RE: EdgePenguin And Google Glass


I, for one, welcome our new cyborg overlords.

Recently the discussion about Google Glass has kicked into full gear with a wide variety of topics from speculation about functionality to imminent privacy concerns. I had a short exchange on twitter with @petehague and @stopthecyborgs about those concerns, Pete Hague published an article on his blog EdgePenguin shortly after.

Letting the ideas, conversation and problems incubate for a day (and by that I mean having a Monty Python marathon) I am now ready to give my own perspective on the issues presented in Pete’s article.

Thinking about it I have decided that I am quite pro Google Glass and don’t see the presented issues as too much of a problem, or at least one of the technology itself or needing any sort of additional government regulation. I will present my arguments as to why with contextual quotes from Pete’s article.

Pete writes:

Twenty years ago, you could expect to sit with a friend in a crowded cafe and have a private conversation. Background noise is high, most people around you are entirely disinterested in what you are saying, so if you sit reasonably close and keep your voice at a normal level, it isn’t very likely someone will be listening in.

This is the first thing I had to evaluate with myself and came to the conclusion that this is in fact a false sense of privacy and it’s not even limited to the public space either. I see it strictly as a social hurdle to be taken.

First, we have to separate two distinct ideas about privacy.

A. The formal governmental idea of privacy.

B. The informal social idea of privacy

In A we have a set of laws that govern the interaction between both the citizens as well as the state. The rules govern our rights like for example to not be surveilled by the state in our own homes, or to not use various private information (descendancy, sex, diseases, sexual orientation) to discriminate in the workplace or insurance. These are rights granted by the state to protect not only privacy but to protect equality by homogenizing the population somewhat.

In B we have a set of informal rules that govern our day-to-day social interactions with others. These social interactions are, and were, actually quite often breached in society. Everything hinges on the person next to you to honor these informal rules.

I am talking about the old social disease of gossip here.

To draw an analogy in technical terms, the person you are having a private conversation with records your conversation in his brain and is free to replicate this conversation to any other person by the use of language (our medium of communication). He can write an article about it, he can quote you (if he has superb memory), he can tell the conversation to his mother or publish it in his memoirs.

All that technology like Google Glass does is take the middle-man out of the picture and externalizes the information from the persons brain to a hard-drive or other technological recording device. The difference is only the fidelity and transmission of data, the choice and adherence to informal rules still lies with the individual using the technology. Furthermore all laws and regulations apply equally to this technology as well, even though this information is now available to be replicated faster, more accurately and with higher fidelity than before, it may not be used in an illegal way.

I am obliged to mention however that there -are- problems with current laws that interfere with technology and could be unfairly applied. As an example there is a law here that the mere possession and recording of child-pornography is illegal, but what if you happen to record an act of molestation as evidence? Rick Falkvinge has an article about this and how it -already- backfired on a few people.

So you see, in fact our interactions with other people and our sense of privacy was already contingent on the courtesy of others. The only difference is that breaches in privacy were always deniable since we didn’t have direct access to the information but rather a transcript through language and no way to verify its veracity. If you saw Brian really walk into the gay-bar was not verifiable, but with Google Glass it could be.

I understand the sentiment that access to this type of information and breaches of privacy might be hurtful or even sometimes dangerous for individuals, but they already are. Nobody is going to stop people from lying or breaching privacy since that is entirely dependent on the agency of the individual.

If we take this one step further, we will reach a point where miniaturization will allow us to have the recording hardware directly in our eye, or maybe even direct access to our memories and the solution can’t be thought-police.

Finally, imagine a future where Google Glass or a similar device is ubiquitous. Someone doesn’t have to stand out from the crowd to trigger themselves being subject to digital recording – they already have a camera pointing at them which can be activated at any time by the operator or manufacturer (Google of course have stated their goal as being unlimited data access, and have shown a willingness to try to achieve this) and which doesn’t necessarily reveal its status to the outside world. The default mode of everybody in such a world is ‘watched’.

[…]Secondly, what people see of us in public is usually swiftly disregarded and forgotten, not stored digitally and indexed.

We are already “watched”, every day of the week, all the time, by the eyes of everyone we pass by.

