Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
It is premature to compose an obituary for Google Glass.
While there are many who would be eager to hear Google announce that the eyewear’s full launch is being indefinitely postponed, that declaration is yet to come (and may not come at all). Granted, as it stands now, it is quite probable that Google is rather frustrated by the less than crystalline reception Glass has been receiving. Glass is not dead (not yet) but the current status of Glass should act as a warning to Google (and other tech firms) as well as an educational moment to those interested in challenging “the goods” of technological society.
At the outset it should be acknowledged that Glass was always intended to be a “bold new development” in consumer technology, and thus some “push back” was inevitable. Glass seemed as though it was Google’s way of establishing an early commanding position in the realm of wearable technology (in much the same way that the iPhone determined the battlefield for smartphones). Yet, the issues that Google has encountered with Glass are not a result of people being unwilling to put Glass on, as much as they are a result of people finding Glass quite off putting. Since the unveiling of Glass, it has seemed clear that the potentially fatal flaw is one that can be seen in the device’s “frame.” Not in the sense of some technical design flaw but in the way that the device has been “framed.” It is not that Glass doesn’t work (it works), it is that people are rejecting the way Glass works over society.
The concept of “frames,” as it is being deployed here, is based upon the work of the linguist George Lakoff. In Lakoff’s parlance “frames” and “framing” represent complex systems of meaning that are built up and reinforced over time. Though largely unconscious our “frames” determine the way we see the world, they are somewhat like spectacles through which we gaze outward and the lenses warp, shade, or clarify the things we look upon. As Lakoff put it:
“a person must have a system of frames in place that can make sense of the facts” (73)
What is of further importance is that “frames” exist in a state of flux – they are constantly being built up, torn down, redefined and reified. This work of creating and enhancing “frames” is what advocates, activists, and advertisers all work towards – for, as Lakoff notes, “frames” are:
“made real—in institutions, industries, and cultural practices. Once reified, they don’t disappear until the institutions, industries, and cultural practices disappear” (77)
According to Lakoff it is by recognizing the ways in which things are “framed” that we are able to fully understand people’s reactions.
Google has been quite good at “framing” many aspects of their enterprise. The numerous “free” products that Google makes available and their ever-repeated motto of “don’t be evil” have served to construct a “positive frame” around the company in many people’s minds. Yet, when it comes to Google Glass the “frame” was weak from the outset, and as time has gone by it has only cracked further. It is quite possible that the people at Google thought their company’s “positive frame” would automatically carry over to a product stamped with the company’s appellation, but when encountering something as new as Glass the “frame” people had in place from Google was not sufficient. Thus, they were primed for a new “frame” – but the one Google supplied was not strong enough.
Initial reactions to Glass were often couched behind a curious, if derisive, smirk (“it looks funny”), but as people began to learn more about Glass this humorous distance increasingly turned into outright wariness and concern (a bi-partisan group from Congress even found time to stop arguing in order to express their mounting concerns to Google executives). While concerns about privacy as related to Glass were always premised upon some confusion about the way that Glass works – Google was not particularly good at alleviating such worries – and the company was certainly not aided by the NSA revelations ratcheting up worries about privacy at the same time as Glass was getting closer to launch.
It should have been obvious that Glass could not be filming constantly, yet this was never really the concern. Instead the worry was that it could be filming at any time, and though a light comes on when the device is filming, recognizing this puts the onus on the one being filmed instead of on the one doing the filming. It is true that the age of smartphones is one wherein people are often taking pictures, but Glass raised the possibility that anybody wearing it could snap a picture or be filming at any moment. While such concerns – to restate – may have been rooted in paranoia, the core concern remained valid: somebody looking at you wearing Glass could be taking your picture and you might not even know (somebody pointing a smartphone at you is a clearer signal). At a moment when people’s “frame” around privacy was being dramatically reconstructed, Glass served to trigger the “privacy” frame instead of the “Google frame.” And in this context, Glass did not fare well.
