As I noted in a previous post, my main thought about Google Glass is that it faces challenges that are more sociological than technical. If you look at recent innovations in technology – from the smartphone to tablet computers – we find that the first generation of a device often has flaws, sometimes giant flaws. But with each iteration we see improvement.
I’m still rocking the first-gen iPad. It was top of its class when I got it on release day, but with each passing year it feels bigger and bulkier. It wasn’t this way at first, but with each new version that comes out it feels more like a brick. Improvements have done similar things to my sense of the screen, which lacks Retina Display (which came to iPad 3), and the lack of camera on the front or the rear (which came with iPad 2) makes the device feel decidedly out of date.
Android is another good example. I wasn’t a big fan of the original Android operating system in terms of touch and responsiveness, but each generation has gotten better.
The point is that the Glass Explorers device we’ll be using in my classes this fall will have its flaws, but it’ll get better. Technological problems will just be bumps in the road, with the caveat being that it’ll improve so long as it continues to exist. And that existence depends on people buying in to a new type of device, different than anything we currently use. How society reacts to people using Glass in the wild is a key to this.
For now I’m calling these adoption challenges – the barriers to acceptance that Glass (or any technology, for that matter) faces. This acceptance is important for two reasons. First, without it very few would consider purchasing the device. Second, there is the issue of how others deal with a person using the technology publicly.
I see two components to adoption challenges: social and legal.
As one of my colleagues told me when I told him about getting accepted into the Glass Explorers program, “I think you’re going to look very weird.”
Glass has many of the same functions as a smartphone, but this smartphone isn’t one that is concealed in your pocket. It’s worn on your head, such that any form of eye contact means that the device becomes part of social interaction. Nervousness about having this device on your head during human-to-human interactions is understandable. It’s not like a hat or a pair of eyeglasses – the wearer is going to stick out. By the same token, imagine being a person interacting with a Glass wearer and you should be able to see the social weirdness potential.
My students write about how devices have invaded their social interactions. They go to dinner and sit there on their phones, Facebooking and Instagramming instead of paying attention to one another. To some degree technology has inserted itself between people already, but this is different. Having a phone out is conspicuous, but Glass is designed such that a person doesn’t necessarily know if they’re not getting full attention from a Glass wearer.
Social awkwardness. Am I being ignored? Am I being videotaped or filmed? Or broadcast? Is this person violating my expectations of privacy simply by being at the same restaurant table with me?
Of course, one thing we see with devices is that when a new technology emerges, we adopt new norms. This is a type of ethical component to social considerations. Even though it happens a lot in everyday life, it still is considered by many to be rude to have the phone out at the dinner table. Loudly talking on a cell phone in public spaces such as an airport terminal or on a train is considered a no-no. People violate these norms, of course, and these norms aren’t universally accepted. But there is a type of social shame that has sprung up around using devices in socially unacceptable ways. I would expect the same thing to happen with Glass. We’ve already seen terms such as “glasshole” already entering into everyday discussion about the device.
It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see businesses adopt rules about Glass similar to how movie theaters have taken a stand against mobile phone usage while a film is in progress. We’ve already seen two bars – one in Seattle, another in West Virginia – declare their establishments a “Glass-free zone.” More of this likely is on the way.
Some of the concerns about Glass are legal and they largely seem to center around the fact that the device is a wearable camera, capable of taking both photos and videos and publishing them instantly.
A recent Wall Street Journal story noted concerns about this technology. The first was related to sexual predators, with the ability to take photos or video in places such as locker rooms or bathrooms. I think some of these concerns are overblown. Tiny cameras exist on things other than Glass, and in that sense this new device is no more dangerous than a smartphone or a small Flip camera.
Another concern is broadcasting material that often requires payment in order to witness. The WSJ story cites strip clubs, but professional sports venues that have multimillion-dollar broadcast licensing agreements also come to mind. Glass can tap into Google Plus hangouts to broadcast instantaneously, and while that does create interesting potential to broaden and redefine broadcast television, it does have the potential to create havoc given that broadcast television often revolves around rights fees.
Finally, there are potential landmines in terms of permissions around video and image capture. Broadcast news outlets often get permission before filming interview subjects on the record, but it rarely is practiced by private individuals. Photo and video tagging happens often without permission. My students often talk about how it isn’t a big deal to tag friends on Facebook without permission, but there are generational fault lines when it comes to attitudes about how to use the technology.
Some of the case law being built around smartphone cameras should apply to Glass, but the device itself will lend itself to new laws. Wearing Glass while driving might be considered an offense similar to talking on a phone or texting while driving, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see states consider such laws.
There is much to consider here. People who use Glass will be forced to consider how to use device, but as a person living in a society they also will need to consider how to go about using.
Etiquette will emerge in several ways. Some users will be thoughtful and come up with their own set of best practices. In other cases, etiquette will be dictated by people making mistakes and those mores will be created by non-users. In an ideal world, the ways in which we use these new tools will come about as a conversation between people as the device becomes a part of social interaction. In reality, this will happen with some while others will use the technology without thought, and this will create unique challenges.
In the same manner, law will have to evolve in this era. Notions of what is considered public and private, already undergoing massive disruption due to mobile devices, will again have to be considered as wearable 24/7 media becomes more ubiquitous.
Of course, the above social and legal challenges might be enough of a barrier to keep the device from being adopted altogether. We had concepts of a phone such that a smartphone wasn’t much of a leap, but Glass represents something new in terms of form. There is the possibility that a wearable smartphone with a camera capable of taking photos or video at any place or time will be a bridge too far for many.
Google has been smart about implementation. Some have observed that celebrities were chosen for Glass Explorers at a seemingly high rate. This makes some sense. When people see artists, musicians, and movie stars wearing Glass in public, that could potentially normalize their usage. Some of those social and legal barriers might seem small if the gadget is perceived as the next hot thing.
In my class this fall, we’ll be examining use of Glass in light of social perception. I’m constructing a couple specific assignments that will ask students to evaluate Glass not from using the device itself but rather from their own interactions observed by wearing the device, even if it isn’t even turned on. Hopefully we can learn something about integrating the device into everyday life, and in turn that can help shape how we use it.
And, of course, we will share what we learn.