Google Glass and the “#Glassholes” Phenomenon

When browsing through my RSS feeds during a regular April workday (and prior to Google killing off its most beloved RSS tool), I came across an image that made me quadruple-blink. My rapidly blinking eyes were, in fact, trying to process the fact that Robert Scoble — the renowned tech evangelist and Rackspace spruiker — had just posted online a naked photo of himself wearing Google Glass in the shower.  Now don’t get me wrong: I’m neither a Luddite nor a prude, but there was something heavily cringe-worthy about seeing a guy like Scoble nude-it-up for the sake of rampant page views…


Image Credit: Maryam Scoble

…or so I thought, until I read more about Scoble’s nuanced — and less novelty weighted — reaction to Google Glass. Scoble definitively believes that Google Glass has the potential to be thoroughly revolutionary, and not in a blind premature adopter way. Scoble’s view of Google Glass was (and still is) that of a fanatically passionate enthusiast. After two weeks of using the wearable tech, he was famously quoted as stating:

I will never live a day of my life from now on without it (or a competitor). It’s that significant.

He later continued:

You thought I was kidding when I said I would never take them off…Yes, they survive being wet. I had them full on soaked in my shower this morning. Google Glass still works.

Scoble proceeded to post another multiple-blink inducing photo, this time of him dressed in nothing but a bathrobe and his set of Google Glasses. In this particular image, he seemed to again play up the sensationalist aspects involved in using Google Glass, rather than purely focusing on clueing in his audience to the potentialities offered by Google’s new wearable tool.

To his credit, Scoble has backed up his Google Glass “fanboi” advocacy with actual evidence as to why he thinks Google Glass will be such a game-changer, including his breakdown of how pricing will be a relevant factor in mainstream audience approval. He also believes when Google Glass catapults towards full-swing production, there’ll be a noticeable generation gap where oldies just won’t get it but young’uns will gratefully grab the shiny.

In terms of assessing the usefulness of Google Glass, even measured reviewers fall prey to a tendency to shamelessly wallow in its “newness” glare. What, then, makes these passionate early adopters such exclusionary “Glassholes”, who are keen to peacock strut in such gleaming new gadgetry purely because they have access to it?

Google Glass: A Potted Introduction

For those of you living under a Luddite rock (or perhaps an Amish haystack) who have missed the near spam-like blanket coverage of Google Glass in tech media circles, here’s a quick summation of the device in all its novel glory. Google Glass began its product life as the output of the Google X Research team. It was initially dubbed “Project Glass” and spent the first few years of its development labelled as such: only recently has it been officially termed “Google Glass” (as this blurb from the now defunct Project Glass G+ page shows):

When we created this page more than a year ago, we chose “Project” to recognize that we were all exploring something new. Back then, the Glass Explorer Edition was still just a hope and a dream. Now we have Explorers with their very own Glass dreaming and exploring with us. While we’re still many months away from a wider consumer launch, we’re updating our page name to reflect where we are today.

In its present incarnation, Google Glass is essentially internet-enabled “eyewear” — with emphasis on a single eye, as the device only overlays a user’s right eye. The device gives users the ability to easily capture and instantaneously share images and video in real-time. It’s also designed for users to make calls, get directions, perform translations, send emails, and permit access to synchronised geolocative data (reminders, mapping, and directories) and social media.

In short, Google Glass is a type of online wearable computer that overlays and augments the “real world” (ahem) with additional digital information. A beta version of the device has been rolled out to 10,000 people (plus a small additional number of “Invite A Friend” stragglers and selected celebrities). Approximately 2,000 Google Glass units have been shunted to developers, while 8,000 of the devices have been dropped into the willing grasp of the (wealthy) general public. Currently, Google Glass employs a cloud-based API called “Mirror” that permits “Glassware” app development by third-party developers.

Google Glass is primarily controlled by a combination of voice commands and haptic taps. The Electronic Frontier Foundation created an in-depth walk through and teardown of purchasing and then dismantling Google Glass in order to examine exactly what makes each unit tick. This examination revealed that the base hardware is surprising uncomplicated, with the device breaking down to reveal somewhat unassuming components.

What the Electronic Frontier Foundation does find a more pressing, and complicated, concern is the fact the device can currently be leveraged to bypass privacy issues and run ramshackle over an individual’s right to remain off the record (and by record, I mean an actual video and/or photographic record as well remaining absent from giant PRISM like surveillance datasets):

In light of recent events it is more important than ever to be aware and conscious of privacy implications of the technology we use. Glass is a touchpoint. We also live in an age when more and more of our technology is made inaccessible to the people who use it, to either understand, repair, or reuse, and other activities that one would normally associate with ‘ownership.’ (Electronic Frontier Foundation)

Google has been especially clever in implementing an intricate marketing scheme designed to elicit Google Glass envy in those persons not “lucky” enough to be involved in the beta rollout. This sense of ownership and allegiance — produced by a product that requires an owner to jump through numerous hoops in order to purchase — it is in no way accidental. This process of bonding a user to a unique invention (by selectively restricting how it’s purchased through an artificial scarcity process) can effectively mask concerns related to privacy and surveillance. It’s these very concerns that have alarm bells ringing within organisations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, especially in relation to long lasting negative impacts of the widespread implementation of such wearables.

