Sometime in the early 90s, a bunch of grad students at MIT, among them Thad Starner and Steve Mann, started wearing computers on their faces. In a 2013 interview for something called ‘Singularity 1 on 1’, Starner describes how he started out doing this. He was struggling in classes, he said, because he couldn’t take notes at the rate required for the class without using a laptop. But if he used a laptop to take notes, he wasn’t able to get the right intuitive “feel” for what his professor was saying. But if he abandoned the idea of note-taking entirely, he’d quickly forget everything he said. Long story short, Starner found that, by strapping a computer screen to one eye, and operating it with a simplified one-handed keyboard called a “twiddler,” he could remain engaged with the class while also managing to take notes at an acceptable rate. Then, he found that he’d often be in situations where he wanted to take notes on conversations with professors and fellow students he’d have outside of class. So he started wearing the computer outside class as well. Soon he was wearing it everywhere, all day long.
A 1997 feature for CBS’s 60 Minutes shows Starner as he was then: short, ginger, ponytail, goatee beard, trenchcoat, large wire-framed glasses, and a computer strapped to his face. He is shown walking along the street, and looks like an impossible freak, a man who wants to give the impression of having just stepped back into the past from the future, but who really just looks like he’s stepped out of his parents’ house for the first time in an awful long time. Starner impresses anchor Morley Safer by using his wearable computer to search on AltaVista for the career batting average of Mickey Mantle, initially stumbling over the spelling of Mantle before reeling off a long list of statistics like someone who lacks any context against which to understand them, until Safer begs him to stop.
A 1995 photograph depicts Starner, far right, and five of his friends, all of whom have already joined him in wearing computers on their faces. They stand in front of a plate glass building presumably at MIT, looking every bit like they have history behind them. For, as with the Velvet Underground’s first record and listeners starting their own bands, almost all of the men in the picture went out and got the investment capital for a technology start-up. Today Thad Starner is the lead developer on Google Glass, which is currently being rolled out for general sale worldwide (it went on limited general sale in the US in April, and has just undergone a similar release in the UK at the end of June), and his idea of “augmented reality,” which wearable computing opens us up to the possibility of, is about to be unleashed on us all, with all the inevitability of a tidal wave.
In many ways, I think, Starner and the other wearable computing pioneers are to be applauded. These are people who, after all, had a vision of how the world should be, and they have in some sense been able to achieve it. Starner was born into a world in which human beings did not wear computers on their faces: in all likelihood he will die in a world where it is quite normal for human beings to do just that. There is something distinctively human about having an orientation towards your environment such that you can be freely engaged with it in what can be understood as a transformative way. We tend to alter the world with imaginative insight and creative endeavor.
A wolf, for example, is a creature that lacks higher-order thought. Wolves also do things like hunt in packs. But, being an animal that lacks higher-order thought, an individual wolf cannot ask herself questions such as “why should wolves hunt in packs?” And, even if she could, such a wolf would not be able to come to the conclusion that wolves would be better off hunting alone, or perhaps even farming, and then set about altering her environment such that wolves are able to, for instance, become a society of self-sustaining farmers. But a human being, equipped as they are with rational, conceptual, and linguistic capacities, can ask questions like “what is the good?” and imagine how they might align themselves with it, and how the world might need to be changed to bring any desired changes about. So, if a person (e.g. Thad Starner) asks themselves the question “how could my world be better?” and comes to the conclusion that “it would be better if I (and everyone else) had a computer strapped to their face,” and then manages to bring this previously unlikely world about, then really what they are doing is managing to exercise their distinctively human capacities in a very successful way.
But, as Marx points out in the 1844 Manuscripts, individual human beings, under certain socio-economic conditions can become alienated from these distinctively human capacities. This is the condition of the worker under capitalism. In the section of the manuscripts describing this phenomenon, Marx is, as ever, clearly impressed in a lot of ways by the innovations that industrialization has brought about. These innovations allow human labor to produce a lot of very wonderful things (railways, coats, pins, and so on and so forth), but for the worker, Marx says, it produces only privation. “It produces palaces — but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty — but for the worker, deformity. It replaces labor by machines — but some of the workers it throws back into a barbarous type of labor, and the other workers it turns into machines. It produces intelligence — but for the worker idiocy, cretinism.”
The new technologies which, Marx says, are “labor’s realization,” thus “appear as loss of reality,” for the worker — so much so, indeed, that the worker “loses reality to the point of starving to death.” The reason for this is that, although the sort of technologies that made industrial capitalism possible (and which continue to drive capitalism today) are the product of what is in many ways the best sort of distinctively human, transformative world-engagement. These technologies have the effect of forcing the majority of human beings (for Marx, the proletariat) to engage with them in such a way as to make that sort of engagement with the world, for these people, into something that is no longer a real possibility.
