Why 'Glassholes' Are a Myth

Wednesday Dec 4th 2013 by Mike Elgan
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No, Google Glass users aren't obnoxious snoops violating everyone's privacy while tuning out the world.

Google Glass is taking technology-based privacy violation and rudeness to a whole new level, right?

Google Glass users are "plugged into the machine," casually surveilling everyone around them and tuning out their family and friends while being distracted all day by that little screen over their right eyes.

Or so we're told. But is it true?

It's no longer a theoretical question. While Google Glass probably won't ship commercially for another year or so, its first direct competitor, called the Vuzix M100 Smart Glasses, started shipping this week. The smart glasses era has officially dawned.

The past week has been jam-packed with Glassholes in the news.

The Restaurant Guy

A Google Glass user named Nick Starr recently got into an argument with the manager of the Lost Lake Cafe in Seattle when he was asked to take off Glass or leave the restaurant.

Rather than staying quiet about it, Starr ranted on Facebook and Google+ that the restaurant actually encouraged customers to take smartphone photos and post them on Instagram (the posts have since been deleted). He demanded an apology and called for the manager to have his pay docked or be fired.

The restaurant hit back on Facebook, saying video recording in general and Glass in particular are banned in the restaurant. The restaurant manager told a reporter for Forbes that the restaurant wants to protect customers from the feeling that they're being watched.

People online are holding up Starr's behavior in the restaurant and the subsequent Facebook feud as evidence that his is one of the feared "Glassholes."

The Mall Guy

Comedian Ed Bassmaster pulled a prank on unsuspecting mall-goers for the entertainment of Bassmaster's YouTube audience.

Basically, Bassmaster walked around the mall being loud and annoying while pretending to talk to the Google Glass headset he was wearing, loudly saying things like: "Google Glass diarrhea remedies" and generally creating awkward situations with victims who didn't know who he was talking to.

Hilarious material! What a Glasshole.

The Poker Guy

A writer for Esquire, A.J. Jacobs, wrote a piece for the current issue in which he describes his experiment to push the boundaries of being a Glasshole. He tried to read Moby Dick using Glass. He used them to cheat his friends at poker. He watched YouTube videos while shopping in the grocery store.

Glassholes are everywhere these days. Or are they?

The Starr story, the Bassmaster stunt and the Jacobs experiment are cultural artifacts of a social anxiety about Google Glass -- or about new technology with Glass as an iconic stand-in for those fears. Without understanding the reality about Google Glass, people allow their fears to take hold. But what do they fear?

I think some people fear a world in which people are combined with machines. The "Borg" is often evoked. (The Borg is a fictional race in the Star Trek series in which individuals were plugged into the Collective or Hive, through technology, losing their individuality and operating like slaves of the group.)

People fear a world in which their privacy is invaded everywhere they go, where cameras are always watching.

Google Glass is often assumed to magnify the social problems of smartphones, specifically driving an impulse to ignore the people we're with in order to pay attention to something online or someone elsewhere.

This fear may grow as more people embrace new features and accessories available for Glass. For example, stereo earbuds, and a Google Play Music app to go with it, became available recently. The ability of Google Glass users to tune out the people around them will be not only magnified, but obviously so thanks to those big earbuds.

Writer Jolie O'Dell, writing for VentureBeat, said that "If you're using [Glass] recreationally, not professionally to complete a task, don't kid yourself -- it's not enhancing your life. It's robbing you of the joy of actually experiencing your life."

The fear of a growing world filled with "Glassholes" -- of people using dehumanizing wearable computing gadgets to carelessly invade the privacy of those around them while obnoxiously tuning them out -- is not based on reality. But people think it is, based on the hype and press.

A viral news report about a man kicked out of a restaurant, the guy doing prank videos in a mall and the writer experimenting with being a Glasshole and writing about it -- these are all based on the fear of the technology, not the usage of technology itself.

The restaurant story was about a restaurant manager who kicked out a customer who was minding his own business. They feared that he would somehow invade the privacy of other customers – more than their own encouraging of all customers to take camera phone pictures. They feared he would invade their privacy. He didn't actually do it.

The mall guy was an actor or a prankster acting out rude behavior. He wasn't an actual user being rude.

The Esquire experiment was just a writer being obnoxious for the sake of being obnoxious -- it wasn't a report about a regular user being obnoxious.

Journalists, comedians and others are fabricating the Glasshole myth out of nothing but their own fears and anxieties -- and the public’s.

Is it more of a privacy invasion to have a camera on your glasses than on your phone? No, in fact, it’s not. It's easier and less obvious to take pictures secretly with the cameras on a smartphone than with Google Glass.

And is Glass really dehumanizing? Critics imagine a parent ignoring their child while they interact with someone else via glass. But they don't imagine interacting with one's child via Glass while waiting for a flight at some far-away airport. Glass can instantly translate both spoken and written foreign languages. Does that connect or separate us as humans?

Besides, lots of things are dehumanizing. Many people find packaged junk food, fluorescent lights and TV dehumanizing. But they don't vilify people for using them.

The fact is that Google Glass is like a smartphone “lite.” One of its many benefits is that it reduces the habit, now socially acceptable, of constantly checking one’s smartphone every 30 minutes to see if there are new messages or updates. Google Glass users have the luxury of spending less time with their faces in their phones, and more time paying attention to the world around them, secure in the knowledge that if something important does happen, they’ll be gently and subtly informed about it.

Google Glass users aren’t “plugged into the machine” all day. The device is turned off 99% of the time because having it on constantly is both unappealing and battery-draining.

Sure, Google Glass isn’t for everybody. Lots of people will choose Glass and other wearable devices and many others won’t. It’s just another consumer electronics choice.

But let’s not vilify people and let irrational fears run wild based on nothing but ill-defined anxieties about technology and the future.

The fact is that Glassholes are imaginary.

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