was seriously hitting the street) and every bit as indicative of larger issues surrounding Google as they are of issues just about Glass. Schmidt’s lines are concerning for what they suggest about the Internet and digital technologies on a broad scale, and it is far too narrow a reading of those lines to view them as pertaining just to Glass. Instead they should be viewed in line with Schmidt (and Jared Cohen’s) recent Wall Street Journal piece “The Dark Side of the Digital Revolution” (about which I previously wrote at length) in which they note the many ways that digital technologies can be used by authoritarian regimes to repress their citizenry. The infamous Schmidt line quoted above tells us little new about Glass, but it does reveal the lie in what Schmidt and Cohen wrote in the Journal:

“Dictators and autocrats in the years to come will attempt to build all-encompassing surveillance states, and they will have unprecedented technologies with which to do so. But they can never succeed completely. Dissidents will build tunnels out and bridges across. Citizens will have more ways to fight back than ever before—some of them anonymous, some courageously public.”

Alas it is easy to lump Glass in with the “unprecedented technologies” and it is hard to put too much faith in “dissidents” building “tunnels out and bridges across” when such actions would certainly be considered “something that” such dissidents “don’t want” the repressive regimes in which they live to know.

This is all a rather long and circuitous way of arriving at the following point: Glass is just an easy to attack scapegoat for what are actually problems with Google. After all, the worries about Glass are less about the ability to easily take pictures than they are about concerns of all of the new information that Google will be able to get from Glass. Information which many people may feel quite uncomfortable with Google harnessing even if few dare direct their rage against Google proper.

Glass is less of a massive shift than it is simply a device that better enables Google to exploit a shift that has already taken place: and that is the shift in which Google (and other companies) have ever more information about you. Writing in 1970 (in his book The Pentagon of Power (which is the second volume of the series The Myth of the Machine) the historian Lewis Mumford named devices like Glass for what they truly are: a bribe. Mumford describes such bribery by writing:

“Provided the consumer agrees to accept what megatechnics offers, in quantities favorable to the continued expansion of the whole power system, he will be granted all the perquisites, privileges, seductions and pleasures of the affluent society. If only he demands no goods or services except those that can be organized or manufactured by megatechnics, he will without doubt enjoy a higher standard of material culture—at least of a certain specialized kind—than any other society has ever achieved…Given the proper reward a population sufficiently coddeled by the Welfare State asks for nothing better than what the market offers” (330-331)

Glass is jus the latest in a long line of fancy and “cool” bribes that are being offered to the public in exchange for our not challenging the privacy nightmare that is Google (and similar companies). And as long as we don’t try to truly challenge Google we will periodically be bought off with new toys that seek to provide us with the “privileges, seductions and pleasures of the affluent society.” Trying to discuss resistance to Glass without indicating that the real problem is not Glass but Google is like attacking a hydra’s tail with a toothpick. If you want to fight a dangerous monster you should at least go for the head. Mumford, in continuing to discuss technological bribery, writes:

“if people are willing to surrender their life completely at source, this authoritarian system promises generously to give back as much of it as can be mechanically graded, quantitatively multiplied, scientifically sorted, technically conditioned, manipulated, directed, and socially distributed under supervision of a centralized bureaucracy…the willing member of megatechnic society can have everything the system produces—provided he and his group have no private wishes of their own, and will make no attempt personally to alter its quality or reduce its quantity or question the competence of its ‘decision-makers.’” (332)

The term “google” becoming a verb is easy evidence of just one of the ways that we have already surrendered a great deal to this system, and Glass is our “reward” our bribe; albeit one that we have paid for with our privacy, personal information, and which we will also be expected to pay for with our money. Resistance against Glass is a good idea, and it is important to build the type of consensus that can see the device banned in more places than random bars.

Yet trying to build resistance to Glass without recognizing that the problem is really Google is to fight the diversion while ignoring the main assault. It might set Glass back, but it will just ensure that the next bribe is all the more alluring.

[Update – some more thoughts on Google Glass and privacy]

This post quotes from the following book:

Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine: II. The Pentagon of Power. Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers (1970)


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

24 comments on “This is Not what Resistance looks like – Google Glass as Technological Bribery

  1. stopthecyborgs
    May 8, 2013

    Reblogged this on Stop The Cyborgs.

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  4. SusiesPurl
    May 11, 2013

    The NYT article doesn’t say Adria Richards used Glass to snap the photo she tweeted. She used her cell phone to snap and tweet the photo; that fact was widely mentioned at the time. The incident occurred on 17 March 2013, before she was even selected as a Glass Explorer.

    • TheLuddbrarian
      May 11, 2013

      Thank you for your comment. We have included an “update” near that section in the article to recognize your point. We have not erased the error as we do not want to claim that “we had it right the whole time” when we did not. While we can note that the story’s inclusion in the NYT article was misleading (it does come after a lengthy discussion of Glass) it does not make our error not an error. Thank you for your comment and for helping us to correct the record (as is noted above). And thanks for reading.
      – The Luddbrarian

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  8. jlp4dp
    May 28, 2013

    Reblogged this on jlp4dblog.

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