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Trading One Myth for Another – Seeing through Google’s Glass

A compelling argument could be made that myths have played, and continue to play, an important role in human societies. Granted, these myths appear in as many shapes and bizarre forms as those found amongst the deities of a long-forgotten pantheon. As computer technologies steadily play a larger and larger role in people’s lives it is therefore unsurprising that various myths spring up about these machines. After all, to those unfamiliar with them, these machines may truly seem strange and magical.

When technological society shifts in strange new ways it results in certain reconfigurations that often give rise to a multiplicity of new myths. These myths come from many directions: some may be simple rumors, others may be based out of skeptical mistrust or fear, whilst still other myths may be advanced by those who benefit from certain tales winning out over others. Indeed, it may well be that one of the defining myths propagated by technological society (and neo-liberal capitalism) is the twinned tropes of “there is no alternative” and “technology will save the day.” Yet, for all of the money and might behind those myths, occasionally something comes along which results in the creation and dissemination of resistant mythologies. To counter the myth of “all is well” one occasionally encounters the myth of “all is hell.”

Case in point: Google Glass, the wearable tech-glasses from Google that have been met with as much (and possibly more) derision than celebration. For a maker of consumer electronics it is generally preferable to be seen as “young, hip and cool” (see: Apple) rather than have those using your product deemed “glassholes.” Thus, it should come as no surprise that a company aware of the importance of its image and committed to its central myth (“don’t be evil”) would attempt to beat back some of the counter myths that have bubbled up around Glass. For these skeptical mythologies act as much of the subconscious grounding that results in seeing Glass wearers as “glassholes.”

Thus, Google has taken to the contemporary arena (the Internet) and hired a fine bard to sing out a list of the “Top 10 Google Glass Myths.” In the process Google provides itself with an excellent opportunity to use the appearance of “myth busting” as a platform for advancing other myths. According to Google these myths about Glass are:

Myth 1 – Glass is the ultimate distraction from the real world

Myth 2:  Glass is always on and recording everything

Myth 3 – Glass Explorers are technology-worshipping geeks

Myth 4 – Glass is ready for prime time

Myth 5: Glass does facial recognition (and other dodgy things)

Myth 6: Glass covers your eye(s)

Myth 7 – Glass is the perfect surveillance device

Myth 8 – Glass is only for those privileged enough to afford it

Myth 9 – Glass is banned… EVERYWHERE

Myth 10 – Glass marks the end of privacy

A quick scan of the above listed myths should immediately reveal a few amusing oddities – particularly Myth 6. On a list filled with questions about ethical concerns, cost and privacy of what importance is Myth 6? Especially seeing as it is the only myth that is transparently untrue (get it? transparent).

While it is ultimately up to the individual to decide what they think of Google’s responses to the Myths (the link again), it should be recognized that in most cases these Myths are so vaguely or hyperbolically formulated as to make trying to “bust” or defend them a somewhat silly exercise. Myth 9, for example, is a laughable exaggeration, which thereby reduces a legitimate concern (that many places will ban Glass) into an absurd proposal. Likewise Myth 10 pushes legitimate concerns that may arise around privacy and renders them ignorable by referring to “the end” as if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will now come riding down wearing Glass.

Most of the Myths being discussed in Google’s list clump around three main issues: privacy/surveillance (Myths 2, 5, 7 and 10), the economic privilege of Glass users (Myths 1, 3 and 8) and ideas about Glass actually being used (Myths 4, 6 and 9). In all three cases Google’s answers are witty if perturbed admonishments of those who have fallen for a tale other than the one advanced by Google. Though, by reducing the Myths (and those who apparently believe them) into straw men the result is that Google can give answers that vaguely batter the Myths as they formulate them without actually touching the seeds of truth from which this mythology has sprouted.

As already stated, Myths 6 and 9 are so broadly drawn (or so obviously incorrect) as to make them ridiculous – Glass isn’t banned everywhere and Glass doesn’t cover the user’s eyes. And done. Right? Kind of, here Google would have been better served with a quick dismissal instead of mentioning (for Myth 9) that Glass can be affixed to prescription glasses – which comes across as Google trying to warn those who would ban Glass “don’t even bother.” Granted in this case people can always insist upon a step popular amongst those concerned about webcam hacking – get black tape, rip black tape, place over Glass’s camera. Myth 4 is another odd one on the list, particularly as it is not so much a myth as Google’s way of giving itself an easy out. Myth 4 is Google’s way of acknowledging – albeit slyly – that it is actually a bit nervous about these other 9 Myths and wants a way to address the valid claims beneath the over inflated tales without having to publicly recognize any of that validity. Myth 4 is insurance, something which numerous ancient deities probably wish they could have had before their worshippers moved on to other gods.

