Feature writing


Google Glass’s insane, terrifying etiquette guide

Online publication:
The Daily Beast

February 20, 2014

Google want us to behave properly while walking round with their mini-computers wrapped around our heads. But their advice is not only laughably impractical—it’s downright creepy.

Emily Post would wholeheartedly approve of Google Glass’s attempt at imposed decorum, although whether she could have been persuaded to wear a pair of skinny wraparound glasses with an in-built computer is another matter. Spurred by an array of etiquette infractions by users, Google Glass has issued a list of do’s and dont’s for using the new technology to stop you from becoming a “glasshole.”

The advice is littered with such headache-inducing wordplay. “Respect others, and if they have questions about Glass don’t get snappy,” users, or “explorers,” are told. But snappiness is surely inevitable if every five paces, someone comes up and asks you what you’re wearing on your head. Surely it’s acceptable to snap: “It’s a pair of glasses, with a computer in it, you must have seen the stuff in the news about it, you turn a little dial thing and scroll through stuff, that’s it, byeee.”

We are told gravely that in places where you are asked to turn off your cell phone, you must turn off your Glass as well. OK, as the disingenuous Google very well knows, in places where people are asked to turn their cell-phones off—theaters, cinemas—many do not. So now, we’ll have to put up with the next generation of insensitive fellow patrons given licence to ruin whatever we’re trying to watch. Great. And they’re not even watching what we’re watching because they’re watching their helmet computer things.

How realistically can these rules be self-enforced? Is there a right way and wrong way to wander round with a computer stapled to your head, while remaining a thoughtful, aware member of society? Google Glass insists there is.

Under the don’ts list is the overarching command not to “glass out,” or zone out. Glass, as the contraptions are termed by their makers who also clearly want to attach the word “glass” indiscriminately to anything they choose, was built for “short bursts of information and interactions that allow you to quickly get back to doing the other things you love. If you find yourself staring off into the prism for long periods of time, you’re probably looking pretty weird to the people around you.”

If only that was true. It’s more likely those people are wondering what you’re looking at, and—in such a latest-gizmo, technology-obsessed world—whether they can they experience it, too. Which is just as Google Glass would want. Also, the Google Glass was designed for full use, not partial, restricted use. Many people already spend most of their days in front of computers for work or play. Now Google has decided to make money by designing a computer people can wear when they’re away from their desks. That precious time when we are not in front of a screen—walking, looking at the world around us, not being bombarded by electronically mediated information right in front of our faces—is now also to be mediated by technology.

Most depressingly, Google, playing the good guy cautioning against over-use, counsel: “Don’t read War and Peace on Glass. Things like that are better done on big screens.” What a deathly piece of advice. Yeah, or, you know, War and Peace also looks okay on pages, in, like, a book.

Users are also instructed not to “rock Glass while doing high-impact sports.” My poor eyes (prescription glasses, no inbuilt mainframe) struggled over that, thinking it could refer to a new high-tech version of Rock Paper Scissors. Ah, no, this actually means we are not to “rock,” i.e. wear in a swaggering fashion, Google Glass while “water skiing, bull riding or cage fighting.” Would anyone? Does our knee-jerk nanny state have to tell us not to wear a piece of high-tech kit while involved in activities that are likely to break it, and possibly do some pretty grisly damage to our actual eyes?

The fact we need to be told this hints at another contemporary dichotomy enshrined by Google Glass. We want to assume the aura of total control of information and the world around us that Google Glass offers, but alongside this, if Google’s advice when and how to wear them is necessary, we are keen also to cede autonomy when it comes to the most basic, common-sense decisions we make about how to conduct ourselves safely and politely. Virtual electronic brain is to be trusted; brain inside our noggin, and instincts therein, is to be suspected.

Google says we cannot expect to wear Google Glass and “expect to be ignored.” Well, no, you are wearing a pair of glasses with a computer on your head. “Let’s face it, you’re gonna get some questions,” Google Glass says. (“Gonna”? “Going to” is fine.) The user is advised to be patient and explain to a passing interlocutor that the device is similar to a mobile phone. The Google Glass “Explorer” is constantly, in Google’s eyes, spreading the word. Patiently. Like an evangelical walking advertising hoarding. Or cult member.

