Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has developed a brilliantly concise definition of an asshole: "A person who demands that all social interaction happen on their terms." He was inspired by the assholes who talk in Amtrak's quiet car, but this reasoning also perfectly explains why those who use Google's new wearable computer are assholes, by definition.
Google Glass is the gadget all techies at South By Southwest are talking about this week. Glass is a wearable computer eye piece, which allows you to snap photos, read the news and do Google searches all while looking like an extra from the dance club scene in the Matrix. Glass is not yet publicly available, but Google is graciously allowing select geeks to purchase it early for $1,500, if they write them an essay about why they deserve one.
Glass has sparked much excitement and controversy. Having a computer strapped to your face is the second-greatest geek dream after robot sex. Critics have pointed out the privacy implications of Glass, for which one of the first apps is a program that lets you identify your friends in a crowd based only on what clothes they are wearing. A Seattle bar has already banned Glass, half in jest. Is Glass The Future of Computers or a Privacy Nightmare? I am not concerned with these questions. Instead I'm concerned with a much finer point: People who wear Google Glass in public are assholes.
Wearing Google Glass is functionally the same as living with a smart phone held constantly at eye-level. I've never seen it done, but I think most of us would be comfortable labeling anyone who walked around holding their smart phone at eye-level an asshole, and not just because it looks even stupider than Glass. The smartphone eye-level guy is an asshole because most of us 1) value the undistracted attention of those we're speaking to and 2) don't like to be filmed or photographed without our knowledge. If you come up to me with a smartphone held at eye level and demand that I interact with you like you're not being an asshole, you are an asshole. You are demanding social interaction on your wholly weird and unsettling terms. This does not change if the smartphone is tiny and strapped to your eye and made by Google. In fact, you thinking that this excuses your asshole behavior just makes you that much more of an asshole.
Google's defenders will suggest that this is the ranting of a backwards luddite. They will point to cell phones, another relatively new technology. Would you call all cell phone users assholes? No, just the ones who talk in public restrooms when there's a long line. But in the early days of cell phones, the loudmouth on his brick of a Motorola cell phone was very much shorthand for asshole. This stigma did not arise because society was not "ready" for cell phones, it came from the fact that the early cell phone adopters blabbing in public were disproportionately assholes. They were willing to trade other people's discomfort for their own technological convenience. They demanded social interaction on their terms. Now that everyone uses cell phones, we retroactively imagine that they were the trailblazers and everyone else a dumb luddite. But it doesn't change the fact that, at the time, these people were assholes. What if cell phones had flopped, like, say, the Segway? We would all be laughing about those dumb assholes who used to talk on cell phones in the 80s.
The utter asshole-ishness and disregard for others of the Google Glass wearer can be seen clearly in the arguments of its defenders. Take future expert Jeff Jarvis, who has made a great career out of telling people they are stupid for caring about internet privacy. His rationale for why we should not be afraid of Google Glass' head-based, internet-enabled cameras is that nobody ever uses their cell phone cameras to take creepy pictures of people. This is not my glib simplification of his argument, it's literally what he believes:
This is the fear we hear most: That someone wearing Glass will record you—because they can now—and you won't know it. But isn't that what we heard when cell phones added cameras? See The New York Times from a decade ago about Chicago Alderman Edward Burke:
But what Mr. Burke saw was the peril.
"If I'm in a locker room changing clothes," he said, "there shouldn't be some pervert taking photos of me that could wind up on the Internet."
Accordingly, as early as Dec. 17, the Chicago City Council is to vote on a proposal by Mr. Burke to ban the use of camera phones in public bathrooms, locker rooms and showers.
His fear didn't materialize. Why? Because we're civilized. We're not as rude and stupid—as perverted—as our representative, Mr. Burke, presumed us to be.
For someone who seems like he would be happy to have his brainwaves patched directly into Google's servers via skull socket, Jarvis is curiously unaware about what actually goes on online. There are of course many, many people who have had photos of themselves taken and/or posted to the internet by creeps.
If anything, the cell phone camera example shows why we should be extra vigilant about new forms of surveillance, even if it's from private citizens. Because of the rush to embrace that new technology we now have outdated privacy laws that are unable to deal with the problems posed by the explosion of tiny cameras. So we have revenge porn that flourishes because its victims have little legal recourse to get naked pictures of themselves posted to the internet without their consent taken down. I believe that someday something like Google Glass will become accepted and normal, but that doesn't mean we should just blissfully boogie-board down the wave of Progress and hope it's not going to deposit us into a shark's mouth. It also doesn't change the fact that people have good reason to be creeped out by Glass, and by brushing them off as clueless technophobes you are being an asshole.
It's no surprise that Google would create a product so imbued with assholishness. Glass is just the latest in a long line of asshole moves from Google. Google's aborted project to scan and upload all books in existence to the internet without the publishers' permission? Asshole behavior. Sending cars with cameras around to take pictures of everyone's houses for Google Streetview? Asshole behavior. Much of Google's assholishness ended up producing very useful products (I love Streetview), but this doesn't change the fact that they rest on an act of colossal assholery, an arrogance that says your privacy/copyright doesn't matter because Google wants to make a new thing that happens to demolish it.
By donning Google Glass, you, the Google Glass user, are volunteering to be a foot soldier in Google's asshole army. (In fact you're paying for the privilege.) You are saying that anyone who comes into your line of sight must agree to be possibly filmed, photographed, or otherwise data-mined, not just for your own convenience but to further Google's quest for total world domination. Wearing Google Glass automatically means that all social interaction you have must be not just on yours, but Google's terms.
The only way around the Google Glass asshole trap is if Glass users take a pledge to only interact with other Glass users. Maybe they could move to an island.
[Image via AP.]