WILL IT BE POSSIBLE TO OPT-OUT OF PROJECT GLASS?

Leithal Thinking Anthropologist, Imran Husain, explores the social and behavioural implications of Google Glass

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LEITHAL THINKING

WILL IT BE POSSIBLE TO OPT-OUT OF PROJECT GLASS?
Google’s latest and arguably most ambitious product, Project Glass, has had the gadget geeks salivating over its potential already. But how will this always-on Augmented Reality tool effect our every day lives? Leithal Thinking’s resident anthropologist, Imran Husain, explores the brave new world that’s already here.
There have been plenty of pixels devoted to playing out the dystopian possibilities that augmented reality (AR) technology will bring about. A staple of sinister sci-fi subject matter, current discourse on the perils of widespread use of augmented-reality devices have naturally honed in on Google’s latest Promethean project, Project Glass. Glass’ potential has ranged from life-changing and indispensable to practically and philosophically unwanted. Psychologically, commentary on Glass has speculated on shortened attention-spans and physiological decline. The inevitable concerns surrounding privacy and surveillance, and how society will react to the use of a device with such obvious appearance yet secretive usage, have been the most productive areas of debate. There are those who would argue that we already have an overload of information flying at us from all directions without filtering or time for contemplation, and that pressing it up against our eyeballs isn’t necessarily a positive step. The level of pre-emptive speculation exists because Project Glass has got us excited in a way that we’ve come to expect from Google. Google themselves are conscious of removing the social barriers of wearable technologies by encouraging early (and public) use with opinion formers, and fashion and style icons. Combined with a plethora of seemingly utopian use cases, offering social, wellness, and educational benefits, Google’s pre-launch strategy seems bizarrely removed from the consequences of merging the digital and physical worlds in such a passive receptacle as our eyes. An army of Android developers, waiting to unleash the collective imagination of the global mobile developer base onto our vision, inspires, and worries in equal measure. The economics and viability of Glass as a consumer product are intriguing, but equally as intriguing are the principles behind AR technologies, and how they will train us to think about and act in the world. No matter which vision we’re currently trying to impose on it, benevolent or sinister, technology that quite literally alters the way we see the world cannot just be what we want it to be. Beyond speculating on some of the benefits of using Glass, it will be of interest to consider the other side of AR technologies, what kind of divisions they create, what will be the outcomes of those who resist using them, and ultimately, which ideas an AR device like Glass will strike at.

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LEITHAL THINKING

FC and this image © Giuseppe Costantino

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WHAT CAN GOOGLE GLASS DO?

Google’s authorised vision for what Glass can do is, naturally, pretty endearing: helping us to navigate daily life, keep our appointments, pull up information from the internet (specifically social networks), capture images from our point of view, and of course, help us to be more romantic with a ukulele. Essentially, in its first generation, it’s going to augment the use of our smartphones. However, the principle behind the technology is far more profound. The potential of AR will become apparent when it will begin to visually superimpose context-specific information onto our regular field of vision, to annotate and enhance with more information and visualisations. But with the rise of enthusiastic adopters of AR technologies and everything they offer, there will inevitably be those who will wish to resist, to opt-out, to try and reify the authentic and the real as they see it, and to make more rigid the increasingly blurred distinction between what is on-line and off-line. This form of ‘authenticity’ will increasingly be used to stake claims of personality and identity upon.

Superimposing a dynamic digital overlay onto our ordinary sight will do more than entertain us by collecting digital artefacts left by others – it will have a huge impact on our ability to learn new skills.

