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Culture and technology
5 June 2013

Behold! A new and exciting way of ignoring and irritating people at the same time

Not many people mourn the passing of the old slam-door trains. Yet they did have one useful feature: windows that slid all the way down. This made it much easier to deal with those annoying people who play terrible music through leaky earphones. One could grab hold of them, pull down the window and, just as train approached a tunnel, shove their heads out. Job done.

Sadly, this is no longer possible. Health and safety concerns, apparently.

Personal stereos, MP3 players and the like are examples of the way that technology enables people to retreat into their own electronic bubbles. Another is the mobile phone, which provides all sort of ways of disengaging from those around you, while annoying them intensely.

And it’s about to get even worse. According to John Lancaster in the London Review of Books, the Next Big Thing is “wearable computing” – and, in particular, a product that Google is working on called ‘Glass’:

  • “This is wearable computing in the form of glasses which do two main things. They display information on a screen projected in front of the user, and visible to nobody else; and they allow the user to record and transmit what they’re looking at through the glasses... To the wearer, the image displayed for their personal use is the same size as a 25” television monitor seen at a range of eight feet. From the point of view of someone looking at the user, Glass looks like a lopsided modern-ish pair of frames with a clumpy thing over the top half of the right eye, stretching down along the right ear. The ear thing conducts sound directly through bone. That’s a new patent, one of many embodied in Glass.”

In terms of its social impact, wearable computing has three, seemingly paradoxical features – firstly it is isolating, secondly it is intrusive and thirdly it is covert:

  • “We already have an unprecedented range of tools for not-being wherever we are and not-doing whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing. But at least when we take out a phone to check our messages, people can see that we’re doing it. What if we could do that without anybody knowing?”

For instance, you might think you’re talking to somebody face to face, but in fact they could be checking their e-mail or watching the latest episode of Games of Thrones.

On the other hand, they might be all too interested in what you’re saying:

  • The cruder and more obvious problem with Glass is less to do with the user’s self-engagement, and self-withdrawal, and self-whatever, and more to do with the effect on the rest of us. Imagine a world in which anyone around you can be recording anything you say, filming anything you do. We already live in a version of that world, of course – especially in Britain, global capital of the CCTV camera. But you can see a camera or a phone or a tape recorder when it’s held up in front of you. Glass is different.”

John Lancaster is surely right to be worried about the impact of omnipresent recording. However, he may well be wrong to take comfort, as he does, from the provisions of the Data Protection Act. Even if the sort of covert filming made so easy by wearable computers is illegal, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen – the law, after all, hasn’t stopped digital piracy.

Our best hope is social intolerance. Unlike those leaky earphones, polite society should simply not put up with it. In terms of Google Glass, the signs are promising. The product isn’t even in the shops yet, but already there’s a rude, but rather splendid, name for the sort of person who might use it anti-socially: ‘Glasshole’.

Remember that word, you might soon have cause to use it.


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