Big Brother Is You, Watching

I stole the title of this post from an essay Mark Crispin Miller wrote 25 years ago about the effects of television, in which he argued that instead of a totalitarian government forcing us to submit through fear and oppression, we'd happily voluteer to be anesthetized by our TVs. Today though, the more proximate danger involves the rise of a kind of universal surveillance where we're being watched through much of our days, by governmental authorities, corporations looking to part us from our money, and each other. It's bad now, and it's only going to get worse.

Which brings us to Google Glass, the augmented reality glasses rig that is getting closer to becoming a consumer product. People are starting to become concerned about the privacy implications of Google Glass, namely that you could be talking to someone who, unbeknownst to you, is recording everything you say. Or maybe you aren't even talking to them; maybe they're just walking behind you in the street, or sitting next to you in a restaurant. Maybe they'll have their Glass use facial recognition software to identify you, and then post to Twitter that you're in this restaurant, and you're looking a little tipsy. Members of the Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus (yes, I didn't know there was such a thing either) in the House just sent a letter to Larry Page, Google's CEO, expressing their concerns.

And what's Google's response? Don't sweat it, bro:

"Privacy was top of mind as we designed the product," [project director Steve] Lee said, adding that he's proud of the way his team has designed Glass. Early prototypes covered a user's eyes rather than placing the display above the eye. But Google discovered quickly how important eye contact is to Glass, he said. "You'll know when someone with Glass is paying attention to you," Lee said. "If you're looking at Glass, you're looking up."

The built-in camera raises its own, unique set of privacy questions, the Glass team acknowledged. "If I'm recording you, I have to stare at you — as a human being. And when someone is staring at you, you have to notice," said Charles Mendis, an engineer on the Glass team. "If you walk into a restroom and someone's just looking at you — I don't know about you but I'm getting the hell out of there."

That's plainly ridiculous. Even if we're just talking about the current iteration of Google Glass, which the company characterizes as a beta device, it isn't true that you have to be staring at someone to record them, just that your head needs to be pointed in their general direction. You could be looking away, or have your eyes closed, and still record them. But more important is what happens as future versions of this device get less obtrusive. Google Glass is a pretty distinctive-looking pair of specs, but many other companies will be making their own versions, and the electronics will inevitably get smaller. Today you can tell when someone's wearing Google Glass, but within a few years the whole device will be contained within what appears to be an ordinary pair of eyeglass frames. And eventually—let's just spitball here and say 15 years from now—it'll be in a pair of contact lenses.

When we get there, things will certainly be more convenient; we'll be able to look up at the world around us, instead of staring down at our phones all the time. We've already stopped being amazed or disgusted when at large public gatherings, no one seems content to have an actual experience, but must rather stand holding up their phones so that afterward, they can experience whatever it was through a screen. When your smartphone is contained within your glasses, at least it won't require both your hands and your eyes to operate, so you'll be able to be more present while you're recording things for posterity.

On the other hand, eventually you'll be able to be completely engrossed in your screen while those around you think you're actually paying attention to them. And once things like facial recognition and web searching get more integrated, we'll be open books to anyone whose path we cross. Google, as is its wont, hopes to create the inevitable new form of social relationships and then monetize it. Like it or not, it's going to be awfully hard to stop.

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