In Marx’s account, this is because the worker is not free to engage with the world in a distinctively human way through their labor (as those people who, say, invented the steam engine, did; or how great writers or artists, Marx included, did or do). Rather, they must work in order to gain access to the basic resources they need to satisfy their merely animal needs: most pressingly, food and shelter. Hence the worker under capitalism is not just alienated from their labor and the world, they are (insofar as they are also alienated from these two things) alienated from themselves qua human beings. The worker, Marx says, is someone who is only freely active in their “animal functions.” Their joys, therefore, are merely culinary ones; the worker seeks to realize him or herself in “eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in their dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.”
From these thoughts, we can come to understand why Marx demands that proletarian revolution requires taking control of the means of production, which are then to be owned in common: it is not at all that Marx thinks humanity’s salvation lies in eliminating private property in the sense of having everything rationed out by the group or the state (as is sometimes crudely thought). Rather, it is that every human being needs to have equally full and transparent access to the technologies that, at their best, are the product of the right sort of human world-engagement and that make increasingly freer engagement with that world, by human beings, possible. This stands in opposition to what invariably happens now, which is that these products of free and creative human endeavor tend to shut down new possibilities as soon as they come into existence, pulling away the ladder as soon as its inventor has scrambled over the wall. This certainly seems to be the case with Google Glass.
What is, after all, Starner’s vision for “augmented reality,” that thing which becomes available through wearing computers on one’s face? Google Glass gives the user a sort of little screen at the side of their vision through which they can be, effectively, always connected to the Internet and thus to Google and its various products, as well as advertisers who can then target ads at you. Although currently worn as a sort of visor (hence the name), one imagines that they intend this to eventually work in the future through something more innocuous, like contact lenses or even something permanently grafted to the body.
But the augmentation of the human body that the product involves is nothing compared to how it augments that body’s experience of the world that it exists within. As advertisements for the product suggest, the augmentation in question involves the imposition of a large set of Google-approved categories onto the world as it is experienced by the Glass-wearer. Much as Google maps doesn’t allow you to search for where anything is located without also giving you the star rating other users have assigned it on average, so will the reality of the Glass wearer become one endless stream of reviews for restaurants glanced at, price tags on the shoes and clothes of passers-by, recommendations for other titles bought by people who liked the book you’re currently trying to find the right inner stillness to approach with the honesty the text requires, the reduction of all women you encounter to mere numbers through the collective endeavor of previous users, who have rated each individual part of every extant woman’s body out of ten. This will all accompany the option to share any of these experiences with people on your social networks, through pics and text and qualitative feels.
Insofar as all thinking is, in truth, conceptual thought (even if it is not always wholly about conceptualized things), the imposition of Google’s concepts and categories directly onto reality as it is most immediately (for Glass users) experienced is clearly a dangerous one. In particular, this is the case since once a product like Glass begins to acquire some sort of prevalence, its use tends to become increasingly compulsory. Just as it is hard to imagine now someone existing in Western society today being able to access most of the basic things they need to survive without in some way being connected to the Internet, so in a few years time it may be similarly difficult to imagine someone being able to live comfortably in this world whilst refusing to wear a computer over their eyes. Since it is our conceptual, linguistic, rational capacities that make a distinctively human sort of engagement with the world possible at all, it follows that if Glass’s dominance became total, the possibility of doing this in a free way (apart from Google) would be lost. Indeed, with a company the size of Google, it is hard not to look at Glass and not see this world’s dawn presented as an inevitability.
In interviews, Starner invokes a phrase of his boss Larry Page to sell the point of Glass. “To reduce the time between intention and action.” In the “Singularity 1 on 1” interview, Starner illustrates this by, with his Glass device strapped on, positing the hypothetical that he wants to know what the career batting average of Mickey Mantle is, before deftly blinking his eye up and asking Glass to Google it for him. A split-second later, Starner comes back with the answer: “.298.” An answer which, in truth, we must think Starner didn’t really need a piece of technology strapped to his face to come up with, considering it was the same example that was used in his 60 Minutes interview, and he also has a human memory. As with a lot of recent technological innovations, Glass seems on one level like a pretty pointless way of doing differently something we could already do perfectly well: it is much the same for gestural engagement with computing devices, or Siri. People are generally speaking more confidently using buttons and clicks and in many ways they offer more flexible possibilities for engaging with the device: even for the master of such technologies, increases in efficiency seem like they must inevitably lead to sacrifices in levels of control. With Glass, you are, it seems, simply replacing something you could already do perfectly well with a method that brings your action, ultimately, under Google’s control.
