One in ten Americans would be willing to give Google Glass a try if someone gave them the new, $1,500 wearable heads-up display for free. But a much larger share of the country—45 percent, to be exact—has already written off the device “because of its awkward aesthetic or because the device seemed irritating.”
Those stats underscore the only thing more troublesome for Google Glass than the technical challenges of building it, and that's the social stigma that inevitably follows wherever it goes. The device has yet to make its way into consumers’ hands; as a result, our only experience with Glass has been vicariously through early testers and the sometimes unfortunate photos of said testers.
Mocking Glass for its impracticality, goofiness and—oh yeah—its creep factor has become something of a national pastime. There's nothing wrong with a little satire, particularly when it's aimed at a company that presumes to tell us what we want before we know it. But here’s the thing. We're in danger of letting the ridicule get the better of us. At their best, parody and schadenfreude help us grapple with difficult problems. At worst, they can become a distraction unto themselves.
Glass won't look the way it does forever; in fact, a couple of emerging technologies that actually predate it may soon help resolve its aesthetic issues. When that happens, we'll have to confront the ethical questions raised by the technology in a way that we're unprepared to do now. Getting hung up on a first-generation technology when the second generation lies just beyond has left us, well, shortsighted.
The knock against Glass isn't wrong, per se. Glass is ugly. It does make social interactions awkward. The headset places a semi-permanent barrier between people. It's distracting both to onlookers as well as to the user (if you're not checking Glass like you check your smartphone every few minutes, you're doing it wrong, at least from Google's perspective). These problems bleed inexorably into another: Right now, using Glass removes you from the present. The thought of withdrawing this way as a matter of habit creates the fear that we'll all become drooling, sedentary hunks of meat too engrossed in our digital lives to participate fully in our offline lives. It's the stuff of dystopian nightmares.
As disorienting as Glass is, the disruption it's causing is likely to be a momentary one, for several reasons.
The most important one is that by the time Glass finally makes it to market, it won’t be long before it gets displaced by something far less visually obtrusive. Two technologies will make this possible: brainwave readers and augmented-reality contact lenses.
In the health sector, brain scanners have been helping handicapped patients regain some control over their surrounding environment. Paralysis victims have learned to operate computers, robotic arms and other devices with their minds. It still has a ways to go, but someday soon, that technology is going to spread to the rest of us.
Then there's an ambitious project to create a kind of Terminator-vision that doesn't require goggles or glasses. As far back as 2009, researchers at the University of Washington were already experimenting with rudimentary contact lenses embedded with circuits and LEDs. More recent versions by Belgian scientists have built-in LCD screens.
If the objection to Glass is that it's ugly or silly-looking, a miniaturized version of Glass that doesn't require you to talk to yourself or jerk your head about would be a vast improvement.
If the objection to Glass is that it makes us anti-social—an entirely separate question—consider the ways we’ve already grown comfortable with shrugging off others. We spend $200 billion a year speeding through fast-food restaurants instead of cooking for ourselves, or teaching our children how to do it. Eighty percent of us get to work by locking ourselves (alone) in gigantic metal boxes on wheels that burn dead dinosaurs, making whole countries uninhabitable in the process. We build unscalable gates around our neighborhoods. We buy guns because we’re afraid of who might be outside those gates. On the subway, we block out our surroundings with little boomboxes we stick in our ears. For various and even legitimate reasons, we've concluded that every one of these anti-social behaviors is worth the cost—and yet they’re even worse at uniting us than this, the most objectionable kind of online behavior.
None of this is to excuse Glass for causing incidences of social awkwardness, or for playing a part in the nation’s supposed social erosion. But to the extent that it does have a role, it'll probably be rather small, and besides: It's technology. Designs can be revised; software can be patched; people change their attitudes. Either society will create new social norms governing the use of Glass, or someone will build a device that addresses what society can't accommodate. As with the use of smartphones everywhere, we might decide that the tradeoffs are worth it.
But we'll never have a conscious choice in the matter if our mockery of Glass 1.0 prevents us from considering what 2.0 might look like. What should we do about facial recognition technology? How do we design better privacy policies before data breaches happen, rather than after the fact? How can Glass be built to enhance in-person experiences in addition to remote relationships?
Maybe you should be able to share the contents of your heads-up display with the person sitting next to you, just like you'd hand your smartphone across the table. Maybe geofencing will allow cities, businesses, workplaces and other venues to determine when and how Glass can record video. Maybe recordings have to begin with an audible notification to bystanders. Maybe it's something else.
Letting go of the argument that Glass looks dumb opens up a range of really interesting and fruitful discussions. These are the ideas that merit our attention, not whether Google Glass should really be called Goofy Glass.