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If at first an ill-advised piece of consumer technology doesn’t succeed in winning over a skeptical public, you can be certain that another tech company will be willing to try again. How else to understand Snapchat Spectacles which, after a slow roll-out, are now officially available for purchase online? Wasn’t the idea of sticking an Internet-connected camera on your face a concept that was shattered with the glorious failure of Google Glass?
Alas, evidently not.
At the outset it is worth recognizing that Spectacles and Glass are not the same thing. And, frankly, Spectacles seem to be a fair bit less ambitious than Glass ever was. After all, the idea was that Glass would be a smartphone killer, for it was pretty much a smartphone you wore on your face. Spectacles, on the other hand, are basically a glorified camera – they take pictures and shoot short videos, which can then be uploaded and shared on Snapchat. There are other differences worth noting: Glass was quite expensive, Spectacles are comparatively cheap ($130); you could tell when someone was wearing Glass, but Spectacles don’t look that different from regular sunglasses; Glass was introduced as the product of the future, Spectacles are presented as pretty much being a toy; Glass (with thanks to Google’s very poor roll-out) became the perfect symbol of all things tech-bro, while Spectacles just seem kind of fun; by the time Glass was released Google was appearing as an increasingly Orwellian behemoth, while Snapchat (now Snap) appears as that sprightly little tech company that Facebook just can’t seem to kill off. Once the toxic associations began sticking to Glass the product was in deep trouble. As impressive a device as Glass ultimately was, there just came a point at which not enough people were willing to plunk down a thousand dollars to be called a Glasshole.
In fairness, there is also the all-important matter of timing: stories about Glass came out at a point where they could garner actual media attention (beyond the tech press) – while Spectacles were announced about a month and a half before a fiercely fought Presidential election and are being made widely available at a moment when the apocalyptic flavor du jour isn’t Silicon Valley.
Yet, Glass and Spectacles have something very important in common: they are both cameras that can be taking pictures of you/filming you without you knowing it. Anxiety about precisely this factor played a big role in stirring up opposition to Glass – the product was simply deemed to be creepy. And it turns out that being seen as creepy can kill off that which promises to be the next killer app. But are Spectacles really that much less creepy? Or is it just that it’s harder to find them creepy because they look like fashionable sunglasses? Sure, you might not encounter someone wearing Spectacles in a local bar (they are sunglasses after all), but you may well see someone in Spectacles at the beach this summer – will you be able to tell if they’re just fixing their hair or if they just took a picture of you? The intention here is not to howl about privacy (your picture is already being taken hundreds of times a day without your knowledge or explicit consent) – but simply to ask: why is it that Glass was unacceptable and Spectacles are fine?
It is impossible to know the exact reason. But, to venture a guess, it seems that it may have quite a bit to do with a strange and mercurial quality that is both loudly and quietly at work. So what is this elusive and mysterious element?
Snapchat has always done well capitalizing on fun. The app, with its disappearing images, is about reveling in the ephemerality of the moment. And while other platforms are about turning photos into sepia-tinted icons of hip social status, Snapchat is about giving someone dog ears, drawing colorful cartoonish elements on a picture, or making someone puke rainbows. Indeed, the ghost in the company’s logo is even sticking its tongue out as if in open defiance of the sleek and serious logos of its competitors. At a moment when Facebook’s CEO is giving full expression to his savior complex, Snapchat is staying silly and irreverent. Spectacles are in keeping with this sentiment. It’s a convenient camera mounted on your face that will allow you to take pictures of your (fun, of course) life without forcing you to fish out your smartphone (which was probably in your hand anyway). And the video recorded by Spectacles is output as round, how delightfully wacky! Why, just take a look at them:
Spectacles come in a bright yellow box! They are available in two garish colors, and the black variety feature sunny yellow circles around the camera components! And instead of looking like something out of a low-budget sci-fi movie the frames look quite fashionable! These are fun and cool glasses for fun and cool people who do fun and cool things and want to share them with their fun and cool friends. And obviously, you aren’t going to keep your Spectacles on all the time – it’s not like they’re a replacement for your smartphone – you don’t want to keep them glued to your face! After all, you’re a fun and cool person wearing Snapchat Spectacles, you aren’t some tech-bro Glasshole. Fun!
Sometimes it is easier to advance troublesome and problematic things if it can be done under the grinning aegis of enjoyment and entertainment. It’s a clever move insofar as it paints any opposition as being little more than the grouchy grumblings of curmudgeonly fuddy-duddies who just don’t get it. When a tech company paints its critics as being too concerned about privacy, or just being paranoid, it performs a delicate maneuver in which it has to reassure people that there’s nothing to worry about without accidentally tipping their hand and showing that there is in fact quite a bit to worry about. The failure to execute that move properly was part of what killed Google Glass – the company kept reassuring everyone that Glass wasn’t a device straight out of 1984, but such claims were continually bungled by Google’s tone deaf pronouncements and by the fact that many of Glass’s users seemed eager to live up to the name Glasshole. The more desperately Google tried to argue that there was nothing to worry about, the more they revealed just how much there was to worry about. And yet, somehow, in a moment when 1984 is being widely read again Spectacles have managed to distance themselves from all of those anxieties. Which is somewhat understandable: the secret police wear black jackboots and creepy sci-fi visors, not teal sunglasses, right?
Spectacles are the perfect type of device to crack open the door through which something like Glass can later charge. If Glass was too much, too soon, Spectacles can function as a sort of stepping stone. Devices like Spectacles help facilitate the slow normalization of technological control creeping into ever more spheres of daily life. People might confront the weirdo wearing Glass at the beach, but the cute person wearing Spectacles probably won’t have any trouble (and many will think that this person is just wearing regular sunglasses). And in a year or two when version 3 of Spectacles come out and somebody notes “hey, seriously, these are basically Google Glass” people will have already become accustomed to seeing fun and cool people wearing Spectacles. What Snapchat seems to realize, and which Google did not, is that if you want to get into people’s homes it isn’t wise to barge through the door shouting “I live here now!” Instead, dance merrily through the front door with party music playing and a six-pack of beer in hand – and eventually people will come to think you’ve always been there.
Of course, it remains too soon to know with any degree of certainty what will happen to Spectacles. There’s still a chance that a cutting nickname (Spectacultist? Spectasshole? Spectatentacles?) will undermine the device. Similarly, Spectacles may fall victim to the very fickleness of fashion off of which the company is seeking to profit – Spectacles may be cool today but bogus by this time next year. It may well be that people decide that Spectacles aren’t actually that much fun.
Yet, regardless of what ultimately happens with Spectacles they remain indicative of a technological trend that should not be ignored. Namely: companies can get away with putting some really problematic products out into the world if those devices seem fun. Or, to put it another way, authoritarianism need not look like a jackboot stomping on a human face – it can also look like millions of brightly colored glasses perched on every human face making sure that every moment is captured and fed into the databanks of a large corporation.
Snapchat Spectacles are fun.
Beware of fun.
Related Content (some past content on Google Glass)