From the start of the industrial revolution, advances in technology have usually been met by two opposing reactions.

Some welcome the latest inventions as tools of human progress and liberty, while others, like the original Luddites who smashed weaving machines in 19th century England, fear they will destroy time-honoured traditions and crush individual liberties.

Which direction will Google’s much-hyped Glass project take us in? The company says it will bring valuable information to its customers more easily than ever before.

Its detractors view it as an insidious device that takes us one giant step closer to a world where our every action is observed, recorded and data-mined by an ubiquitous computer network.

The “augmented reality” device looks harmless enough — a minuscule mobile computer mounted inside a spectacles frame which projects information on a tiny screen just above your eye, and which can also discreetly record in video, sound and stills exactly what its wearer is seeing and hearing.

In addition, the device does everything a smartphone does, from browsing the web to writing emails, using voice commands and a few finger controls situated discreetly on the headset.

The proximity of the tiny screen to the eye means that its information can fill the wearer’s field of vision.

The screen can also be activated and controlled by simple eye movements. Looking up activates the screen and gentle head motions allow you to scroll through various different programmes.

Google has not yet announced when the product will go on general sale to the public, but judging from the latest developments such a moment is not too far away.

Demand and excitement among the Google-inspired masses is so high that the company organised a competition whereby it would sell the first 8,000 units for $1,500 each to the winners of a competition for the most innovative ways to use the product.

The backlash

But just as there are thousands of fans eager to don a pair of the new-fangled glasses, there are thousands of others who are horrified at the prospect of this new technology.

Not only are they aghast at the potential privacy problems posed by people wearing video cameras every moment of their waking day, they are also concerned about the sense of alienation it will allegedly promote.

If Google Glass takes off, they fear, people will experience life, quite literally through the lens of Google.

The backlash is taking many forms. In Seattle, which coincidentally happens to be the home of Google rival Microsoft, the dive bar 5 Point emerged as the nexus of the opposition after it became the first establishment in the world to ban wearers of Google Glass. That war cry has also been taken up by the website StoptheCyborgs.com whose stated aim is “fighting the algorithmic future one bit at a time,” and which offers Google Glass ban signs as well as stickers and T—shirts.

It claims that the device will make hidden cameras ubiquitous, that people will have no way of knowing if they are being recorded, and that merely having the device in operation will furnish Google with an inordinate amount of detailed data about the user.

“There are serious consequences for human society. There will no longer be any distinction between the ‘digital world’ and the ‘real world’. People will make decisions and interact with other humans in the real world in a way which increasingly depends on information that Google Glass tells them,” the site claims.

Concerns overhyped?

“Gradually people will stop acting as autonomous individuals, when making decisions and interacting with others, and instead become mere sensor/effector nodes of a global network.” Others believe these concerns to be overhyped. “I, for one, welcome our Google Glass-wearing cyborg overlords,” wrote Chris Taylor, a senior reporter on the tech news site Mashable.com.

Taylor noted that current smartphones are just as capable as Google Glass at recording images and sound surreptitiously and compared fears of the new gadget to those he got when he first took an iPod on a plane in 2003.

“Ultimately, as with the camera-bearing devices we all carry in our pockets, it’s all about trust,” he wrote.

“Trust that the majority of society is basically decent. Trust that you and everyone around you is watching out for each other, and that millions of years of evolution have given us an instinct for suspicious behaviour that no amount of technology can mask.”

(This article was published on March 27, 2013)
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