Google Zombie: The Glass Wearers of Tomorrow

The best metaphor for Google Glass? Not jerks or junkies, but the living dead.
pichlersmallrooms.jpg

Three copies of Walter Pichler's Small Room (Prototype 4), 1967 (Werner Kaligofsky).

Since the unveiling of Google Glass, the tech giant's new wearable computing device, a common nickname for its wearers has arisen among skeptics and critics: Glassholes. It's a charming portmanteau that satisfies an immediate desire to shun this weird new contraption. And the term fits, to some extent. As a strangely popular trend in books on assholes has helped us understand, the asshole is characterized by entitlement, by claiming special privileges that place him or her at the center of concern. Google Glass would seem to exemplify just such an attitude, a declaration that the material world is insufficient for the wearer, who retires into an alternative one online at whim.

But as The Atlantic Wire's Rebecca Greenfield has explained, even if it sounds right in theory, Glass wearers, in practice, just zone out. Silicon Valley technology workers at the epicenter of the Glass outbreak have reportedly given a new name to this state: "glassed out." As if lifted from the pages of a William Gibson novel, Google Glass becomes a pscyhotropic drug made of bits and metal rather than chemicals and gelatin. A new digital delirium.

Perhaps there is more for us to learn from these early reports of Glass-induced stupefication, as captured in an image in Nick Bilton's report on Google's recent trade show, Google I/O. While Bilton describes being creeped out at the prospect of dorks winking at their Glass to take snapshots of his junk at the urinal, the zoned out Google reps shown holding "office hours" strike me as a far more likely signal of the hypothetical future world of wearable computers.

And it's just the opposite of the promise Google has been making for the device. Here's what Google Glass industrial designer Isabelle Olsson told The Verge's Joshua Topolsky about some of her design motivations:

One day, I went to work -- I live in SF and I have to commute to Mountain View and there are these shuttles -- I went to the shuttle stop and I saw a line of not 10 people but 15 people standing in a row like this," she puts her head down and mimics someone poking at a smartphone. "I don't want to do that, you know? I don't want to be that person. That's when it dawned on me that, OK, we have to make this work. It's bold. It's crazy. But we think that we can do something cool with it."

According to its designers, Google Glass is supposed to "bring technology closer to your senses," allowing us "to more quickly get information and connect with other people." Wearable designs are meant to "get out of your way when you're not interacting with technology." But the glassed-out "wearers" (a term akin to "burners," maybe) seems to suggest the opposite result: bringing technology closer actually further distances us from the world.

The very invisibility of connection with Glass may form part of the problem. After all, Olsson's head-down smartphone pokers are clearly signaling their relationship to the physical world, even if the meaning of that signal amounts to, "I am withdrawing from it." So tempting as the "glassed-out" metaphor might be, it's the wrong one. "Wearers" are not like users, zoned out and distanced from worldly interactions through artificial chemical supplement. Rather, they are weirdly, undecidably suspended between presence and absence. The glassed-out early adopters of wearable computers signal neither; they signal nothing at all.

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Ian Bogost is a writer, game designer, and contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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