“If you’re worried about someone interrupting that romantic dinner at a nice restaurant with a question about Glass, just take it off and put it around your neck or in your bag,” we are told. Okay, look, if you’re wearing a Glass while on a romantic date, someone approaching your table to ask about your headwear is the least of your worries. What about the person you’re supposed to be on a date with? Instead of gazing into their eyes, you’re gazing at your emails within your own glasses. You are duly, and rightly, dumped before the drink menu even lands.

Google emphasizes the positive with a list of do’s. Most audaciously, given what the technology does, Google claims it encourages us to “explore the world around you.” But it removes, partially at least, one’s gaze from that world. Glass “puts you more in control of your technology and frees you to look up and engage with the world around you rather than look down and be distracted from it. Have a hangout with your friends, get walking directions to a fantastic new restaurant, or get an update on that delayed flight.”

Well, Google can’t insist that at the same time as doing all those whizzy things, the technology also makes us more open to the world around us. It is consuming our attention. Glass does not at give us more control of technology and free our gaze. It simply gives us more technology to occupy our gaze and takes part of us away from our immediate physical world and the people around us. And everyone wants a go on them, so every trip out with them—either in a small group or nosy bystanders—becomes all about the Glass. A simple visit to the deli will become exhausting. You may find yourself after the twentieth, “So can you Skype from it?” weeping, “Just take them. I’m going back to contact lenses.”

There is no respite. Google Glass wants in on every sphere of our activities, even the fun ones you used to do that gave you naturally occurring pleasure, even ones where—oh goodness—you learned stuff through trial and error, and alighted upon interesting new things by accident. This must now end. “Take advantage of the Glass voice commands,” we are told, which bizarrely mean we can “golf, cook, and juggle flaming torches while balancing on a beach ball.”

Voice commands mean we can “look up how many ounces in a cup while you cook, or take that one-of-a-kind photo from your unique perspective.” Good grief. How about estimating the number of ounces, or reading the information from a recipe book? As for that “one-of-a-kind photograph,” nobody takes them any more. The world is so heavily documented and recorded, your great aunt from small-town Missouri has Instagrammed the same drag performers in that really cool bar in Shinjuku that the New York Times Magazine did. In fact, she did it better.

Google Glass fruitlessly—and they know it, but head-teacher must be seen to say the right thing—asks their army of cyborgs to not photograph people without permission. But they know—just like telling people not to use them in cinemas—this piece of advice is shutting the stable door, as politely as possible, long after the horse is out galloping in the fields. Google Glass is another inevitable affront to privacy. People will violate their own and others with it, just as they do taking selfies and sneaking pictures of people on the street or on trains. The Glassless will walk around with heads ducked down, desperate to avoid the mysterious, unknowable intentions of the Glassed. Basically, there will be a lot of bumping into each other.

Google also tells users to use a “screen lock” capability to prevent others from using their Glasses. If your Glass gets stolen you can “remote wipe” it which sounds gross, but means you can remove all your naughty stuff from it before someone finds you out.

Finally, the scariest rallying call: “Be an active and vocal member of the Glass Explorer Community,” we are instructed. A “wonderful group of Explorers” have given the “Glass team” great feedback apparently, “sharing their worlds with us and each other.” We have now migrated to techno-Stepford. Not only does the capital E of “Explorers” offend any intelligent eye, this is a call to arms to join a cult. Not only are Google keen to furnish us with technology making interaction and participation in the social sphere even less human and humane, it wants us to form a collective of ambling, socially detached borgs, unable to cook an egg, walk down a street, find a restaurant, enjoy the mystery of a lake or unknown flower, gaze up and feel awed by the night sky, explore a neighborhood, or indeed do anything which may require intelligence, common sense, human application and inquiry and simple empathy, without another damn screen blinking out information and instruction to us.

I dare you. Go up to a member of the “Glass Explorer Community” and ask them for a “fantastic restaurant” in the area. When their microchip belches its answer, tell them they’re wrong, there’s actually an amazing place, just down the street, hang a left, or is it right, anyway round that corner, can’t remember its name. But its egg benedict is a revelation. Watch on as their Glassed head explodes.