The questions about the economic privilege and technological preferences of Glass users (3 and 8) are a bit odd, although they may be the only two myths for which the farcically broad nature is not solely the result of the list maker. “Technology-worshipping geeks” may be a more polite version for what many people say when they mention “glassholes.” It is understandable that Google would want to indicate that the “explorer” program has given Glass to people other than the standard issue “technology-worshipping geeks” and yet what Myth 3 may really reveal is that in a technological society “technology-worshipping geeks” has a broad definition. Myth 3 is the one that Google gets some credit for accurately addressing, though if you change it to “explorers are likely to be people excited about and predisposed to like a new technology” than this becomes less of a “tall-tale” while retaining its “reasons for skepticism.”

Myth 8, on the other hand, is not a myth at all, provided that one actually thinks about what is being claimed. After all, every consumer technology is “only for those privileged enough to afford it” and this could be said of tablets, smartphones, next-gen gaming consoles, cars, and so forth. Myth 8 is another example of Google’s list portraying these “myths” so broadly that it winds up having to fight against generalizations that are fairly obviously not myths at all. Myth 1 is another that should be laughed off simply for using the words “the ultimate distraction” followed by the words “from the real world” – for something can be a distraction from “the real world” without necessarily being “the ultimate distraction.” In terms of the same Myth it should be noted that Google’s invocation of how distracted people are by their smartphones (many of which are doubtlessly powered by Google’s Android OS) does not mean that Glass is not a distraction. When you set up your opponents views (and they don’t actually cite real opponents) as absolutes, it is easy to claim that they are myths – it would be easy to say such tactics are “the ultimate distraction” from the issue, but one should know better than to use such a definitive.

The myths regarding privacy and surveillance (2, 5, 7 and 10) are some of the most problematic issues that Google is attempting to fend off – and Google certainly is not helped in this regard by the ongoing NSA revelations (from which Google has hardly emerged unscathed). In breaking these 10 Myths Google repeatedly notes that the default setting is “off,” indicating that Glass does not come with a facial recognition app, while further deflecting worries about surveillance and privacy with allusions to more secretive modes of gathering information. Thus Google manages to – as it generally does when it comes to matters of privacy and surveillance – demonstrate a level of ignorance that makes some of the myths more compelling, not less so. After all, as posed in their “top 10” list, these myths are portrayed as an assumption that Glass equals the de facto end of privacy, but that is only believed by the straw men Google builds up to burn.

What is really at work with concerns about Glass and privacy is a sense that Glass further erodes privacy and disseminates a new surveillance tool. It is not that Glass is filming at all times, it is that it could be filming at any time, and when somebody sees a Glass wearer they cannot know for certain whether or not they’ve been filmed (that “filming light” is not always visible, noticeable, or understood). Similarly, it is good to know that Glass does not currently support “facial recognition” but that does not mean that this will never change – furthermore when Glass takes a picture of somebody that picture can still wind up somewhere with facial recognition programs running. All of which is simply to claim that there are legitimate concerns about privacy and surveillance when it comes to Glass. This is not to say that Myths 2, 5, 7 and 10 are true, for they are broadly drawn caricatures spun out for PR purposes, but Google’s response to these concerns shows a galling refusal to acknowledge real issues.  And if Google does not want people to be concerned about their privacy when it comes to Google, the company should probably tell its executives, like Eric Schmidt, to stop saying stuff that makes them sound like “glassholes” without the “gl,” you know, stuff like this:

“We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

It is inevitable that in a society constantly undergoing technologically wrought “disruption” that myths will pop up from time to time. In response to the spread of such myths it is understandable that tech firms will try to provide a bit of clarity. Yet when the response to legitimate concerns is to blow them up into broadly drawn “myths,” what is taking place is not a logical argument, but the logical fallacy of reductio ad absurdum. Treating distinctly non-mythical issues like concerns about privacy and questions about economics into hyperbolic “myths” does far more harm to Google than to the hypothetical believers of these tales. For it demonstrates that those at Google (and the same could be said of much of the tech industry) may have resigned from reality to live in a mythical realm in which they can play amongst the clouds, disrupting those below, without ever having to consider the consequences of their actions. The “10 Myths” described by Google are abstractions with only a loose base in reality, but the same could be said of Google’s tone-deaf responses to those “10 Myths.”

In the name of countering myths about Glass, Google carefully advances the myth upon which it is most reliant, a myth which is steadily being shaken.

That myth?

That Google actually cares about people’s concerns.

[Note – if you want to get a “No Glass” sign Stop the Cyborgs has some great ones]

More on Glass/Google

Through the Google Glass

Google Glass as Technological Bribery

Who Watches the Watch Wearers

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

11 comments on “Trading One Myth for Another – Seeing through Google’s Glass

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