The Politics of Design

Google Glass - Ariel Zambelich/WIRED
Google Glass – Ariel Zambelich/WIRED

In 2015 Google made the Google Glass public for anyone to buy. A former boss of mine bought the Google Glass and tried it out and also let me use it for a few days. Google Glass looks like a modern frame for a pair of glasses that had a camera attached to the frame and a screen on a tiny square glass on the right side. This revolutionary new technology was supposed to revolutionize how we interact with computers. After smartphones had become so ubiquitous, Google wanted to transcend the handheld device and create a wearable device. It had the ability to answer calls, take photos, take video, and a few other things. It also had to be tethered to an Android phone. For all of the amazing technologies it was supposed to have, it was very limited.

Adoption of this device had several implications, primarily issues with privacy, for the user and the pedestrian. The Google Glass required you to wear them like a pair of glasses. The wearing of them immediately brought up issues of users’ privacy. People were concerned that Google could know every step you take and see everything you look at. The fear of a huge corporation having an unprecedented amount of access to your life created real fears in people. Some talked about how with a phone you can easily leave it in your car, at home, etc. but the idea of wearing technology on your body left many people the impression that the technology must always remain with you. There were also concerns that there was no privacy when using the technology, talking must be done out loud, you could be seen tapping the lens to take a photo, and your eyes could be seen by other people while you were focused on looking at content in the glass. The vast majority people said they would never want to wear a device such as Google Glass.

Despite those concerns, there were a lot of people, like my boss for example, who were excited about the new technology and were eager to try it out. Many saw wearable technology as an eventuality and wanted to be the early adopters. Once people started acquiring the Google Glass and wearing them around, there was intrigue at first. Strangers and friends would ask about them, some even asked to try it for themselves. Initially, it was perceived as a curious and exciting piece of technology. Over a short period of time as people became more familiar with its capabilities, family, friends, and pedestrians started to become very concerned with the fact that they had no idea if someone was taking a photo or a video of them at any given time. Intrigue turned into outright rejection of the technology. People wearing them inside of restaurants and other businesses were asked to take them off while inside as customers complained about their lack of privacy. Then came a collective insult for all the people who wore them around, “glassholes.” The public started shaming the wearers of Google Glass and quickly after the device disappeared into technology history.

The technology may have been innovative and useful but the social rejection of the wears of the Google Glass became a rejection not of the users, but of technology itself. When Google Glass was designed, there appeared to be a complete lack of understanding of people’s fear of losing privacy in public spaces. There was nothing built into the device itself to allow pedestrians feel safe around a user of them. Interaction designers frequently only consider the needs of the user without regard for the people in proximity of the user who are also impacted by the technology. Interaction designers must constantly challenge themselves when creating new technologies by considering the user’s needs and the needs of people in close proximity of the user. Because of Google’s failure to adequately address this, society let Google know they hated the technology by alienating its users which led to people no longer using it in public. If that had not happened so effectively, there may have been laws passed to ban them or require them to alter the technology in such a way that bystanders would when a photo is taken or perhaps making Google disable the camera feature altogether. When I wore the Google Glass I enjoy them and found them fun to use but I also felt extremely self conscious, not of how I looked but how people around me felt about me using them near them. After a couple days, I decided to never wear them again. By former boss ended up selling them Ebay as he did not want to feel like an outcast in public either.

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