01. SKILLS
The ability to pull up relevant stats while sitting in the crowd at a sports event has its own charm, but this use of Glass is essentially a heads-up version of an existing technology: the smartphone. Superimposing a dynamic digital overlay onto our ordinary sight will do more than entertain us by collecting digital artefacts left by others – it will have a huge impact on our ability to learn new skills. Glass has already been employed to share video information during surgery, and we’re likely to see future iterations of AR technology guiding surgeons’ hands, highlighting points of interest, displaying vital statistics, alerting the wearer to any complications that arise. There’s no reason that the same technology can’t also help us become better drivers, learn to cook complex recipes, instantly alert us to errors and dangers, from simple arithmetic mistakes we make while sticking to a shopping budget, to being able to spot and record details if we witness a crime in progress. The potential to enable positive social effects through AR are vast. The trope of the quantified self presents an obvious use case for Glass. A formulation of the ‘facts and figures self’ is eminently competitive and comparable, and has been gaining traction. The enthusiasm behind it cannot be explained simply, but gamification of skills and activities in everyday life goes hand in hand with a subconscious bureaucratic thrill to quantify and organise. Riding this trend, wearable technologies such as the Jawbone Up, Fitbit and Nike+ Fuelband are demonstrating fitness gamification as a real-time, lived experience. AR naturally enhances realism and relevance, visually motivating pedestrians to burn more calories, or showing how to drive at optimal fuel efficiency to save money. Commensurate real-world reward for engaging in these sets of gamified rules will drive wider participation more than only offering competitive in-game achievements.

LEITHAL THINKING CONCEPT – FAT_BOY: PEDESTRIAN CALORIE TRACK AR GAME APP

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01. SKILLS

THIS PAGE: LEITHAL THINKING CONCEPT – FUEL: HEADS-UP DISPLAY FOR ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY AND COST-EFFICIENT DRIVING OPPOSITE PAGE: “SIGHT” 2012, A SHORT FUTURISTIC FILM BY ERAN MAR-RAZ AND DANIEAL LAZO VIMEO.COM/46304267

Of course, there is a lot of negative (and very valid) reaction to this trend, fearing of what we will lose as a result of over-dependency on this kind of technology. It’s a vision of an affordable pair of AR specs in everyone’s hands leading to a generation that won’t be able to organise their lives if their batteries run low. Parallel to this is the possibility that we won’t be able to help becoming disengaged with our physically immediate interactions. Nicholas Carr has compellingly argued in “Shallows” that what we often prize as multi-tasking is actually just distracted thinking, and we already have a poor understanding of how the internet affects our brains, before we take the leap into welding it to our everyday sight.

The excellent and thought-provoking short-film Sight plays out an intriguing, and frightening, scenario of where we could be headed. The thrill of quantifying everyday life and extreme gamification social interactions poses some uncomfortable questions.

Just as it’s easier not to memorise facts that we know can be accessible through a couple of swipes or a voice command via Google, our ability to store and retrieve memory finds itself re-ordered in the presence of AR technologies. The impetus to maintain concentration can go down when we know everything is being automatically archived, our minds practicing a different kind of ambient concentration. Even being briefed on a complex task from your boss may not be cause for feverish worry or engage intense cognitive processes if we know it’s all being recorded and organised, ready for us to retrieve when we need it. Asking whether Google is making us more or less intelligent is a new expression of an old debate, questioning how technology forces us to trade off old skills for new benefits. It is a fear of what we term “Secondary Primitivism”, the belief that the accepted

wisdom of an exponentially rising curve of technological and evolutionary advancement is tempered by the skills that we lose. Shedding skills, particularly those that are tactile and familiar, is troublesome not for practical consequences, but the value we place on them as signifiers of our personality. For instance, LPs have been technologically redundant for decades, but try getting a collector to part with their library just because you’ve digitised it for them. The commonality behind resistance to this next new technology is a sense of fear, an inability to feel in control of the effect and influence it will have on our lives. It also enables greater differentiation and elitism, the ability to communicate things about ourselves through usage or rejection. Non-adopters of AR technologies will have the ability to say they learned to perfect their tennis-technique without the aid of ball-tracking technology

getting them into the right position on the court, to perfect their golf swing without the trajectory being drawn for them, who learned the hidden secrets of a new city while on holiday by getting lost in it, not being directed by a skull-vibrating headset to the nearest bar which got a 4.8-star rating by travellers in the wearer’s age and gender demographic in the past 3 years. Essentially, this is a kind of claim of authenticity, one that can be argued as being diminished by reliance on AR devices, whilst AR-adopters can justifiably claim greater experiential meaning, that their activities become more sociable and fun.

