Google Glass Pros: In the Long Run, the Benefits Outweigh the Drawbacks

Google Glasses Happy Face

We can’t fly like Superman, but we’re rapidly acquiring his other powers

The arrival of Google Glass did not surprise everyone. Innovators like the U . of Toronto’s Steven Mann spent two decades making wearable computerized visual overlays — or “specs” — more compact and effective, till at last Google deemed the technology ready.

Augmented reality, or AR, has been explored in fiction since the 1980s by authors Vernor Vinge, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and in my own novel “Earth,” portraying a near future when citizens will take it as a routine element of life.

The path to your destination might be viewed as yellow bricks that are visible only to you. At command, you’ll access public knowledge about any building. Your glasses may equip each passersby with a name tag so you’re never at a loss.

But conveniences accompany drawbacks. Do we want to be recognized by everyone in sight? Will advertising penetrate our barriers and swarm before our eyes?

SEE MORE: View All Stories from Our Special Report on Google

Huge privacy questions are raised by the way specs can record whatever the wearer sees. Efforts have been made to ban such devices from bars, theaters, even towns. Police , already upset over recent court rulings that allow citizens to record them with cell-phone cameras, will find the Glass stare more unnerving.

These devices won’t just record, they will enhance vision, zooming in and magnifying objects distant or close. Sensors that already exist might link to your specs, empowering you to detect body heat or another person’s pulse rate. We can’t fly like Superman, but we’re rapidly acquiring his other powers.

SEE MORE: Google Glass Cons: How the Camera-Embedded Eyeglasses Could Shatter Privacy

AR will display all of this on the inner surface of the user’s specs, tailored to his or her preferences. With a tooth-click or a grunted command, that person over there might scan not only your name but also your preening Facebook profile — or instead peruse dissenting opinions posted by your ex-spouse. That giggling teen may have her Google Eyes (a better name than “Glass”) tuned with an app that draws mustaches onto passersby. Other apps might bedeck buildings in jungle vines and attire us in fantasy armor — or ersatz nakedness.

Indignation won’t stop this, any more than raging at a tsunami of cameras will make them vanish. Before rushing to legislate, let’s try looking beyond momentary crises and consider the world 10 years further along.

Cameras become smaller, cheaper, more numerous, mobile and available. Next year, one will sit innocuously at the corner of your sunglasses. The year after, it’ll be invisible in shirt buttons. Then cameras will wave and peer from the tips of your cyber-active hair.

You want to ban it all? Fine, pass laws. Then you and I won’t get these things. But do you imagine this will inconvenience elites of government, wealth, corporations, technology or crime?

These devices will shrink till they become imperceptible. A handful of companies and researchers have already developed electronic contact lenses that can monitor data, with full-scale versions coming. If the technology is banned, surreptitious versions will simply accelerate.

As Robert Heinlein observed way back in 1950, privacy laws tend to just make the spy cameras even smaller. Elites will have it all anyway, making us peasants under omniscient lords.

If these technologies are inevitable, we should embrace them, trying for a win-win. The one hope we have for privacy will be if everyone can use these new powers of sight, and if we agree to rebuke those who stare.

Instead of panicking, we should be arguing, negotiating and adapting ways to get most of the good, and to mitigate the bad to bearable amounts of the merely irritating.

Related Stories: Special Report on Google

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  1. Rob Perkins says:

    Jarron, yes, I’ve met Dr. Brin, and when he argues for “transparency”, it’s in the service of accountability. He argues for a regime where everyone has cameras so that non-elites can look back at elites and hold them responsible for the duties their privilege imparts. That last paragraph is a take-away. Whatever the technology, we should be… negotiating and adapting ways to get most of the good, and to mitigate the bad.” That’s what he wants to keep alive.

    • Thales says:

      If you want to hold elites accountable, put cameras all over the IRS, DOJ, white house, etc. Turning everyone into a paparazzi will only hold the elites accountable as to how they dress at Spago’s.

    • Jarron Mathews says:

      Absolutely agree with Brin in pointing out the need for accountability. Would also agree that banning technology like glass is not the answer. Instead the focus should be on the use, broadcast and aggregation of personal data.

      Where we disagree is:

      (1) Characterizing privacy and accountability as opposites.
      (2) Focusing on individual people as opposed to organizations. There is no contradiction between wanting personal privacy while wanting organizations to be held accountable. That is we can require transparency and hold people accountable for their decisions when exercising authority without having to intrude on their personal life.
      (3) Focusing on technology like camera’s rather than things like freedom of information, legal protection for whistle-blowers.

      • Jarron Mathews says:

        Or to put it another way. The problem is not that we don’t know what elites are doing. The problem is we are powerless to do anything about it.

  2. Jarron Mathews says:

    David Brin’s argument is essentially “Tiny Cameras everywhere are inevitable and this will inevitably kill privacy” in which case why bother to make the argument at all. “Tiny cameras WILL be everywhere”; “there WILL be a tsunami of indignation”; “Laws WILL make no difference”; “the elites WILL have it all anyway”, making us peasants under omniscient lords. So many inevitabilities….. one wonders what he thinks we can actually change or indeed why he speaks at all.

    He argues for “transparency” – an odd choice of words since transparent things are invisible (Air for example). I assume he really means “accountability”. Something which is far more to do with separation of powers, equity under the law and democratic processes than visibility per-say.

    But perhaps he does really mean “transparency”. This is still odd since for some reason he believes that “transparency” is the opposite of privacy as opposed to “corporate secrecy” or “national security”. I don’t recall any oppressive organization ever using “personal privacy” as cover rather they make their arguments in terms of the need to combat an enemy or in terms of organizational efficiency. Does he really think that security agencies and corporations will abandon secrecy because we as individuals have given up on privacy?

    He also seems obsessed with the visual gaze, with tiny cameras. This visual recording can only reveal certain practices. It can reveal breaking of the law by physical people. It can reveal sexual practices or odd behavior. It can embarrass individuals for saying something stupid or offensive.

    What it cannot do is hold organizations to account. What it cannot do is prevent abuse by those with power. (Unless that abuse is purely physical and obviously against the law.) Thus while individuals might be held accountable (for example a cop beating someone up) or a member of the elite cheating on his wife. Organizations whether state, criminal corporate will be as opaque and unchallengeable as ever. Only the petty crimes of individuals will be uncovered not systematic problems. If our aim is to uncover organizational abuses then whistle blowers like snowden, citizen audits, prevention of revolving door recruiting are a more useful tools than tiny cameras.

    What is needed is not ending of privacy of individuals but rather an politically active population and democratic over-sight of state and corporate agencies in order to ensure accountability of systems.

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