Dear Glass Explorers

The following letter was received by the INSPIRE Centre at 6:53AM on the 7th May, 2014. 

The letter is directed at Google Glass Explorers with reference to the Glass Meetups event that will occur at the University of Canberra, INSPIRE Centre on 12 May, 2014.

"...Dear Glass Explorers,

Greetings from ‘stop the cyborgs’ which you may know from our ban signs and possibly a few media articles. We are mainly technology people so we are definitely not ‘anti tech’.  We are not calling for a complete government ban on wearable tech like glass. Nor do we believe that you shouldn’t wear it at all. Rather we want to help define sensible norms around where people do or don’t wear devices; encourage individual people to think about the social impact of new technologies; and to discourage the normalisation of surveillance.

Even though Google Glass is still a limited prototype it has generated excitement and controversy in equal measure.  Whether you love it or loath one thing we can agree on is that it is a symbolically important device that represents a change in our relationship with technology.  If the trajectory that glass represents is followed technology will become part of us, mediating every human decision and interaction for good or ill.

Glass, other wearables  (and in future implants) are designed with the intention of making technology both invisible and omnipresent by integrating it closely with the body. The integration of corporate cloud services, technical devices, and the human body has three major implications.

1. Non-users cannot tell what user’s device is doing. 

Wearing a POV camera like Narrative Clip, Glass or Life Logger is not equivalent to having a smart phone in your pocket – and picking it up and using it. It is equivalent to constantly holding up your phone and pointing it at people.  The non-user has no real idea what the user’s device is doing and this leads to mistrust, unease and unfortunately in some circumstances confrontation.

 2.    Users can feel devices are part of their extended body.

 With a traditional device like a phone non-users could just make a behavioural request. If someone asked you to stop pointing your smart phone at them would you be offended?  Probably not. However with some wearable devices like Glass this leads to confrontation because there is a feeling that wearable devices form part of the extended self. Wearable devices are not temporary tools but rather deeply personal and individual.

 3.    Individual becomes part of the platform.

 The individual becomes a node in the network. They are personally monitored (for example location or activity data). They gather data about the world on behalf of the system (social sharing, rating, location, proximity to others). They are given suggestions and advice by the system such as recommendations, ratings nudges or incentives.

  • A Google Now like service provides you with suggestions;
  • A Name tag like service gives you a trip advisor like rating of the person you are looking at;
  • A Tinder like service tells you who you should to talk to;
  • A Fitbit like service rewards you for certain ‘good’ behaviours

This applies to the web and smart phones as well as wearables. However as these systems “get out of the way”, and are increasingly integrated with ourselves they become a kind of outsourced unconscious that we become simultaneously more dependent on and less able to scrutinize.

 This corporately controlled collective mind allows companies to exert a powerful and invisible influence. The algorithms seem objective – we trust them - but social assumptions, cultural values, expected norms and power structures are hidden and enforced by code.

Most of the discussion at #glassmeetup is naturally going to focus on Google Glass. However we should not fixate on the specific technical features of generation one of one particular device.  Yes the battery life sucks, they don’t constantly record and face recognition is currently banned, but battery life will improve, Life Logger constantly records and Google have not committed to a permanent ban on face recognition.

Rather we need to take a wider view and sensibly discuss the social and political implications of current and potential technologies.  Technology has a powerful influence on society - yet there is typically a view that it is morally neutral, apolitical and inevitable. Nothing is further from the truth.

This discussion should not take place in a middle class tech bubble. Not everyone is a model citizen with a perfect credit record, positive social media profile and good health. Not everyone will have an equal chance in this gamified world we are constructing. Rather we need to consider how new technologies will impact marginalised groups and individuals.

  1. What will the experience of being a reformed criminal or person with a poor credit rating in a world of ubiquitous face recognition be like?
  2. What will be the experience of non-compliant people if health care systems monitor treatment adherence or if governments and insurers used devices for managing population health?
  3. What will be the experience of employees who are monitored by their employers?

Further we need to consider how technologies affect power structures. Do certain organisations, systems gain an unprecedented ability to monitor and influence human behaviour? Wither personal freedom when our every action is monitored and judged by social media and powerful and un-debatable automated systems?

Some say: “That it is too late. That we must accept that everything will inevitably recorded.  That the only response is transparency and mutual snooping.” This argument is initially seductive but it fundamentally misunderstands what modern surveillance is.  

There is a place for transparency but it is systems that need to be transparent not people. Mutual snooping against individuals magnifies power disparities and perpetuates inequalities.

Modern surveillance is not primarily about an evil big brother figure watching from above. Modern surveillance is about classifying and sorting people. It is about ‘statistically rational’ automated discrimination, nudging and enforcement of norms. Modern abuse of power is not a cop beating someone up. It is about your life chances being determined by some correlation and that doesn’t show up on video.

Wishing you all the best for your #glassmeetup in Canberra.


Stop the Cyborgs

 Annex: Defining the extended body

In a sense users of some wearable devices are claiming a cyborg identity. They are claiming that their self encompasses both their biological body and a technical device.

It seems reasonable to claim that one’s extended self can encompass technical parts. If a person has a hearing aid, a pace maker or a prosthetic limb then it would be unreasonable to ask them to remove their ears, their heart, or their leg.

Similarly though a little less convincingly it could be argued that there is no reason to make a distinction between medical devices (which restore “normal” function) and enhancements (which give people new abilities).

Thus it can be argued that excluding people because their self happens to include some technical part is a form of discrimination. Certainly we have a great deal of sympathy with this view point and support the rights of people who use assistive devices and indeed people who have enhancements like Neil Harbisson.

However while it seems reasonable to claim that a hearing aid or self-built extra sense is part of the extended self this extended self must have a boundary for it to exist as an individual self at all. This boundary if it is not the biological body must be defined by agency. That is an individuals extended body and extended mind comprises only those systems over which that individual and no-one else has control.

Devices which are networked or controlled by a corporation therefore cannot form part of an individual’s extended body.  Indeed a user of such a device cannot claim for instance that “they are not recording” because they have no idea what their device is really doing.  Certainly they have no idea what is happening to their data once it has been uploaded to the server – where it can be sold or subpoenaed.

This is of course true for phones as well as wearables or implantables. The key difference being that a compromised phone will sit in a handbag, rather than an ideal POV vantage point (wearables) or embedded into your flesh (implantables). "

Attached to this letter was the following infographic: