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.

It’s easy to forget that eyeglasses, which we hardly think of as assistive technology anymore, took a long road to societal acceptance. In 1926, the poet Dorothy Parker published the incisive rhyming couplet: “Men seldom make passes / at girls who wear glasses.” It was typical of Parker’s cynical wit, but back then not altogether untrue. A New York Times obituary of Parker confirms that she did, in fact, eschew spectacles in public or “when men were present.”

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.)

Movie stars also made people believe that sunglasses were cool. A May 1938 issue of LIFE magazine ushered in the mainstreaming of sunglass brands like Polaroid and Ray Ban, featuring women on the street trying not to look weird in the new “fad.” One photo shows a glamorous woman wearing “blinkers” (imagine what your grandmother would wear after an optometrist’s appointment), the caption comparing her to the movie stars who pioneered sunglasses “as far back as 1932.”

Google is already working to bridge the perception gap. A recent partnership with eyewear giant Luxottica promises both Ray Ban and Oakley frames by 2015, assuming Glass can survive until then.

On the other hand, if Google truly wants to sidestep the stigma of assistive tech, they can do what I did as a child before losing my own vision—ditch the glasses and go for contact lenses.