Google Zombie: The Glass Wearers of Tomorrow

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

While some wearers might be glassholes and some might be glassed-out (and some might be both), a better characterization of this new trend must come from elsewhere. The proper analogy for such an uncanny being is not the jerk nor the junkie but the zombie: neither living nor dead, but suspended interminably between the two. Wearers are neither present nor absent, neither here nor there, neither in-person nor on-line, neither attentive nor oblivious.

An animated corpse, the zombie was once lost to eternal rest before having been reanimated by means of witchcraft. Likewise, the Google Glass wearer was once absent, lost to the digital netherworld of the smartphone, before having been remanifested by means of today's black enchantment -- technology. If zombie corpses are undead, zombie wearers are unabsent. There but here, but neither, but both.

The zombie also helps explain why the narcotic metaphor of glassing-out seems so apt. The zoned-out wearer is not stoned but hypnotized: the living person whose consciousness is absent even as he or she remains physically present.

Reality has a way of making speculative fiction come true, but usually not in the ways our storytellers predicted. Often we design the future with the past's fantasies about it in mind, even if subconsciously. But futurism is its own kind of sorcery, and when we bargain with the devil he never discloses all his terms. The starship fantasy of computer-assisted communication was partly realized in today's smartphones, tablets, and intelligent assistants. But instead of acting as transparent tools that "get out of the way," as Apple promised for smartphones before Google did for goggles, those devices have become new affectations that serve few ends save for their own demand for attention. The shadow side of the wearable computing fantasy might seem to embody the creepy evil eye of hypersurveillance, but such a fantasy about the fantasy belies the more mundane reality of futurisms realized: rather than utopia or dystopia, we usually end up with something less dramatic yet more disappointing. Robots neither serve human masters nor destroy us in a dramatic genocide, but slowly dismantle our livelihoods while sparing our lives. Electric cars don't convey the masses through pristine, quiet streets; instead they serve as status symbols for the wealthy.

Instead of realizing science fictional precursors like head's up displays and retina implants, Google Glass's more modest and far more likely reality may give us actual human zombies. And like computer tablets and electric vehicles, those zombies will probably feel like weak copies of the ones from our dreams (or our nightmares). Rather than being ransacked by the undead set forth by vodou bokors, tomorrow's cities might be ravaged by the unabsent, set forth by the contemporary practitioners of dark and light magic -- companies like Google itself. Even so, whether undead or unabsent, the Infected or the Wearers, all zombies may share one thing in common: they build their armies by devouring human brains.

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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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