The Worst Glassholes Yet Will Be Politicians

Get ready for augmented advocacy and 'glassroots' campaigns.

Mar 18 2014, 2:00pm
Privacy rights group Stop the Cyborgs made Obama Google Glass/PRISM masks. Art by Aram Bartholl

Google Glass could play a role in determining the next president of the United States. It may sound nuts, but it’s not too far-fetched. Already some political strategists in Washington are studying how to use augmented reality to help win elections, and if not as soon as this November, we could expect to see some Glassholes vying for our vote come 2016.

On Sunday, NPR's Don Gonyea wrote that he's started to spot the controversial eyewear at political events, and raised an interesting question of how Glass and other wearables could be used on the campaign trail.

The first question is whether candidates themselves will don the computerized frames. At this point, probably not—the device is still too nerdy and niche for a politician trying to seem folksy and relatable to risk traipsing around town looking like a cyborg.

Colorado Rep. John Dingell, one of the members of Congress to first try out Glass, famously remarked "This is quite a machine!"

But Google's working with hip brands like Warby Parker to make the next iterations of the device more subtle and fashionable. By 2016 it could be easy for candidates to get away with an augmented pair of shades, or even contact lenses, and voters might be none the wiser. In that case, they could use the device strategically as a sort of augmented memory to prompt them to, say, ask the mayor of Iowa how his daughter is doing at Brown.

Until that creepy day comes, however, Glass and other smart wearables are more likely to be used either by staffers and volunteers for “glassroots” campaigning, or researching the opposition.

You could track every Glass wearer in a certain town on their commute to work and figure out what billboard they drive by on the way.

I talked to University of North Carolina associate professor Daniel Kreiss, an expert in digital campaign strategy, for some informed speculation. He said that candidates already have a massive amount of data gathered about the electorate at their disposal—some 700 data points per person on potential voters— and wearables offer yet another stream of information to work with.

"Let's say you had an Obama app for your Google Glass," he mused, "and that by downloading that Obama app you agree to their terms of services, and one of things you say is that it can geolocate you. You could then deliver an ad at a certain time, or you could track every Glass wearer in a certain town on their commute to work and figure out what billboard they drive by on the way."

On a similar note, a recent Politico article suggested augmented lawn signs could theoretically track how many cars drove by, or smart T-shirts and other gear worn by field workers could tally how many doors are knocked on.

Locating voters is a big part of the game these days, and much more complicated than a few decades ago when you could just run an ad during prime time on a major TV network and reach the majority in one fell swoop. Now, candidates have to track down the populus across multiple media platforms—wearables are just one more in the mix.

After you find the target voter, the next step is to figure out what to say to sway their vote. Kreiss told me that training volunteers to go out in the field is a huge task for campaigns, and Glass, or more subtle wearables like a smartwatch, could make that process more effective.

Theoretically, you could record short snippets of how the conversation went down, both to collect information on the potential voter, and on what kinds of things the volunteer is asking. However, the law on recording people without their knowledge varies state by state, and even in places where it is legal, campaigns might not want to risk the angry backlash from already privacy-wary voters. "People already find [Glass] disconcerting," Kreiss said, "Politicians are going to tread lightly here."

GOP Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Dave Camp posed for a photo opp wearing Google Glass. Image: Instagram/frankthorpnbc

Not to mention, the novel device still costs upwards of $1,500. Cash-strapped candidates would probably be better off investing in a bunch of pins. It won’t be until the well-funded presidential campaigns in 2016 that we see a race to leverage the latest high-tech gadgets. At this point, the most likely way augmented reality will be used to sway elections may be on the offense: tracking the opposition.

It's common practice to send out a staffer with a camera (or a smartphone) to follow around rival candidates in case they make a gaffe, misspeak, or take a position on the record you can hold them to later. And we know the kind of impact this can have on public opinion: Mitt Romney's famous "47 percent" remark—arguably the nail in his campaign's coffin—was recorded by an iPhone hidden under a cocktail napkin at a private event.

If next-gen Google Glass can be worn without standing out, the campaign trail would be even more of a panopticon for politicians. Not just opposition groups, but everyday citizens could be recording at any moment, and live-streaming the footage to the internet. Each of those clips is potential viral video, and the HD footage from Glass is much more appealing to watch than a shaky smartphone camera.

Augmented reality is beginning to creep into many areas of the government; a SXSW panel last week discussed the topic based on a recent report from Deloitte focused on border security and disaster relief, and even the Secret Service is toying with the idea of using Glass to better protect the president.

On the “augmented advocacy” front, the first politics-related Glass app was developed a few months ago by the Republican activist group Red Edge. It augments nearby buildings with info cards about that government agency as the wearer strolls around Washington—for instance, walk by the Treasury building and an information card will pop up telling you how the administration is spending taxpayers' dollars.

Yet it’s still too early to know for sure what, if any, the ramifications of the futuristic gadgets will be on democracy. Glass, for its part, is still in an experimental phase, set to be available to the public at the end of this year, at which point we’ll see if the augmented eyewear stands a chance of going mainstream. But if history teaches us anything, the latest tech is used to amplify what's already happening.

Wearables will be another stream of data to strategically analyze data, boost social media engagement, film and record candidates on the stump, and help politicians understand and connect with the electorate, which even in the digital age is the most tried-and-true strategy for winning votes.

“Voter contacts are the one proven thing that we know actually works—that very old-fashioned, citizen-to-citizen conversation actually matters," said Kreiss. "It matters just as much as anything else campaigns can use."