So why isn’t that a problem? Well partially as detailed above because the information collected isn’t as direct but secondly because we have come to understand that we are in fact not the center of the universe and nobody focuses on specifically -us-. We mostly go ignored day in-day-out by everyone we run into our lives.

Its the processing problem.

Our rate at which we produce data has out-grown our ability to process and store it already, most of our data is discarded and lost forever. Think about how many pictures you take on your DSLR (mobile phone) and how carelessly you snap, you discard most of them into the recycle bin. The same will happen once we introduce Google Glass.

There isn’t a way that we can process or store all this information that will be created. Continuously recording your life, from lets say age 20, without sleep-cycles, would require you to sift through ~320.000 hours of video and audio. At a MP4 compression of 3 Mbits (strong compression for 720p) this is ~423457GB (414TB) of data.

Of course we can quantify this information and take it on a daily basis but even then to sift through 1 hour of recorded footage it takes you….exactly one hour, because the best “software” to do audio-video recognition is currently our brain (no existing image recognition software would be able to accurately do this job faster, CSI is a lie).

The probability that someone somewhere recorded you and that incriminating information will be discovered “by accident” (just by virtue of existing) is highly improbable. The breach of privacy or the recording of incriminating behavior must hence have intent, like for example a friend taking pictures of you drunk and posting it on facebook. This friend will not upload all the 200 pictures he took to facebook, he will delete most of them.

The police and courts are humourless and will continue to make this sort of mistake, and Twitter is a public microblogging service rather than a private conversation with your mates. Many twitter users (myself included) have taken this as a cue to self-censor to an extent, and be aware that we are publishing when we tweet.


However that is a problem with the justice system as well as current laws woefully lagging behind the digital age (QED copyright laws trumping the rights of free expression) that is something worth tackling of course. Our technology outpaced social change and we are in a situation where few of us are tech-literate advising the tech-illiterate (that mostly don’t listen). We are the sorcerers and apprentices of techno-magic trying to make the populace understand.

And indeed I see the problem with Google Glass the same way, it’s a social problem that will need to fall into place. At first it will spark controversy (like now) later society will adapt to accept the relatively low threat of being “constantly recorded” (sounds scary, but isn’t).

There is a risk of this kind of technology being used to create a world where everybody is guilty, because everybody has something recorded somewhere that can be used against them. It is the age old concept of sin, where a person is taught to be ashamed of his or her self, and constantly afraid of being revealed as a sinner.

This is one side of the coin. Personally I would hope that it would create a world of tolerance and lower social inhibition as everyone is equally “guilty”. A freeing or loosening of social rules and interactions, a breaking down of formality and ad-hom. After all, whats the point in adhering to rigid social constructs if they are stupid and nobody cares? An example is the current situation of public political candidate scrutiny in the US, it’s fatigued and fading. Public transparency is great, but nobody can continuously follow and process the data, society will experience fatigue. BigBrother isn’t as big as it was before.

Legislation can restrict the data gathering scope of Google Glass-like devices.

I find the call for legislation (restriction) to be wrong and unhelpful, the problem will not be solved that way and only lead down the road Pete described. If the recording or data gathering is fragmented into legal and illegal, the illegal will still exist, it might be prosecuted, but how do you imagine this to be the case without the state sifting through the data itself? If you entirely reject the technology and make it illegal, there still will be people that use it. There will be “legit” Google Glasses and “hacked” Google Glasses just like there are unlocked iPhones.

Will it not lead to the same Sisyphus task as policing piracy i.e. impossible?

I’m wondering if someone, somewhere, had a similar discussion ca. 1820 when photography was being developed. Imagine the paradigm shift, to capture a scene it took minutes instead of hours of an artist painting it with a brush and the film was replicable faster. An image could be proliferated everywhere, even printed in a newspaper!

My conclusion is that Google Glass will not take your soul.


One Response to RE: EdgePenguin And Google Glass

  1. Fred says:

    I’ve also been recently discussing Google Glass at length with Pete Hague and others and find myself squarely in the pro Glass camp for many of the same reason you mention in your post, almost to the point that the blog post I’m currently compiling on the subject will look like I’ve just ripped you off (In fact only this morning was I considering the very same argument you mentioned in terms of people currently recording everything with their eyes).

    Really great post.

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