Artificial Scarcity and Google Glass Beta

With the Explorer beta release, Google have encouraged early adopters to perpetuate a frenetic Google Glass hype cycle that appears deliberately engineered to feed its “first disciples” (Explorers) with constant media feedback. With each different Google Glass update, upgrade or new app proclamation, the ever hungry tech media responds with a constant stream of media sanctioned exposure (one deviation is the present media trend to slot Google Glass into an impending failed tech-fad similar to what happened to the Segway).

Even though the technology is clearly in its infancy and is far from being considered a slickly finished product, there’s no shortage of potential purchasers drooling with anticipatory desire at the thought of getting their moneyed mitts on a Google Glass unit.

And if you’re thinking of making a pretty penny by reselling your Explorer version of Google Glass, think again. In order to use the Google Glass eyewear, you must agree to the accompanying Terms of Service and kill off your first born while promising to sell every last relative into perpetual slavery which clearly state:

If you resell, loan, transfer, or give your device to any other person without Google’s authorization, Google reserves the right to deactivate the Device, and neither you nor the unauthorized person using the Device will be entitled to any refund, product support, or product warranty.

So not only is Google intent on creating artificial scarcity by restricting the number of Google Glass beta devices it’s allowing out into the wild, it’s also attempting to curtail any attempts to capitalise on this deliberately-engineered rareness by restricting a buyer’s right to make decisions about a device for which they have forked over a substantial sum of money. The implied threat from Google is clear: if you attempt to sell our device, we’ll brick it and there’s nada you can do about it.

Campaigns such as the “Google Glass Explorer Program” (and Google’s friend invitation incentive of July 2013 as shown above) illustrate exactly how Google tactically maintains such a sense of product exclusivity. On February the 20th 2013, Google put out a call to the public for competition entrants who were keen to participate in a Google Glass “Explorer” testing phase. The competition ran for 7 days, during which time potential users were asked to creatively respond to the inquiry “#ifihadglass” (posed through a Twitter/Google Plus hashtag). Select Google employees then hand-picked the most creative responses.

Of the 10,000 Google Glass testing units designated for release as part of the competition, 2,000 of the winners were allocated the developer “Explorer” device and were invited to purchase them at specific launch events. Subsequently, the remaining 8,000 units designated for public use were made available for purchase to the competition winners for a whopping $1,500 USD. Not only was this hefty price deemed acceptable by Google for an unfinished beta-phase device, the company saw nothing wrong with selling eyewear units that are also effectively “on loan” — and not outright owned — by a user (“pwned”, perhaps, but not owned in the traditional consumerist sense).

Google’s attempt to manufacture such drool-inducing exclusivity has its predictable downsides. One downside involves dealing with those individuals who have the capacity of seeing through such an obvious marketing ploy, and who reject Google’s sneaky attempt to induce unique bonding with a rare product. There’s also the problem of dealing with persons who — due to lack of resources or missed opportunity — strongly desire the device but have no means of acquiring it. The risk of constructing artificial scarcity in a devoted user base is high. The backlash can be directed against both the perceived value of the device itself, as well as those Google Glass bearing individuals lucky enough to have obtained them.

The Very Definition of a #Glasshole

#Glassholes is a largely negative descriptor coined through a hashtag (or, as Forbes Journalist Kashmir Hill labels them, “Bashtags”) that has sprung up in parallel with the scarcity of Google Glass. The #Glasshole tag is a double-sided affair. At first, it seems so completely nasty in the sense of its obvious riffing off one of the English-speaking-world’s most overused profanities, “asshole”. The term asshole is rarely used as a compliment (at least not in the social circles I travel in) unless it’s employed instead as a coded term of endearment. When an adaptation of such a term is aimed squarely at those privileged elites who’ve obtained any of the 10,000 Google Glass beta units, it’s highly likely such a tag’s intended meaning is derogatory.

A recent example of how #Glassholes is being adopted and perpetuated by a savvy online audience — one obviously familiar with the exclusory steps necessary in obtaining these wearable devices — is the “White Men Wearing Google Glass” tumblr and subsequent meme. Not content to offer satirical statements on the absurd appearance of Google Glass wearers in general, this meme also captures the redonkulously horrific unfortunate gender divide that’s still rampant in tech circles (and not only present in a Google Glass demographic).

