There have been probably a hundred times more articles about Google Glass published on the internet over the last few days than there are instances of this computer so far in existence. Yet it is already evident that Google Glass is an absolute disaster. Friday’s Business Insider summed up Glass’s welcome in the media with the headline,”The Verdict Is In: Nobody Likes Google Glass.”
If you’re still blissfully unaware of Glass, I’ll break the news to you. Google have invented a sort of facial computer, which is operated by voice recognition. For now, Glass remains an ambitious “crowdsourced” research-and-development programme, but Google ultimately intend for their new contraption to become widely available and affordable, possibly by the end of the year.
During a protracted recession, it will not do to laugh at a corporation which is actually investing some of its surpluses into RnD. But at the same time, Google appears to be genuinely out of control. Beneath the proliferating criticisms and parodies of Glass lies a stratum of profound unease. Google have certainly a morbid view of human nature, in imagining that there will be a market for their ghastly product, but they are equally a gigantic multinational corporation and they must surely know what they are doing. Glass is not being contemplated quietly in a laboratory somewhere; the computer has been extensively trailed and publicised, even before most of it has been invented. Perhaps Google are right and we will all eventually adopt Glass without demur. One day it will be absurd and the next it will be indispensable.
Wired and PCMag have both likened Glass to the Segway: an electric personal transporter which in 2001 was predicted to replace the car (it may still, one day…). I instead find myself drawn to the precedent of the Amazon Kindle. I bought my Kindle back in 2009, at the same time that everybody suddenly realised how much they valued the homely smell of “real” books. Many readers began to conduct themselves like wine connoisseurs, inhaling the subtle fragrances from their vintage volumes. Kindles were regarded as barbarian hordes gathering outside the city of literature. Yet the Kindle soon appeared in Waterstones, and then in Tesco, and by last year many people who scarcely read books were requesting a Kindle for Christmas.
Google, like Amazon, has taken a step into the “real” world by manufacturing an actual 3D product. But Glass is being currently held in media quarantine; journalists and bloggers are now scrutinising it from every angle.
Let’s start with the question of its ghastliness. They are a fixture of any modern social encounter and a previous generation had called them “yuppies”: the generally middle-aged individual who publicly dotes over their smartphone, pouring over their photographs and showing them off with completely uninfectious enthusiasm. These gluttons for social networking now have the opportunity to literally stuff their faces with Facebook. Glass will allow them to upload an unending stream of tweets and photographs in real time. At a recent TED presentation, the Google supremo Sergey Brin insisted that Glass had liberated him from his smartphone, since he no longer spent all his time looking down at the thing and fiddling with it. It is rather like boasting that you have given up on heroin injections because you are now plugged into a drip.
Google’s RnD bods are presently worried that people who wear normal spectacles will be excluded from accommodating Glass at the same time, which is to miss the point spectacularly. Somebody who is half blind will be better insulated from the real world as it struggles to compete with the computer screen stuck in their face.
Google have still to assure prospective purchasers that Glass will not ruin their vision. Nonetheless, the ultimate wasps at the picnic are internet hackers, who can potentially infiltrate Glass, access the webcam, and help themselves to passwords and PIN numbers. Just imagine if News of the World journalists had hacked into Sienna Miller’s Glass rather than her voicemail. They would have travelled everywhere with her and seen the world through her eyes.
There is equally the somewhat fanciful phobia about Google’s predatory advertising, from people who think that their heads are like empty beer cans which Google will use to fill up with piss. It is true that Google remains determined to turn the whole of material reality into data. It is a little like that horror scenario in which out-of-control molecular nanobots transform everything in existence into “grey goo.” Google have driven around the country taking photographs of every street and residence. They have hung over the planet and photographed every square mile of its terrain. They have probably harvested the internet history of half the world’s population. And the bores who wear Glass may become drones in more ways than one. They will walk the streets translating everything that they can see into data for Google’s advertisers.
Finally, since this is a literary website, how will Glass affect the world of letters? It seems that it bodes well for reading but not for writing. If one studied Othello through Glass, the computer could look up certain words and translate others into modern English; it could provide Harold Bloom’s interpretation of one passage and Laurence Olivier’s performance of another. Reading could become an immensely more learned and profound activity.
Yet I am still grieving the loss of the keyboard. The new-fangled tablet computer, as Bill Gates has recently complained, is basically a laptop without the keyboard. You cannot type a thousand words on a tablet; or if you can, you have added a keyboard and it is once again a laptop. Glass offers greater incentives for significant areas of cultural life which were previously literary to become oral. Websites such as YouTube already allow the literary critic to abandon the article and the essay in favour of reviewing literature on screen. If Glass pioneers the use of voice recognition, a great deal more writing will be spoken. You may look altogether less trendy with a keyboard dangling off your face, but there are appreciable advantages.