I left the desert this past weekend to attend a wedding in Eagle Rock Saturday night. Sunday morning, recuperating with some friends around a sidewalk cafe table in East Hollywood, I had my first Google Glass sighting ever. They were aboard a nerd-stylish young woman, there with a date, and I felt the skin crawling on the back of my neck until she chose a seat with a telephone pole blocking her hardware's view of my table.
It was a tiny preview into a dystopia that seems to be unfolding to widespread applause, courtesy a company that once pledged not to be evil. And it's what I moved to the desert to avoid.
If you're not familiar with Google Glass, here's the basics: it's a computer that the user wears on his or her face, like a pair of glasses, and which provides some basic computer functionality to the user by way of a visual "overlay" on reality. GPS, weather forecasts, restaurant reviews and the like are some of the ways Google suggests Glass wearers will use the not-yet-released product.
The Google Glass functionality that's attracted the most attention is video recording. The wearer can start recording video and audio with a simple voice command. A red indicator light displays when Google Glass is recording, but otherwise the people around the user have no clue that the Glass user is documenting his or her surroundings. Unlike a smartphone, which generally requires a videographer to hold it up and aim it at the subject, Google Glass offers the possibility of recording with no obvious gestures aside from perhaps a subtle tilt of the head. Unless you're in the habit of checking everyone seated within 50 feet of you for red LED glow, you can assume that once Google Glass becomes popular your chances of enjoying some privacy in the outside world have been diminished.
Coming out of the desert and into Los Angeles and seeing this pre-public-release Google Glass wearer was a bit jarring. Desert folks like their privacy. Where I live, if you go around holding your smartphone up and recording random passersby, you run some risk of losing your phone. Possibly along with a bit of your self-esteem, and maybe a tooth or two.
It's not that the majority of people in Joshua Tree aren't polite: most of my neighbors are friendly to a fault. Our village economy relies on tourists, many of whom want to record their experiences for the folks back home and on Youtube. But there are a few people out here, me among them, who guard their privacy zealously even in public. We may give you the side-eye if you whip out your camera while we're trying to caffeinate. We may groan inwardly and leave. Some of us may even go so far as to offer an unkind comment.
And there are a few people out here who would take it even further. You may be enjoying your long weekend by scoping out the wonderful, rust-punk looking seemingly abandoned homesteader shack four miles off the pavement. The person inside that shack with the hot plate and vials and stock of stolen pseudoephedrine may see things differently. If Google Glass becomes common, you can expect that such people with a motive to defend their privacy violently, the meth-heads and White Power folks and paranoid whack jobs that seek solitude in the desert precisely to get away from people like you and me, will regard wearing the things as Intent To Document.
Protip for Google Glass users: The people I'm talking about? They have guns.
I'm not the only person concerned about the privacy aspects of Google Glass. A bar in Seattle has already banned them before they're available to the public, and Adrian Chen at Gawker -- not usually a source of anti-tech sentiment -- offers up this memorable lead paragraph in his uncompromising and potentially NSFW take on the device:
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.
I'm no particular Luddite. My fiancee and I go out to eat and -- by mutual agreement worked out over the years -- often read our phones while we wait for the food. I take my obsolescing smartphone on wilderness hikes. I've got my bird field guide on there, and it's a passable camera. I'd like to get my hands on Google Glass and try it out, see what it's like. The possibility of real-time translation of printing in languages you don't speak is pretty nifty, and if the product takes off, things like natural history layers on the product's GPS functionality will eventually get developed. Imagine being in a desert canyon and calling up a map overlay to tell you how old the rocks in that cliff face are, and which layers might have fossils in them? Assuming the meth heads downcanyon don't shoot you first.
To be fair, there's every possibility that Google Glass will change society just as deeply and profoundly as did the Segway, a technologically nifty machine that now serves primarily to identify its owner as a complete dork with far too much money. Until Google's $1,500 pre-release price comes down, if it ever does, that class marker is another troubling aspect of Google Glass. Those of us who don't have $1.5K to shell out get to be the subjects of the conspicuous consumers' privacy violations. Google Glass will extend the Digital Divide to the digit that nerd-pushes Google Glass back up toward the user's forehead. If that problem persists, it could prove to be a serious disincentive even to people who can afford the things. You already can't walk around in certain places with a smartphone in your hand. What's the point of Google Glass if you have to keep it hidden while you're riding the subway?
There are some possible positive ramifications of the technology. I haven't looked into it, but I wonder how many of the people anxiously awaiting their own Google Glass package decried Adria Richards' Tweeting of a photo of two men who were telling inappropriate sexual jokes at a professional conference. The largely male tech world erupted in fury at Richards' "invasion" of the crude jokesters' "privacy." That largely male tech world seems breathless in anticipation of a technology that would allow legions of Richardses to broadcast full video of their fratboy bantering to the HR departments of the world. If Google Glass breaks through to the commonplace, sexist workplace jokers and harassers might end up watching their step more often. Police officers might not handcuff young men, make them lie on their stomachs, and then shoot them in the back as often. Public meetings from Congress to your local homeowners' association might have to clean up their violations of ethics, law, and propriety.
So the invasion of privacy might be somewhat more democratic, if Google Glass gets the price to come down. But does that justify the technology? For every Adria Richards out there documenting sexist behavior in the workplace, how many creeps will there be documenting teenaged girls in yoga pants?
Some of us come out to the desert to escape the Panopticon that life in the city already is, increasingly. In Los Angeles, Google Glass might be just one more increment of invasion in a landscape already thoroughly colonized by surveillance cameras, red light cameras, random private webcams, smart phone videographers and other such prying eyes. But there are places out here that don't even have 4G yet. In fact -- and you might want to sit down here and swallow that mouthful of coffee -- there are some places out here where even the 3G coverage is spotty. We are in the back of beyond here in much of Eastern California.
And we like it that way, mostly.
So by all means, come on out and visit the desert. Bring your recording equipment, whether it's a shoulder-mounted Steadicam or this latest bit of geek lust from Google sitting on your face. Document your hike. Record that coyote begging for sandwiches. Take video of that gorgeous desert bloom backlit by sunrise. The desert needs all the documentation it can get.
But if you're talking to me, take that Google Glass off and put it away. If I'm speaking in public -- which I do from time to time, offering lectures and poetry readings and such -- and see you're in my audience wearing Google Glass and you haven't cleared it with me first, I will stop what I'm doing and ask you to put it away or leave. If you're at an adjacent cafe table facing me and recording in my direction, I will write something derogatory in Sharpie on a sheet of paper and hold it up. I may escalate from there. And I'm not alone.