Non-adopters of AR technologies will have the ability to say they learned the hidden secrets of a new city while on holiday by getting lost in it, not being directed by a skull-vibrating headset to the nearest bar which got a 4.8-star rating by travellers in the wearer’s age and gender demographic in the past 3 years”
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02. THE PARTICIPATORY PANOPTICON
The principle behind Jeremy Bentham’s original model for a Panopticon prison, where inmates’ behaviour was regulated by their belief that they were under constant observation, has renewed relevance in a society where we all collude with the architecture of surveillance. As the presence of wearable technology increases, so does our belief in our actions being recorded and archived, potentially to be used against us. Without the need for some centralised omnipotent jailer figure, what has been termed a participatory Panopticon will have each of us casting the indelible electronic gaze that will alter our behaviours. Until AR devices become either entirely covert, or widely-adopted, people’s reaction to the augmented gaze will become more pronounced. Previously judged on conventions of appearance, interaction and kinship, it will take some trial and error before we know what the new conventions will look like when the immanent qualities of a person can be drastically altered during an encounter that employs wearable AR tech. Anthropologist Mike Wesch has discussed how the webcam has benignly demanded that a surrender of control on just who your audience is – the problem being not a lack of context, but context collapse. Talking to someone who could be recording and uploading your conversation may be disconcerting, but will begin to affect behaviours once we feel burned by cases of conversations ending up being viewed in contexts they were not intended for.

In the past, it has been easier to simply opt-out by choosing not to participate. Glass won’t necessarily allow for such a passive withdrawal. Opting-out will take proactive measures, notifications or technologies to disrupt recordings and being tracked. While there has been mainstream indifference to pervasive tracking when it comes to traditional web browsing, it is likely that there will be greater interest in resisting once this migrates into real-world scenarios. We can see the indications of resistance technologies, such as the GPS bubble, a small capsule that can disrupt GPS trackers within the vicinity of the carrier. Natural suspicion of lead-users of AR technology will be further fuelled as cases of hacking consumer AR products become more commonplace.

It’s not uncommon to spot low-tech resistances to supposedly untrustworthy technologies if you’ve ever seen a 50-something laptop user with the built-in web cam covered with a post-it, but increasingly sophisticated, seemingly passive, always-on technologies will require more sophisticated means of negating to provide the same level of satisfaction that is sought by powering down a laptop and leaving the room. While anti-tracking technologies will take time to catch up and respond, it’s likely we will see more pre-emptive bans, but it remains to be seen whether or not it will be possible to centrally regulate a technology like Google Glass.

It’s not uncommon to spot low-tech resistances to supposedly untrustworthy technologies if you’ve ever seen a 50-something laptop user with the built-in web cam covered with a post-it”
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03. SOCIAL KNOWLEDGE
Feeling at sea with information overload, or put another way, believing that we need to dilute and simplify how we understand people, ideas, information, is again, an old idea.
Sociologist Clay Shirky shows us how the idea that we are suddenly creating and sharing access to more information than can be consumed paints an inaccurate picture, and is instead described better as a breakdown of the filters that we’re used to. The most interesting implication of Shirky’s hypothesis is that new media makes social conventions explicit, so we suffer an overload of social knowledge: personal and detailed information about those who are not close to us in the traditional sense. The older filters of effort and inconvenience to spy on people vanish, and suddenly we find ourselves less competent and more confused on how we are supposed to behave when we are privy to intimate information on erstwhile colleagues as we are for siblings and the closest of friends. Discarding the need to learn redundant skills is one matter, but this kind of social knowledge, knowing how to behave and act towards one another, will have to find new purpose, particularly when some would say our love-affair with online social networks has already altered our social skills. While people currently struggle to migrate the kinds of filters they have in real life to the online-space, frequently seeing “circles, “friends”, “family”, “groups” etc. as rigid and inadequate boundary-markers for the content they’d like to share, it’s probable that there won’t be the willingness nor interest in pursuing this to detailed levels of granulation. “Ex-colleague of the opposite gender with whom I’d rather not share online comments about nights out” is much harder to input as a social media filter than it is to implement in real life conversation. While Google Now has demonstrated the software company’s interest in developing context-specific filtering, there is a long way to go before most users will be comfortable letting such decisions be made by an algorithm. This will stifle app development projects, initially only making use of information made available from users uninterested in the complexities of privacy settings. Early adopters may opt to eliminate the risk that they can become an annotated face, host of tweets, comments, posts, pictures, a latent online footprint as visible as the clothes they are wearing to any stranger with a pair of fancy specs.