The idea of wearable computing is in many ways a very interesting one. Without wanting to sound like an acceleration-ist here, it certainly seems that we should open ourselves to the possibility that there are all sorts of good things that, if we used wearable computers and other cyborg-type implementation devices in the right way, we might be able to achieve that we cannot do so at present. Indeed, Starner’s own reasons for inventing wearable computing seem to be, on some level (although he did, in fairness, look like an idiot), resulting from exactly that sort of motive. But Google, it seems, transparently wants the user of Glass to use it in a way that is, on the one hand, pointless, adding nothing to our experience of reality that we might conceivably want or find useful, and secondly (and definitely more seriously, taking this from stupid-gadget territory to evil-supervillain territory), entirely controlled by Google. Such that all we would do, with such a device, is, for no apparent gain, give over control of our higher-order capacities to Google.
On the far left of the 1995 photograph of Starner and company wearing computers on their faces is Steve Mann. In many ways, Mann took the idea of wearable computing even further than Starner. Starner, of course, works for Google: in interviews he comes across as bookish, boyishly nerdy, but basically focused on how this gadget can be imposed upon (which at least on some level means it must be made to appeal to) the maximum number of consumers. Mann, on the other hand, literally has a computer bolted onto his face surgically. When he travels, Mann has to take documents with him, signed by his doctor, explaining this situation to security at the airport. He is only able to take off the Glass-style computer that he has attached to his skull with special tools. Mann claims to be the first cyborg. In 2012, he also became the victim of “the first cybernetic hate-crime,” when the staff at a McDonald’s in Paris, seeing his computer, objected to him having it in the restaurant, and tried to rip it off his face.
The first cybernetic hate crime, but not the last. Already this year there have been two attacks on people wearing Google Glass; both in San Francisco, where the product is much more prevalent than it is anywhere else in the world. On February 24th, a tech writer named Sarah Slocum, who was demonstrating her use of Glass in a bar in the city while on a night out, got into a drunken altercation with a woman objecting to her taking pictures with it, before the woman’s male companion snatched it off her face and stole it. The device was eventually returned to her. Meanwhile on April 11th, Kyle Russell, a reporter for Business Insider, walked into an anti-Google protest in San Francisco’s Mission district with his Glass strapped to his face, having previously tweeted about going to the protest wearing Glass with some bravado. A woman spotted him with it, yelled “GLASS!”, ripped the device off his face, and ran with it through the streets before smashing it on the sidewalk. In both cases, the reaction on the Internet was one of ridicule and joy.
Both of these attacks occurred before Glass went on general sale in the United States. Although things have been fairly quiet since its launch, I predict that we will see more and more Glass-related attacks, as Glass becomes increasingly visible in our society and culture, and I predict that they will be similarly applauded by third parties. The reason for this is that, I think, when technology works to alienate us from our world, and we can recognize this (as it is relatively straightforward to do with Glass), people instinctively wish to attempt to stop it from gaining any sort of prevalence. And, given we can have no real political capital against a company like Google, the only resort is to smash it.
This is the logic of Luddism. Although now all-too-often associated with a sort of kneejerk anti-technology refusenikism, the real, historical Luddites were engaged in genuinely radical action against the technology that threatened to make world-engagement, for them, impossible. The original Luddite movement emerged in the English midlands in the 1810s amongst artisanal weavers who used handlooms. The textile mills then being built threatened to rob them not only of their livelihood but their very means of self-expression (through their labor), and the workers, placed in an analogous situation in regards with this technology as we are with Glass today, quickly found they had no way of resisting its imposition except by raiding the factories and smashing the machines they found inside. Naturally, they found that the government of the day was far from on their side: the emerging capitalist state sent in the army, previously busy fighting Napoleon in the Iberian Peninsula, to break the threat of the Luddites.
Of course this did for the Luddites pretty quickly, but this is not to say that their movement had no effect, or that their strategy was completely futile. What would be completely futile would be to resign oneself to the loss of something that is essential for your ability to engage with the world. At least the proper expression of one’s anger can have positive consequences. It may well not be possible to arrest the future simply by stamping one’s feet, but at least by resisting it we can show that a better one is possible.
The act of smashing Google Glass is the New Luddism. When you see someone walking down the street with Glass strapped to their face and you feel drawn to seize it from off them and destroy it, this instinct is the ethically correct one. And it will continue to be so until there is the possibility that technologies like Glass can enable rather than make difficult or even impossible the conditions under which human individuals can on a widespread scale engage freely, creatively, and imaginatively with their world. That is, when we could use a product like Glass to augment our own reality, for ourselves.
Illustration by Eliza Koch. See more of Eliza’s work here.