Another curious side to the #Glassholes tag is its current reappropriation by various techheads who are now using it to deliberately indicate the positive sides of being labelled in such a way. Boffins like Robert Scoble seem almost chuffed to have been slapped with the #Glasshole tag as a way to favourably indicate their presence in a specific social niche. On the 17th April 2013, Scoble went so far as to label himself a #Glasshole, perhaps in an effort to strip the label of any offensive connotations by softening its abrasive usage to a more neutral, or favourable, tone:

Today I become a Glasshole (a Google Glass user). Will pick up my Google Glass at Google at 4 p.m. (UPDATE: they moved me to tomorrow at 1 p.m.)…

Stop the Cyborgs vs. Sousveillance

Whether the term #Glassholes is being flung with full vitriolic force at privileged white male richsters, or being reappropriated in an effort to remove associated cultural stings, it looks like the tag is here to stay. One group that I imagine are happy to embrace the label for its negative connotations alone is a group creatively titled “Stop The Cyborgs”.

Stop The Cyborgs is an organisation that has significant problems with the use of wearable devices that can monitor and record individuals without their express permission. As the organisation outlines on their website, the group’s aim is to:

 …shape social norms by highlighting the problems with wearable technology and encouraging people to politely ask people to remove their devices in social or private contexts.

Stop The Cyborgs summarises why wearables pose such a significant societal risk by outlining the following principles:

  • The right of a user to demand absolute control over any wearable (including all information collected through the device).
  • The fact that no person should be forced to use any wearable.
  • Conditions must be placed on how wearable tech data is to be utilised at a societal level, including banning the use of wearables for identification purposes and regulating the use of augmented data.
  • The need to discuss and shape issues centred on the use of wearable technology.

These principles come with applied examples of what may happen if there is no attempt made to control how wearable tech is integrated into society at large. Stop The Cyborgs are attempting to develop a system that deals with emergent conditions in direct relation to these devices, especially as Google Glass and similar devices begin to flood the market.

Organisations like Stop The Cyborgs are right to hold such concerns regarding intrusive tech. As part of a group effort between 6 countries, the Australian Government has also indicated to Google that it would like details on how the information collected through Google Glass is to be used. In May of this year, the US Congress sent Google a similar letter requesting related information. The Press Play Bar in Colorado has banned Google Glass. Nevada and New Jersey casinos have likewise banned Google Glass for fear of punters using them to game the system. It is important to note that as yet organisations like Stop The Cyborgs are not advocating for a complete ban on Google Glass, but are pushing hard for rules that ensure civil liberties are protected.

Stop The Cyborgs have also devoted a complete section of their website to discussing why the use of Google Glass could have disastrous consequences if it is left to be implemented without regulation. In this section, they touch on how constant surveillance (or, as Wearable tech Pioneer Steve Mann likes to term it, “sousveillance”) denies everyday folk the right to choose whether they are being consistently, and invasively, monitored.

Take, for instance, this first recorded case of Google Glass being used to film a street arrest:

This example shows the fine line that exists between positive uses of Glass (think: law enforcement, impartial documentation of a contentious event) versus encouraging surveillance for surveillance’s sake. It may be a great tool for citizen journalism, but it could also be incredibly damaging for anyone who wishes to stay unmonitored, yet essentially have no choice in regards to not having an opt-out switch from “real life” (groan) surveillance.

Just as the tools of surveillance and sousveillance can be employed for controlling interests, so too can they be repurposed for opposing cultural interests (ie #Occupy, #Gezi). Unfortunately, donning Google Glass may also reduce the chance of a wearer being proactive in difficult or hazardous social situations where the presence of the device could encourage a user to remain a passive spectator who simply records events as they unfold rather than actively intervening.

When using such wearables, empathy levels may even be reduced due to psychological concepts similar to the “Bystander Effect”:

The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely related to the number of bystanders. In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. Several variables help to explain why the bystander effect occurs. These variables include: ambiguity, cohesiveness and diffusion of responsibility.

As sousveillance is linked to Google Glass (and potentially PRISM like surveillance), will wearable users be tempted to become passive recorders of events, with such intimate tech altering the very fabric of social structures and moral obligations? Perhaps mechanism designed to block such devices will become commonplace, like Thingiverse’s Google Glass Privacy Cover.

Google Glass and Surveillance Fatigue

The idea of artificial scarcity is hardly a new concept when seeking to promote any tech product that breaks with established conventions.  Even the negative backlash that often accompanies new technology is far from unique when it comes to Google Glass.

What seems different regarding the impending impact of Google Glass (and wearables in general) is the type of apathetic conditioning we — as individuals and as a grouped global audience — seem content to endure. Have we reached a type of surveillance fatigue where news of the entire documentation of our lives, dreams and activities no longer register on our internal radars as an implicit threat to our sense of self? Or is this not actually apathy, but more an acceptance of a kind of learned helplessness that can plague constantly surveilled populations?

There’s no denying that in terms of how impactful surveillance technologies can get, Google Glass is a right up there with the best of them. While the positive uses of the tech are clear, the avenues for its deployment as a 1984-like monitoring tool are also all too obvious. With this in mind, perhaps think twice, or even multiple times, before hitting accept on that Google Glass invite a friend form.

 Featured Image Credit: Thingiverse