To make matters worse the drawn out launch of Glass (through the “explorer” program), and the subsequent (“one day only!”) sale served to add another negative “frame” atop a base that was already weakened by surveillance concerns. The 1500-dollar price tag on Glass and the perception that it was another toy for technophiles, added a class aspect to Glass which made Glass look like a way for people to flaunt their conspicuous tech consumption. Even as Google’s propaganda proclaimed that Glass would be a tool for everybody (or that it could be a tool for everybody) the device’s price tag and roll out ensured that the device would be “framed” as a plaything for wealthy tech workers in major metropolitan areas. Which is not a good “frame” for a major product.
What is one way to know that a company is growing worried that their “frame” is failing? When they compose a snarky list that tries to shrug-off real concerns as “myths” instead of trying to really address those concerns (and such a move further reinforces the “negative frame”).
What’s another way to know that a “frame” is publicly failing? When one of the products most vocal celebrants acknowledges that he’s lost some of his ardor.
Yet it is not merely that Google has done a bad job “framing” Glass, it is that the company was outmaneuvered by another “frame” far more successful than any of the company’s PR. That “frame?” The simple term “glasshole” (or “glassholes”).
Even as Google worked to build up Glass’s “cool” credibility (they wore it at fashion week! they signed a deal with Ray-Ban!) in trying to make the frames seem “cool” they ran into a “frame” that managed to perfectly capture in one neat neologism all of the negative feelings people had towards Glass. The viral success of “glasshole” was what Google had desperately needed for Glass to succeed…but they had needed a positive “frame” not a negative (and amusingly persnickety) one. Before Glass had the chance to make its mark on “institutions, industries, and cultural practices” – the term “glassholes” put in place a “frame” introduced a set of “cultural practices” (mocking Glass) that altered the way “institutions [and] industries” would react to the device.
As Google flailed about in a flummoxed frenzy in which the best they could offer was “it’s a work in progress” the term “glasshole” came to encapsulate the out of touch and techno-elitist aura around Glass and its celebrants. For Google Glass to be successful, really successful, it needed to be “cool” – and being a “glasshole” did not seem “cool.” Furthermore “glasshole” functioned wonderfully as a “frame” insofar as it supplies those who are wary of Glass (for whatever reason) with a simple vocabulary with which to voice their disapproval. People may not know what Google Glass really does, but they know that it turns the wearer into a “glasshole” – and the only “app” to fix that is to take off the Glass.
In addition, the efforts to ban Google Glass in certain locations (you can get a nifty sign from Stop The Cyborgs) further raised the profile of those resisting Glass, while forcing Google once more into a defensive position from which their responses (again) only served to make them seem oblivious. It may not be the case that Google Glass is actually banned in many locations – but the very fact that people are aware that Glass has been banned in some locations serves to weaken the “frame.” You clearly cannot wear Glass anywhere, and thus “institutions, industries, and cultural practices” once more acted to negatively “frame” Glass. Furthermore, the banning of Glass by some businesses opens up and expands a resistant space (similar to “glassholes”) wherein people can recognize that they are not alone in being put-off by Glass, and wherein they can recognize that “banning Glass” will not isolate them – it may actually make them seem rather heroic.
The timing surrounding Google Glass has been quite unfortunate for Google – the NSA revelations have put people on guard about technologies that vacuum up even more data, while continuing protests in San Francisco are shaking the friendly “frame” of many tech companies (including Google). Though most people have not actually tried Google Glass the creepy aura around the device winds up being quite repellent. Meanwhile, the negative associations surrounding Glass (including the current commentary on how Google screwed up) have made it so that Google has a significant hurdle to overcome before the device can achieve widespread acceptance. And as Lakoff noted once “frames” are really established it can be very difficult to undo them – and the “frames” in place for Glass are ones Google certainly wants to undo.
While it may be true that Google “screwed up the roll-out” and botched the “PR blitz” – the detail to recognize is that Google lost in the battle to “frame” Glass. And even as Google lost, a pretty serious victory was scored by a range of “frames” (Glass bans, “glassholes”) which Google will have to overcome. If Google is to make Glass viable they need a new “frame” and simply affixing Glass to a pair of Ray-Bans is not going to be sufficient.
It may be premature to compose the obituary for Google Glass, but the hole that Google keeps digging could easily accommodate Glass’s coffin.
Let’s help them dig.
Lakoff, George (2010) “Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment”, Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture, 4: 1, 70-81
[Once more – if you want a “No Glass” sign check out Stop The Cyborgs]