Orwellian telescreens for clueless hipsters

By Mic Wright on July 2nd, 2012

Google’s much-quoted, unofficial mantra, “don’t be evil”, has given columnists like me a lot to play with it the past, for example when Google tried to shimmy its way into China, was caught collecting private info using Google StreetView cars or when it skirted round Apple’s privacy protections in Safari to serve ads to iOS users. But these examples will be recalled as quaint if the search monolith’s Project Glass ever becomes a consumer product.

The aim of Project Glass is essentially to make the heads-up display (HUD) technology available currently to fighter pilots and rich guys who like ugly glasses available to everyone. The, uh, delightfully styled Project Glass spectacles project directions, text messages, emails and other data directly onto a screen in front of your eyes, while still allowing you to see the real world. The device will also allow users to video chat, take photos and purchase products while wandering around “IRL”.

I’ll admit, the William Gibson fan in me loves the idea: it’s augmenting reality in the most direct way we have seen thus far. But the fact that it’s Google behind the plan gives me the heebie-jeebies, because the voracious data gobbler of Mountain View has proved itself time and again to be unacceptably lax when it comes to treating human beings with respect. We are data points in Google’s desire to acquire data to sell to advertisers. To put it in tech blog parlance, you are always the product when you deal with Google.

And I think someone else deserves to have their name slapped on the Project Glass patent. Eric Athur Blair, aka George Orwell, wrote the following in 1949, within the pages of 1984:

It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself – anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide… an improper expression on your face was itself a punishable offence. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime…

Project Glass is a step towards a world where facecrime exists. While Google is selling the technology to the world as an ambient extension of the web’s abilities to make your life more convenient, it’s also a move to make you a more valuable node in Google’s data network. The device will constantly suck up information from your real world interactions, providing the most thorough picture of your movements ever recorded. Don’t think politicians, marketeers and the security services won’t be twitching to dip their mandibles in that sweet nectar.

Of course, Google’s marketing materials don’t quite describe it like that. Instead, they say:  “We think technology should work for you – to be there when you need it and get out of your way when you don’t…Google started Project Glass to build this kind of technology, one that helps you explore and share the world, putting you back into the moment…”

“Back” into the moment? Only someone with severe social problems could have phrased it quite like that. It’s a classic example of engineerthink versus the mindset of normal human beings. Software engineers have, in the main, forgotten what it is like to “be in the moment”, if they ever knew in the first place.

Ordinary people haven’t, yet, but the proliferation of time-sucking smartphones is certainly pushing them that way: witness the sea of flashes from any crowd watching a gig these days. Project Glass hastens the time when unencumbered real-world recreation comes to be seen as an exotic luxury.

Of course, Google won’t actually “reclaim” the moment for you, but it will monetize your moments. Project Glass is the telescreen made real, strapped directly onto your face, pumping adverts into your retina, encouraging you to perpetually jones for more information in a way that will make today’s Twitter addicts seem slothful and non-reactive.

There is something grimly inevitable about Project Glass, but we should nevertheless resist it. Fighter pilots need HUDs because they are multitasking in an environment where a consistent information feed represents the difference between life and death. I’d humbly submit that doing a spot of shopping or meeting your friends for a skinny latte are not tasks where you need a persistent data feed vomiting info into your field of vision, however.

What will be lost with the proliferation of Google glasses, and what will be gained? Project Glass will not materially improve our lives. It will improve Google’s databases and make it easier to sell, sell, sell us more products and services. Ultimately, whatever the utopian rhetoric of Google’s cash-rich, sense-light engineering team, Project Glass will make you the easiest piece of meat to market to in history.