Google Glass: the horror, the horror

by Sam Kriss

 If you want a picture of the future, imagine a human face grinning moronically at the middle distance – forever.

Google has strapped a smartphone to a pair of glasses, and it’s very exciting.

To try humanity’s brand new toy out, Google is demanding a fee of $1500 from the 800 winners of an online competition. For a chance to win, we’re to use the #ifihadglass hashtag to tell them how we’d use the thing. Thousands have eagerly replied that they’ll use it to creatively document the actualisation of their synergistic networking strategies – in other words, they’ve pointed out that Glass isn’t actually useful for anything. Actually, there’s one thing: it brings the panopticism of the information age to its apotheosis. Everything we do will we supervised; everything we look at will be analysed, all our information will feed into the contextual adverts that will inevitably start to pop up around our semi-virtual landscape. Glass is a technology of individuation, building a dystopically pliant Subject. It also finally euthanises the old, wheezing real world – technology ceases to be a part of existence; existence is now just one aspect of the technology. With Google Glass we can never be alone. We must always be connected. We must always be staring at images. Real people are reduced to holographic simulacra. Real relationships are reduced to digital delusions. And then there’s Google’s first promotional video, released last year, which dreams of a day when a twat can do some mundane stuff. Around a minute in, you realise that you’re supposed to actually identify with the smug self-absorbed protagonist rather than want to cave his head in with a rock. It’s an awful, sinking feeling: this is what the rich and powerful think we’re like. A world of preening narcissists.

But none of this is what’s really revolting about the whole thing. The panopticon was there before; it’s the panoptic nature of society that the problem, not the technology itself – the act of putting a camera on your face doesn’t inexorably lead to a surveillance society. Glass might provide a retreat from the real world, but so does art and literature and abstract thought itself; authenticity has never really existed. And twats are hardly a recent invention. Still, there remains something horrifying about it, something fundamentally and viscerally wrong.

Imagine this same video, shot from three feet in front of our hero instead of through his eyes. Suddenly, the technology recedes far into the background, and we’re left instead with what it’s created. We’re confronted with a man, hideous in his bodily actuality, sleeping on his sofa, a crusted line of drool running from the side of his mouth, still clothed in a plaid shirt, jeans, and flip-flops. The blinds are open; the pallid light of day shines without mercy on the whole fetid scene. A strange pair of glasses sit at an awkward angle across his face; there are red marks near the bridge of his nose where they’ve been pressing into his skin. He wakes up with a sudden start. As he does so his glasses whir into life. The man stretches his arms out. “Eeeeuuuuhhhh,” he says. His eyes flick back and forth. He’s looking at something, but we can’t see what it is; it doesn’t exist. There’s a strange unfocused aspect to them. They’re the eyes of a shaman, a prophet, the unblinking eyes of a madman, the staring eyes of a corpse. As he makes coffee his head lolls around and around. He can’t focus on anything. “Hng,” he says. He stands by a window for a while, looking but not seeing. “Gnunng,” he says. Then, shambling, eyes darting, he sets off into the world.

As he walks various grunts plop from his mouth. “Mmmng,” he says at a lamppost. “Hnuh,” he proclaims to an empty subway station. “Hueergh,” he tells a dog. A homeless man ranting in a corner pauses for a moment to observe the man in silent pity: at least he knows how to talk. Our hero carries on: he walks into a bookshop. “Where’s the music section?” he bellows – ignoring the plainly visible signs – to the horror of the other customers. As he blunders blind about the place he continues to speak, eyes rolling and darting, shouting at nobody. “Uuuugh,” he says. “Oh. Is Paul here yet? Heugh.” An employee’s hand hovers over the phone. She doesn’t want to call the police on a man who’s clearly not well, but he’s disturbing the customers, stomping and shouting – it’s as if he’s in his own little world, completely blind to the existence of those around him. Well, not quite: there’s someone outside who seems to recognise him; his carer, perhaps. “Hey dude,” he says. “How’s it going?” They buy coffee from a food truck, but even here his attention is diverted. He stares silently at its tyres for a while. “Cool,” he says, eventually, quaveringly. The other man soon leaves. It’s hard to blame him.

This tale of woe concludes on a windswept rooftop. Our hero stands by the edge. “Hey,” he says. “You wanna see something cool?” There is nobody around. He takes out a ukelele and plays a few twanging chords at the sunset, grinning wildly. He presses himself against the railing. Down on the street, passersby watch the frail form of a ukelele tumbling down the side of a building, buffeted up by the winds and falling down again, and soon after, a human shape, following it into the abyss…

One shambling zombie is a horrifying enough image. The second video, released last week, shows us a whole world of them. The cities are full of wandering people with flickering eyes. Their chatter rises to the clouds, a single monophonic drone. “Glass, record.” “Glass, take a photo.” “Hueergh.” “Glass, connect me.” “Hnnnugh.” “Glass, sustain me.” “Glass, direct me.” “Euuh.” “Glass, lift me from this pit of ashes and bones. Give me your fire. Let me burn as you burn.” Remove their glasses and it’s worse: they look at the world with a newborn’s bafflement. Where do they go? What do they do? The body is frail and helpless. Without one foot in the eternity of the digital Cloud their skin constricts them. It’s unendurable.

Everyone is always elsewhere. They ride rollercoasters. They go ice-skating. They perform in ballets. They don’t experience a thing. They’re watching themselves watching. The present moment is nonexistent, it’s only an electronically aided memory in progress, it’s already become the past, even while it’s happening. Crowds drift into the roads to be mowed down by distracted drivers. Hundreds are minced up. They don’t mind. The rollercoaster slides off its rails; the safety supervisor is watching TV through his glasses. As the car plunges towards the ground its passengers solemnly chorus: “Glass, record a video.” Far away, in a reinforced concrete server complex, their last moments will be stored. In these rows of humming computers all of humanity is kept: every second of their lives, documented, processed, regurgitated as consumer profiles and product suggestions. They will leave their record. They will not have died in vain.

Ten years later, children sift for scraps through the rubble of the old world.