Google Gets Dystopian: "Google Glasses" and the Surveillance State

Google Glass is, on the surface, the next step toward the future promised to us in science fiction: it ain’t flying cars, but a pair of “glasses” with the ability to record exactly what you’re doing in real time—”AUGMENTED REALITY GOGGLES”—is nothing to scoff at.

Showcased this week at Google’s tech I/O, in something PC Mag called “the most kickass tech demo ever,” the company’s co-founder Sergey Brin orchestrated a conference call on Google Plus with skydivers, BMX bikers and rock climbers, all wearing Google Glass so the audience could see what was going on in real time. And indeed it was impressive. Here’s video of how they put the stunt together, soundtracked to feelgood temp control with a song by the band We Were Promised Jetpacks. The subtext: Google Glass is our jetpack.

Brin informs us that we should be ready for a Google Glass world within two years, which is ambitious considering a pair costs $1500—about the price of a super tricked-out MacBook (or in New York City terms, rent). But if we’re fantasizing about the future, let’s imagine that in 2014, inequality is wiped out and Google has distributed Glass(es) to every American for free. Not only will we all be walking around like extras from Minority Report, we will be able to surreptitiously record video and take photographs of whatever we’re seeing, without anyone’s knowledge. In a closed-circuit television world, our future is looking pretty dystopian.

In April, when word of Google Glass emerged (before the demo showed us exactly how easy, effective and hi-fi using the accessory actually could be), an ominous thread began on the official forum of the International Private Investigators Union. “Undercover Surveillance Just Got Easier,” it declared, “with the New Google Glasses.”

Of course, those who claim surveillance as their line of work were beside themselves, chattering excitedly about the glasses, and speculating on other types of surveillance devices that do indeed portend the future from the movies and paranoid Philip K. Dick novels: contact lenses with built-in Internet, for one, which one poster predicted could turn us all into mini-Terminators: “Based on what the bio-science will be doing with connectivity in your eyes, I suspect an iPhone or any standalone item will be obsolete.” And you thought the iPad changed your life.

Also in May, Forbes columnist Kashmir Hill was less enthusiastic than the gumshoes, and posited that the “surveillance state” was now “inevitable":

Imagine how helpful this could be for reporting crimes. If you witnessed a boy being attacked in your yard, or a hit and run, or a robbery, you could immediately upload that file to police databases. Inevitably, we would all become watchmen, critical parts of the surveillance society. Alternately, law enforcement could use cell location tracking to figure out who was in a certain area at a certain time and get a warrant (or subpoena) for access to their vision logs.

And of course, any time we see something funny, embarrassing, sexual, disgusting, inspiring, or otherwise interesting, we will be able to more easily capture it and tweet it out. And once Google (or some other, braver company)  inevitably introduces facial recognition to the system, we’ll be able to include a stranger’s Twitter handle.You see two people having sex in a parking garage? Sure, take a photo, tag them in it, and upload the photo to Facebook, captioning it “OMG.” It’s creepy. It’s awesome. And it’s increasingly seeming inevitable.

Hill was on the right track but her whimsy was optimistic. Certainly we’re looking at a better, more interesting YouTube (which Google also owns) and potentially a safer society in regards to everyday crime. As we accept that our every move has viral potential, it seems we are helping to normalize the concept of actual surveillance—that not only our government, but corporations (and our employers), can know our entire lives to the point to living them vicariously through us, via footage captured on our devices and fed back to Google.

It's not alarmist to speculate; we've seen what Facebook can do with our personal information, trying things out to see if we'll accept it, and rolling back invasions only under pressure. So while Sergey Brin's BMX-and-skydiving stunt was truly awesome, it behooves us to go into our brave new world with a skeptical eye.


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