Growing up generations after Parker’s time, I can remember the acute sense of shame associated own with my coke-bottle lenses. To me they signified weakness and therefore unattractiveness. It’s a pop culture trope: if you really want to make someone feel powerless, break their glasses.
Pullin also discusses the relatively recent triumph of glasses to escape the assistive technology tag. Starting in the twenties and picking up momentum in the thirties, with the emergence of sunglasses and plastic frames, spectacles evolved from being classified as “medical devices” to the new, sexier term, “eyewear.” This type of normalization signifies a great leap to social acceptance that most other assistive technologies—think hearing aids, prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs—have never been able to make. Along with these still-stigmatized technologies, I count my own white cane, which for me is the most useful device I have ever touched. Yet no matter how many times I take it out in public, it upends the social scene, attracting curiosity, concern, and at times erratic behavior.
Glass has experienced such resistance because, subconsciously, people look at the wearer and can’t help but feel that that there is something amiss. When you see someone with a cane, a wheelchair, or even in certain venues sunglasses, it’s human nature to immediately seek out the reason. Sara Hendren, a leading thinker in adaptive technology design, has a motto: “all technology is assistive technology.” And technology designed poorly, she says, is a flag that marks us as “culturally designated as needing special attention, as being particularly, grossly abnormal.”
This marker can impose a “sick role,” a term coined by 20th-century Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons that denotes exemption from society and “sanctioned deviance.” When people see an asymmetrical, vaguely medical-looking body augmentation—even something as technologically advanced as Glass—the “sick role” detective work is applied. Something must be wrong. People are also scared deep-down that assistive technology allows for unfair advantages. There's a sense that such technologies might turn their wearers into something that's no longer entirely human.
What are Google's options?
Well, obviously, a less stigmatizing design would help (Google just announced its 2014 I/O conference will focus on the subject). Short of that, the most obvious answer is to find the right spokesperson. In other words, put Glass on more celebrities.
Google has already argued that Glass simply has the same problem as early daguerreotype photography, which was initially shunned in public until figures like Abraham Lincoln and Cornelius Vanderbilt posed, soothing fears that the new technology might be unsafe or supernatural.
And once we start seeing new technologies acted out in current-day settings on-screen, we tend to accept that they’ve arrived. Marketing Land writer Danny Sullivan compares Glass to the earliest mobile phones like the Motorola DynaTAC, which seemed laughable until wielded by antihero Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street. (You may also know the DynaTAC as the “Zack Morris phone” from television’s Saved by the Bell.)