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On Broken Glass

Depending on one’s personal stance, the news that Google is halting production of its polarizing product Glass is either cause for celebration, disappointment, or – for most people – simply shrug worthy. After all, by the time that Google’s decision was announced the wearable device had gone from being the next – inevitable! – big thing to being a sort of creepy joke. Indeed, it seems that one fair response to Google halting production of Glass is to raise an eyebrow and say: wait, I thought they had stopped months ago?

Of course, Google’s official announcement is a somewhat opaque explanation of what has really happened. Those who have looked askance at Glass would be well advised to pause before declaring victory. While it’s true that Google’s announcement is peppered with the type of public relations rubbish that is standard for press releases – “we’re graduating,” “we’re ready to…learn how to run,” “it’s going to be an exciting ride” – this does not mean that the device has truly been tossed into the trash bin. While Google’s statement thanks and praises the “pioneers” who participated in the Explorer program, the company’s acknowledgement “we still have some work to do” is not so much an admission of defeat as a vow to return.

It is hard to know exactly when this will occur, but a safe bet would be that it will come about when the term “glassholes” has faded from use. That Glass is “graduating” from Google[x] labs only to be immediately enrolled within the framework of Nest Labs provides the real core of the story: the problem with Glass is not the hardware per se, it is the image problem.

Glass is the type of device that perfectly encapsulates the perils of the consumerist-technological ideology memorably espoused by Steve Jobs thus: “a lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” While there is certainly ample reason to quibble with this comment – foregrounding the way in which it distracts people from the satisfaction of needs by the creation of consumer oriented wants – what Glass helps demonstrate is the obvious hubris of this comment. Who is the “you” that gets to show people “what they want?” What makes this “you” think they have a particular insight into what people want? Glass revealed the manner in which this comment is essentially Janus faced, for what Glass showed was that: when “you show it to them” many people also realize what they do not want. Google assumed that when it showed people Glass, that those people would recognize in the device something they had not realized they wanted. Instead, Google showed people something they did not want – and then frantically insisted that despite the evidence to the contrary people did really want it. This “we know what people want” viewpoint is the opposite pole to Neil Postman’s “6 questions to ask of new technology” – instead of trying to demonstrate the problems that this new device might solve, Glass responded by simply saying “shut up and buy this – you want it.”

Google Glass has been a lesson in framing the debate around technology. And the halt in Glass’s production is as much a result of Google’s poor framing as it is of those resistant to Glass framing the discussion well. Critics of Glass seized upon the privacy concerns around the device, the creeping distrust surrounding huge companies like Google (in the wake of the NSA revelations), pointed to the high price of the product as evidence that the device clearly was not for everyone, and most of all capitalized on Google’s many missteps. While reports that “Glass is banned everywhere” were always hyperbolic, the fact that some locations were preemptively banning Glass put Google on the defensive. And Google responded defensively.

Instead of acknowledging and engaging with the worries around Glass, Google continued to take up the position that it was the “you” entitled to show people what they wanted. Google’s attempt to counter “the myths about Glass” only made the device seem less appealing and provided further evidence for the opinion that Glass was not the next “it” device. Though Glass, in bidding a temporary sign off, thanked its “pioneer” users – the use of this term being an accidental nod to the neo-colonial mindset of “knowing what people want” – the behavior of some of these same users (not all) contributed to the mystique of the “glasshole.” It may well be that Glass’s downward spiral began when “glasshole” became commonly used. Indeed, Google may have supplied (well, sold) its “pioneers” Glass – but in teaching them how to use the device the company seems to have forgotten to speak to these “pioneers” about basic etiquette. And for a product that depended upon being considered “cool” it was nearly impossible to scramble back from the mockery with which The Daily Show skewered the device (and some of its users). One of the great challenges that Google will encounter if they want to resuscitate the project is the risk that “glasshole” has stopped simply referring to those wearing Glass but has come to act as a term for the most fanatically devoted evangels worshiping at the altar of technology. The question with which Google has to contend is if they can break Glass from the term “glasshole” – the halt in production reflects a fear that this may be tough to accomplish.

Ultimately, Glass provides an interesting commentary on the role of new technologies in an ever more technological society. At present, technology (as such) and technological innovation are portrayed as not simply being routes to “the good” but as representing “the good” in and of themselves, while in truth they tend to only represent a way of selling people more “goods.” While those who, even gently, question this are derided as “fuddy-duddies” or “anti-progress” or, of course, “Luddites,” such epithets are simply a way of ignoring real concerns while basking in the high-tech glow of the newest device. Yet one of the things that Glass demonstrated was the crass stupidity of arguments that try to paint any criticism as evidence of “being a secret Luddite.” After all, the Luddites were neither anti-progress nor anti-technology – rather they opposed particular machines in particular contexts when they saw that “progress” involved their lives being crushed. Glass showed people that they could still enjoy their smart phone, still read on their e-reader, continue to wile away hours online – and still oppose a piece of technology that struck them as creepy, invasive, and – frankly – “uncool.” Glass was a powerful reminder that one can still say “I do not approve of this technology” without this meaning “I do not approve of any technology.” This is not the lesson that Google was seeking to impart.

Thus, Glass has been returned to the propaganda factory (or “lab”) where the kinks that will be fixed are related to image. Google has learned an embarrassing lesson and before they “show people what they want” again, they must first figure out how to convince people that Glass is something that they really do want.

So, even as you take down your “No Google Glass” sign, make sure you put it somewhere you’ll be able to find it. You are going to need it again.

Related Content

The Flawed “Frames” of Google Glass

Trading One Myth for Another – Seeing Through Google Glass

Riddled With Questions – Interrogating Technology

Google Glass as Technological Bribery

Through the Google Glass


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

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