These days, it’s hard to tell.
For a gadget no one can own and no one can review, we’ve been surprisingly comfortable casting Google’s augmented reality glasses as technology’s next great villain — hiding in the shadows, waiting to pounce.
This week, on the integrity of public spaces.
Seattle’s 5 Point Cafe sparked a national media frenzy when it posted on Facebook last week that it would ban Google Glass. “Ass kickings will be encouraged for violators,” it warned.
The story went everywhere, even landing a link on the hit-making Drudge Report.
The 5 Point’s loving the attention. On Saturday the bar’s page compared people who will wear Glass to people who wear fanny packs. On Monday, when it had earned 500 new Facebook likes from the madness, it answered critics with a photo of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, someone sporting blue Glass and actress Sarah Jessica Parker, of all people.
“C’mon, really?” the page asked. “If nothing else, we’re saving you from looking like a complete idiot in public.”
Fun and games aside, there’s real anxiety behind Google Glass. But when you can’t stop talking about a ban on something that barely even exists yet, you know we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
“This is much ado about nothing — the equivalent of banning cell phones while the customer is in line to pay,” University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo wrote me via email. One of his specialties is the intersection of privacy law and surveillance. “Google Glass does not, at this time, convert the wearer into an omniscient Hiro (a character from the Neal Stephenson novel ‘Snow Crash’). And a person who really wanted to could record video or audio in the bar or look people up without Glass.”
“But perhaps it is interesting at the level of symbolism,” he suggested. “The question is, a symbol of what?”
That’s where this gets interesting. Follow the logic: A bar bans Google Glass? Can they? Dare they? People are really talking about this. Well, maybe bans are all that can save us. “The public outcry is going to be fast and furious,” ZDNet writer James Kirkpatrick predicted. Once people become aware of what Glass can do, he wrote, “an outbreak of bans is sure to result.”
Whoa there. Slow down. Let’s think about this.
People aren’t reacting to technology. They’re reacting to a fear that technology represents.
It wouldn’t be the first time. Smartphones played this role before. And Facebook. Remember when that social network was the devil because our friends could post photos of us without our knowledge, potentially ruining our lives forever?
We’re not afraid of a pair of pimped up glasses. We’re afraid of a world in which we’re all walking cameras, seconds away from broadcasting to the masses. A world of spies, where no one thinks of it as spying.
We’ve been afraid of that world for a long time.
So let’s not overstate what Google Glass really is. Cameras and microphones have been around forever. Everything since — even the real shiny stuff — only makes that baseline technology more accessible, more shareable, more portable and less obvious.
Glass is the next step on a predictable path. If none of the other communications “revolutions” sent us to our doom, Glass isn’t likely to, either.
There’s no need to freak out. But there is a need to be vigilant.
You know what happened to that fear of Facebook pictures ruining our lives? Reality and time. Most people just aren’t that inconsiderate, or that stupid. Most of us don’t do things that are that awful around other people. Etiquette formed, slowly but surely, because everyone didn’t all start tagging photos at once. And as much as we suspect strangers, it’s bad form to embarrass someone who’s just being themselves. No one wants to be that guy.
But something else happened, too. People’s fear made them talk, and that talk made Facebook act. The site gave users more control over their own photo tags and more transparent privacy controls over all. The same is happening with drone technology. Seattle doesn’t want it in the hands of law enforcement yet, so our police decided not to use it.
In that sense, thank you, 5 Point, for getting us talking about Google Glass.
We might need to go as far as banning Google Glass in public spaces to relieve our anxiety. But only if we’re suddenly swimming in these things, the people wearing them are Class A jerks and we all decide that even though it’s rude to stare at our phones while we’re hanging out with friends, we can look through geeky glasses at our beer and still expect to seem social.
So simmer down, everyone. Chances are, this problem will solve itself.