Shards of (Google) Glass

Responding to a Penny Arcade strip, I’m a little peeved at how humanity can’t seem to accept improvements.

“Were it not for the Arbiter’s counsel, I would have [Google] glassed your entire planet!” –Rtas ‘Vadum of the Covenant

I shouldn’t be following current events, but unfortunately I’m reacting to a Penny Arcade comic. I should complement them on their sensationalism, because they have successfully taken the concept to such a ludicrous position that it got a reaction out of me.

People need to understand that devices like Google glass are just tools. They do not force us to do anything, and they do not enable doing anything new*. Without the aid of tools, I can already memorize and communicate scenes. I seem to have a relatively good memory for a meat-bag, which may explain why I virtually never take photographs. Anything I’d be interested in enough to take a photo of I just remember – and a lot more besides… I still remember the dressing room backstage for the Mikado several years ago, which brings me nicely to the next point of how I will not be sharing those memories with others who were not present.

If it was not something acceptable to share when it was from memory, then it’s not acceptable to share from a tool and we still trust the users to act responsibly. Even though that example was not from a public area, the principle is the same. For example, I hold that if you’re distributing photographs of a public place you should still blur any distinguishable faces of passers by. And I maintain that this should be common practice by now, because as a rule of manners it’s been applicable since the invention of the photograph. They may have been in a public place, but it’s still only polite not to post pictures of them without their consent. Getting back to wearable electronics, if we’ve been willing to trust strangers with pocket cameras not to abuse those tools, why would putting it in a more convenient package change this*?

When I’m in a public area wearing perfectly normal glasses it is virtually identical to if I had a camcorder, camera, microphone and telephone running at the same time – I am continuously making a record of my surroundings and later communicating it with people. Now because it’s me it’s like all the devices are high spec and well maintained technology but it only outputs un-trans-codable .ogm files, meaning that I have immense difficulty communicating it with people 😉 (and no-one’s in my phone book, so that’s probably just the talking clock on the line). But if there was a widely-used free codec I’d view it as an upgrade, not “a problem because now anyone could make videos”. And if the rest of humanity gets to the point where they can remember their past as well as I can, I would not begrudge them the opportunity just because I’ll lose my upper hand.

This is the heart of where I feel the Google Glass controversy stems from, not just that humans don’t like change but that it reminds them of disparity. All they can see is an obvious advantage that others now have, even if it’s the same advantage which I may now have (which they only hate me for when I rub it in 😉 ). My take is that life is not a zero-sum competition and you should be happy for people when they are enhanced without an explicit corresponding detriment – you are not made poorer from their gain. I see technology like Google Glass as an enhancement tool which only empowers the wearer, and should not be viewed negatively. Now if the wearer uses it badly, the wearer should be viewed negatively and I’m happy for enhancement tools to be used to step up legitimate enforcement too 🙂 . But it’s just as realistic to imagine that advanced technology can help people be good; such as automatically blurring background faces which I believe is only rare these days because it’s so inconvenient. By and large, we’ve already had the whole trust problem with our eyes and the spoken word so even if technology like Glass will exacerbate this it’s only to the extent of empowering standard human behavior.

So far I’m still of the opinion that we should be empowering humans instead of hindering them, and that you can’t reasonably apply a finer granularity than “humanity”. Technology enabling people is only a bad thing if you think people are bad. And that sentiment leads to either suicide or insanity. Now you can see why the anti-google-glass messages depress me…

If anyone is worried that this enhancement, while not directly harmful to others, will cause a haves/have-nots split then I would like to point them to the entire history of mankind as a reference. From the Alpha Male of the prehistoric tribe to the Pharohs of aniquity to the lords of Britain (medieval to modern eras), there has never been a time without such a split and technology is not changing anything**. But I shouldn’t get too worried about nay-sayers against new technology, because this again is something that’s been happening since the dawn of time (serious example | humorous example)

*The caveat is for when it becomes so much easier that it has a transformative effect. Like how cars make transportation so much easier that suburbs are possible, or how computers make math so much easier that rendering particle effects are possible. You could walk from San Jose to San Fransisco before the car, and you could calculate values for a 1920×1280 matrix of colors through a lot of matrix and vector multiplications done on paper, but it’s really something else when you can do either of those quickly enough that you don’t get bored and give up. Maybe for some people the extra memory or communication of Google glass is transformative for them, like how maybe a camera is transformative for their memory but not for mine. But that’s a very different discussion which I’m not seeing anyone have yet. Instead it seems like people are lazily deciding every change is transformative, without exploring, justifying or even recognizing that implicit claim.
** is the same as *, except we’re talking about a transformative effect of the haves/have-nots split crossing a threshold where it becomes actively harmful to the have-nots. I suspect we’ve crossed that threshold already, which means that we’re unlikely to cross it again and there’s nothing to constructively worry about 🙂 .

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