Google Glass: a sociological perspective

Google Glass, the mobile computer device worn on the head in the form of spectacles and currently being tested by ‘explorers’ hand-picked by Google, has aroused a multitude of comments and responses. Glass works with voice commands and head movements, and the display is projected onto the glass lens of the spectacles so that it can be read by looking straight ahead. A tiny digital camera is mounted on the side of the device, facing outwards from the wearer’s face. It can therefore be used hands-free and unobtrusively for video, audio or still image capture as the user moves around carrying out everyday activities. These images can be instantaneously streamed to one’s social media platforms to share with others. Users can walk around and interact with other people as they simultaneously give Glass commands and read the screen on their lens. Glass therefore has the potential to meld more seamlessly into everyday life than the other mobile digital devices that are currently available.

Before it has even reached the mass market (it is currently predicted that the device will be available to consumers in early 2014), many discussions have emerged on the web concerning such aspects as how Glass wearers are perceived by others, how those who have been entrusted with the new technology are experiencing its use, and the privacy and ethical issues of Glass. As a sociologist interested in digital media technologies, I have been fascinated by these discussions for what they reveal about responses to and experiences of new technologies. I am also interested in thinking about how Glass may be used for sociological research, as part of new ways of using digital technologies in the quest to develop ‘live sociology’ (creative and innovative approaches to sociological research). Here are some of the sociocultural aspects of Glass that have so far emerged in accounts of this device in its very early stages.

There has been much discussion of how Glass wearers appear to others, with some comments about how these devices mark out their users as ‘nerdy geeks’ or alternatively as ‘cool’, attracting attention from others because the device is so new and interesting. This raises issues of the ways in which new technologies – both their form and their function – are incorporated into everyday routines (‘domesticated’) by their users. As material objects interacting with human actors, any new digital devices must be worked upon by their adopters, and in turn work upon those who use them, altering their bodies and selves.

The capacity for technologies to change the ways in which we interact with others and feel about our selves and our bodies have been remarked upon by several commentators. In his piece entitled  ‘O.K. Glass: confessions of a Google Glass explorer’, for example, writer Gary Shteyngart notes that when wearing Glass he is approached by many people wanting to learn about the experience of the device. His bodily demeanour changes when he wears the Glass: he jerks his head, slides his finger along the device, raises his right eyebrow, squints his right eye and mouths words to active the device. To onlookers his bodily movements appear rather strange. Friends tell him that he looks as if he has a nervous tick, a lazy eye, a faraway, distracted gaze as he scans the readouts on his lens; his wife thinks he acts like a robot when using Glass. But Shteyngart feels a sense of power from wearing Glass. Writing in the third person of his experiences he observes: ‘It’s as if the man with the glasses has some form of mastery of the world around him, and maybe even within himself’.

The potential for Glass to change the way in which memory operates has been suggested. It has been argued, for example, that Glass takes images so readily that ‘It doesn’t feel like taking a picture. It feels like making a mental note to remember what you’re looking at.’ It can therefore act as a ‘life-logging’ device, taking constant images to preserve memories and even automatically making gifs of images taken close together. Wearing Glass and taking frequent images, therefore, ‘is less cell phone and more neural augmentation’ (observations by Glass Explorer Mykola Bilokonsky). Another commentator is less sanguine, warning that this is akin to outsourcing our memories to a device, thus ‘hindering our ability to experience the moments those memories attach to’ (John Warner).

Some writers, inevitably, have commented on the surveillance features afforded by Glass. The device’s unobtrusive nature and its form as mimicking spectacles, it is argued, will mean that those people who are observed by Glass users may be unaware that they are being filmed or photographed. Although when the device is filming the LED display glows as a signal, this may not always be easily noticed by those who are being filmed or audio-recorded, particularly if they are some distance away or have their backs turned to the device.

It has been speculated that as Glass becomes more commonly used, the ultimate surveillance society will result. Users will become both observed and observers: they will monitor others at the same time as they themselves are being surveilled (Joe Brodie). Many commentators have noted that constant surveillance of people by others around them will result in multitudes of data about individuals being stored in the cloud that may potentially be accessed by government or other agencies (Jason Perlow), a particular concern in the light of the recent American government’s PRISM surveillance scandal. It has been also asserted that Glass may be used to further stigmatise and marginalise minority groups by contributing to the surveillance technologies that are already disproportionately directed towards them and to the humiliation and stalking of women via such digital recording strategies as ‘creepshots’ and  ‘revenge porn’ (Whitney Erin Boesel).

What of the potential for Glass to be used as part of ‘live sociology’? Many possibilities spring to mind. Quite apart from the important issue of investigating features of the lived experience of using Glass (how does it feel to use it, how do people respond to users, how does use affect social relations and moving around in space, what are the implications for education, healthcare, journalism and other occupations?), the device can be used as a tool itself for social research. With its powerful observing eye, Glass could be employed productively for ethnographic research as the ultimate tool for recording people’s social behaviours in real time. Participant observation research can be undertaken easily by using the recording features as the researcher moves around in specific social spaces and interacts with others.

Alternatively, research participants can be asked to wear Glass as they go about their everyday lives and the consequent data uploaded to the researcher’s device.  The device allows their users to record what they themselves are looking at directly, so these data can provide a unique opportunity to ‘look through the eyes’ of other people. Once these visual data are recorded and uploaded, the researcher could then sit down with the research participant and look at the material together, asking questions about the participant’s thoughts and experiences as they engaged in the activities and moved through the spaces depicted in the recordings. All this, of course, will need to be thought through in relation to the kind of ethical and privacy issues identified above.

See my Bundlr ‘Google Glass: social and ethical implications’ for a collection of the articles referred to above and more.

4 thoughts on “Google Glass: a sociological perspective

  1. Really interesting piece and particularly in thinking about the potential for sociological research which also poses questions about how Google Glass would impact on conceptions of subject and object in research and outside of it. Glass does seem perhaps oddly consistent with the all knowing “God’s eye” subject who fixes their object in time and space (via photo and video) and classifies them in relation to other knowledge (via Google searches). I’ve made similar suggestions on my blog in relation to the gendering of Google Glass.

  2. Pingback: Google Glass: a sociological perspective | Wear...

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