People Don't Like Google Glass Because It Makes Them Seem Weak

A blind writer reflects on the persistent stigma attached to assistive technologies, even advanced ones.
Google founder Sergey Brin (Reuters)

“Wait, I just had my first Glass sighting,” a friend whispered to me as we left Dolores Park last summer. “I just can’t. These people. They look so stupid.”

Personally, I am blind—and was more concerned with planning my next step, white cane out in front of me—so I didn’t actually see it.

I can see a bit, at times, but I was fairly certain that with my irrevocably hazy vision a face-mounted computer screen would be useless to me. So, to fit in, I agreed, what a fool. Together we laughed at the man wearing Google Glass. If you can’t join them, mock them.

At the time, seeing the technology in the wild was still relatively rare. Today at Dolores Park, or anywhere in San Francisco for that matter, a guy wearing Google Glass has become almost as common as a Chihuahua wearing cashmere—less sporadic than you’d think.

Last week, maybe-not-coincidentally both Tax Day and the day before Google released its Q1 earnings, the company held a fire sale for Glass. (That is, if you’d call $1,500 a steal.) So like it or not, we’ll be seeing a lot more people, eyes rolling up and to the right, slightly zombieish, talking to their eyewear.

Recent altercations on local streets and in neighborhood bars show that even San Francisco harbors a population spiteful toward this new look. During the recent sale, Wired called Glass “doomed.” Many have tried to pin down exactly why Glass has not assimilated as smoothly as, say, the iPhone.

As a blind man, I think I’ve figured it out.

I don’t think our society’s rejection of Glass is necessarily rooted in stated concerns about privacy, exclusivity, class dynamics, disconnection from the world, or many of the other arguments that have been put forth. These are well-established, modern problems that Glass makes only marginally worse. Instead I believe the resistance to Glass is about our fear of assistive technology.

Fastened to your face to enhance and modify your perception, Glass crosses over from fancy accessory to the realm of biological modification. Glass’s potential in my own life dawned on me last fall as I stood trying to buy a drink in a dimly lit bar in Oakland. When I went to pay, I took out a wad of cash, and, because of my eyesight, could not identify the denomination of any of the bills in my hand. I found myself fumbling, staring dumbly at the paper in my palms, taking painful guesses. Was it a five? A one? Ten, maybe? I was jolted back to the idea of Glass. This was a perfect application. Then my mind ran off with it. Glass could give me access; I could be reading street signs, comparing labels in the grocery store, recognizing faces (though Google denies the feature exists right now), and perhaps even return to the joy of picking up a book and flipping through its pages. I’d never be lost again.

You’d think the potential for Glass as assistive tech, which many have noted, would work in its favor. But the truth is much to the contrary. No number of articles touting the device’s medical or industrial uses have prompted great acceptance in public.

There remains a disheartening chasm between what we think of as assistive tech versus good design. Glass is struggling because it hovers between the two.

This aversion to assistive technology is a well-documented phenomenon. Scholars and designers have noted the stigma associated with such devices. In his 2009 book Design Meets Disability, British industrial designer Graham Pullin attempts to bridge this gap. Pullin imagines a world where hotshot designers like Apple’s Jonathan Ive might revolutionize tools for the disabled. That’s hardly reality yet.

Auckland University of Technology professor Clare Hocking has written about the factors leading to assistive technology “abandonment” from the perspective of occupational therapy, and says people give up many devices because of the negative effects of being perceived as different by others—the wearer simply feels bad. This applies to canes, wheelchairs, prosthetics, and yes, even glasses. People don’t want to look dorky, or like something out of science fiction.

Presented by

Will Butler

Will K. Butler is a writer living in Oakland, CA. Follow him on Twitter @willkbutler

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