Will the act of removing an AR headset and switching off technological devices become a key new social convention to signify respect, concentration and a desire for an authentic interaction?”

With the fear of not being able to cope with digitally augmenting everyday life, or fear of what kind of persons this would make us, and most strikingly, the fear of inauthenticity, that we’re trading off the meaningful real for the meaningless fake, will there be enough reasons to have an aversion to Glass? In an environment where our interactions will be digital by default, a deeper desire to make these more feel more authentic and meaningful will continue to motivate behaviours as adoption and usage matures. Will the ability to interact and get to know someone without using some technology develop its own kind of social currency? Interpretation and instinct, prized in everyday actions today won’t find themselves smoothly incorporated into an AR culture. The assumption will be that nuances and details are simply fed to users through no effort or concentration on their part, at best filtered through increasingly sophisticated context-specific algorithms. Google has already declared that facial recognition will be disabled, but whether that will counter the suspicion that using wearable AR tech is a form of social ‘cheating’ is unclear.

Will the act of removing an AR headset and switching off technological devices become a key new social convention to signify respect, concentration and a desire for an authentic interaction? And how will the practice of ‘offline’, or more ‘human’ interactions be signified as AR devices become more discrete, subcutaneous or worn as contact lenses? Where centralised methods of control will inevitably fail, we can leave it to social creativity to determine what the etiquette which regulates AR technology will ultimately be.

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CONCLUSION

SEEING THROUGH GOOGLE GLASS
What Glass is offering is something quite momentous. Whether or not Google get the execution right on their first attempt remains to be seen, but their first foray into teaching consumers about the potential of AR in their everyday lives will be significant. Some of the natural resistances to AR do offer clues as to how divisive technology such as this can be. A) The impact on skills has the potential to be profound, as does the potential to enhance the perceived value of skills learned in more traditional ways. Unaided acquisition will be for truly embodied knowledge, whether that’s learning martial arts from being thrown around a dojo instead of dodging images projected onto your eyes, or knowing a city like the back of your hand and not just the gear on your forehead. It will allow people to claim a more authentic relationship to a person, an art, a sport, a skill, an idea. B) Concerns over surveillance, and the imbalance of interactions where one participant is seeing and experiencing an augmented vision of the encounter will lead to active forms of resistance, whether through changing behaviours or new technologies. Glass won’t be something that can be quietly ignored and rendered impotent. C) Lastly, it will further shift how we handle social knowledge, information about those around us and closest both in proximity and sentiment to us. It will go further in collapsing the already blurred distinction between an online and offline identity. For those seeking to reify the experience of ‘authentic’ human encounters, it may lead to an attempt to ritually re-affirm such boundaries. With the introduction of a physical object that so obviously represents the tension between the domains of on- and off-line, Glass will no doubt mark a division, and choosing the side that privileges being ‘human’ in a very un-augmented sense will demand that a meeting between friends, a family reunion, a first date or an interview for a new job will require conventions that signify authenticity, concentration, respect – taking off your Glass to show you’re playing by the rules. The open-source nature of Android will undoubtedly inspire a great deal of creativity in the development of Glass, and the relevance of the applications will determine its true influence. Some will come to reject it, for fear of the implications of the technology, for what they are losing, and an earnest desire to protect and enhance a sense of authenticity in their lives. On a broader scale, AR will visualise our way of organising the world and project it outwards, it is with this system of organising our social knowledge that we will have to be comfortable with. It isn’t through arbitrary coincidence that in the English-speaking world we use almost exclusively visual metaphors for knowledge, and we will continue to discuss how we see this technology influencing, us, the perspectives we will have on it, and how it will focus our opinions. Embrace or resist, AR is going to change a lot about how we think about the world around us, and ignoring it won’t be enough to stop it influencing our behaviours.

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