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A Letter of Condolence to the Narcissistic Google Glasshole

Google has canned its most controversial device; its devotees must be distraught.
21.1.15

Photo via Wiki Commons

Looking forward to strapping a camera to your face and talking at people about how it's not an invasion of their privacy? I'm afraid you've missed your chance. Google Glass only became commercially available last summer, but already the tech company have sent their controversial creation to the Google Graveyard, where it rests alongside Google Wave, Google Aardvark, Google Gears and other Google products that nobody misses.

What happened? Weren't they just about to become socially acceptable? The white men who famously wore it will be sad to see it go, as will the likes of tech evangelist Robert Scoble, who claimed he couldn't "live another day" without Glass.

Annoncering

Well, though rarely seen outside conferences, campuses and airline business lounges, Glass rapidly inspired loathing from the public. The apex of this was probably when Techcrunch coined the term "Glasshole" to describe its devotees in early 2013.

Of course, the seemingly unstoppable tide of criticism fell on the deaf ears of those who might have fallen into this category. You imagine that no moment was unworthy of recording on video and in photographs: every breakfast burrito or fussball game with the interns, every "Glass sex" session with the wife.

The Glasshole walked in the shadow of digital phantoms, led by the automated voice in his ear. And the only price to pay for being a "thought leader" was being quietly ridiculed by strangers every time you left the house. Confident that radical transparency would render his daily moments epic, for him Glass was not so much a product as a belief system.

Photo by Flickr user Ted Eyton

In an interview with BBC News last year, Scoble defended Glass against Jeremy Paxman and futurologist author Jaron Lanier. A nightmare tech tourist apparently sent from the near future, Scoble describes being directed to Big Ben by a series of vocal prompts delivered through Glass' jawbone-conduction speaker. Lanier, meanwhile, warns of how Glass forces physical "normality" on the wearer, making them nod awkwardly on cue and speak in slow commands in return for drip-fed information, until they become Google-powered marionettes. Scoble appears baffled as to why this is a problem.

But it was never so much about looking good as seeing well: Glass blended online with offline, for a user who's "always on". It monitored what was left of the wearer's humanity, as long as the five-hour battery lasted, taking the Quantified Self and all its narcissism to new heights. It lulled the wearer into an existence of productivity reports, self monitoring and health tracking – though the data it generated was probably too boring to be of any use to future generations.

Annoncering

Debuting with an "explorer programme", through which the public could compete to buy prototypes, later Glass was sold at £1,000 per unit in limited supply. Although sales figures were never released, we can basically be sure about one thing: Glass was bought pretty much exclusively by tech insiders, CEOs and a small lunatic fraction of the privileged one percent.

There are things we can deduce about the average Glasshole: he likely spends a lot of time reading blog posts about productivity. He enjoys playing golf. He is secure enough in his wealth to go around with a £1,000 computer attached to his head. He is concerned with his appearance, but not enough to notice he looks like a middle-aged cyborg.

Glass was designed for men not used to being said no to. The Glasshole can edit reality – the device transforms a CEO into a walking panopticon, even as it insulates him inside his very own version of the truth. Glass bombards his line of vision with updates, while outwardly it sends a clear message to anyone he passes that they just aren't that interesting to him.

People speak about millennials being the self-indulgent generation, but Google Glass was marketed to their dads. The Glasshole's time is valuable. He inhabits clean, Wi-Fi-enabled rooms. He half-engages in conversation, because his mind is on executive things. Google Glass offers a summary of life, a way to skip trivial day-to-day business without the trouble of moving to Galt's Gulch.

In October of last year, scientists treated a man believed to be the first person hospitalised for internet addiction, induced by overuse of Google Glass. He was suffering from withdrawal symptoms including disordered sleep, memory loss, involuntary muscle spasms and checking on a device he was no longer wearing.

Annoncering

It's clear now that Google Glass was never going to work. Its hardware functioned, but its philosophy was incompatible with life. The infamous shower selfie taken by Scoble was an emperor's new clothes moment, unmasking Glass as not forward-thinking, but rabidly narcissistic. Of course the same person who'd go for Glass would self-publish pictures from inside their shower. Of course the designers never thought to include a red light on the front of the device to show when it's recording –because who even cares about looking creepy? Of course it's acceptable to talk in public to your computer, to superimpose a vision of life provided by your expensive new toy over reality.

Photo via Wiki Commons.

A review in Engadget from when Glass was launched captures its highly minimalist packaging and the absence of printed instructions. This requires the presence of a Google-approved instructor when you first buy it, an in-person conversion before you join the GoogleBorg. Beyond that, Glass becomes intuitive: it gets to know you better the more you touch it and talk to it, provided you're brave enough to do this around other human beings.

This means that, eventually, Google Glass can start to do the thinking for you. It becomes a surrogate mother: you ask it a question, it finds the answer. Without being literally implanted in the head, it outsources brain activity. Glass breeds reliance on finding answers to simple questions, in the way that we now look up basic maths and grammar on our phones. The most innovative commercial hardware of our age enables a new breed of high-tech philistinism: the Glass headset becomes a signifier for luxury ignorance.

Annoncering

Much was made of Glass's face-recognition abilities, later "banned" by Google HQ as a step too far, and the device featured video calling where the wearer can see but not be seen. In a sense, Glass pits the wearer against the world, and the person speaking to the wearer against the entirety of Google's hive mind. It turns the argument made by Reddit creeps who take up-skirt shots on public transport into a real life ultimatum: if you didn't want to be photographed, why did you go outside in the first place?

The most enduring pictures of Glass feature white men. They are the watchers, custodians of the gaze who have never lived under any kind of surveillance. The only female Glass user to make headlines during its short life was Sarah Slocum, a tech writer who was famously attacked in a bar for wearing Glass in public.

It's worth considering how many more street harassment viral videos we'd have if more women wore Glass. From its inception it was explicitly aimed at male users –Google co-founder Sergei Brin proposed it at a TED conference as the alternative to "emasculating" smartphone screens. Even considering later efforts to draft in female Glassholes through a fashion collaboration with Diane von Furstenberg, Google ruled out half their customers from the start.

All that said, the promise of Glass felt exciting before it was released, meaning that there's something galling about Google's decision to discontinue their most controversial product now, so soon after launching. Not only because its dedicated fanbase went to such lengths to get hold of it, but because it's a broken promise, albeit one many of us never wanted upheld.

Where Glass succeeded was in questioning technology's defaults. We are tethered to our smartphones, "emasculated", squinting with backs stooped enough to keep a legion of chiropractors in business. At least Google Glass admitted to a need, acknowledging just how far technology has intruded into everyday life. Glass was a triumph of narcissist Instagram culture, the advent of a selfie singularity. It took the need too far, and turned all of life into a screenshot. By allowing such a product to exist, it encouraged the delusion that it should exist.

Annoncering

Glass served as a PR coup for Google, however unfeasible the product. Something about the idea is dazzling – the mixture of fuck-off Silicon Valley wealth and an engineer's social ineptitude. And now by killing Glass, perhaps Google has sealed it into legend.

But the question remains: is Google Glass really dead? The company may have retired its current iteration, but the Glasshole can rest assured his favourite device will return. Perhaps the new version will be cheaper, humbler, less invasive. Perhaps, like the Segway, Glass has failed in everyday use but will find a home in police departments. The device is currently being sold to law enforcement in Dubai, and was trialled by police in New York early last year. Prepare to laugh at and fear the Surveillance State Glasshole.

Perhaps Google will outdo itself and swap Glass for implanted microchips, vindicating anyone who's ever bought a ticket to see David Icke speak in person. Or perhaps Glass will simply be relaunched a year or so from now, new and improved and creepier than ever. In any case, we'll undoubtedly be able to edit this Glass-less phase out of our memories, and carry on with our Google-enhanced lives some other way.

@RoisinTheMirror

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