How Google Can Solve its Glasshole Problem

Google glass has a big problem with its glassholes. Glassholes, in case you haven’t been following the ongoing controversies about Google’s wearable computing experiment, are early adopters of Google Glass who have been causing scenes like this:

“On three occasions before requiring Hunt to leave, Billy had asked him directly. I once witnessed this: Hunt walked in donning Glass, Billy asked that he remove it, Hunt laughed, walked behind the bar, and poured himself a beer. Matt ran Telegraph’s social media accounts in exchange for free food and drink, and took the same liberties afforded to actual employees.”

Predictably enough, the phenomenon of the glasshole appears to be localized around San Francisco, and like other technological controversies over technology that are appearing there, it is getting global media attention. The top-voted Urban Dictionary entry for glasshole has been upvoted over seven thousand times, and a google trends search for the term shows that its use is rapidly increasing.

Google should pay more attention to their own analytical software, because the popularity of the term “glasshole” is very, very bad for them. If it catches on much more than it already has, then Google Glass, and perhaps the entire concept of wearable computing, is dead in the water. It may already be too late.

Basically, Google is at risk of creating a symbolic lockout of their product. Lockout occurs when prevailing social, economic, or political advantages make it impossible for a technology to have any real impact, regardless of its merit. The classic example of lockout is the DVORAK keyboard, which is far more efficient than the traditional QWERTY keyboard, but it is locked out of the market because its widespread adoption would require a complete rearrangement of how typists are trained.

Symbolic lockout is a little bit different. It occurs when the public understanding of a technology develops in such a way that they will never be interested in using it, and a lockout effect occurs. An excellent example of this can be found in the early history of the electric car. Around the turn of the twentieth century, gasoline engines were noisy, smelly, difficult to start, and unreliable. By comparison, it was possible to simply step into an electric car, start it with the push of a button, and be reasonably confident that it would run well enough to take you home in one piece. This created a significant market for electric cars.

Gasoline cars, however, were not without their advantages. They were faster, they could climb hills better, and they could go farther than their electric counterparts. This made them ideally suited for the highly masculine activity of touring. The mechanical competence required to run a gasoline car also had masculine associations. While gasoline cars were seen as adventure machines, then, electric cars, meanwhile, electric cars were instead used by wealthy women for promenades in city parks.

This caused a big problem for electric car makes when gasoline cars started to become more convenient and comfortable to drive. While this made them more attractive to women, the feminine associations of electric cars meant that no man would dare be caught driving one. To this day the makers of electric cars have to contend with public perceptions of their products as effete, while gasoline vehicles continue to be marketed using masculine associations with adventure and toughness.

Google is risking a very severe symbolic lockout of Glass. As the public begins to internalize the idea that people who use glass are jerks, they will refrain from using it, lest they be seen as jerks. If this happens, then Glass will fail, and it could take the entire idea of wearable computers with it. I don’t want to see this happen. I think the idea of wearable computers is a pretty neat one with some interesting potential, even if there are problems to be surmounted. So I have written two pieces of advice for Google. I offer them free. You’re welcome, Google.

Firstly, google needs to find a way to rein in their explorers a little bit. These people are representing Glass to the world, and they’re being allowed to make a very bad first impression for the technology. Measures to fix this have to go beyond polite suggestions to be nice. Google could use its leverage as the provider of the device to impose some restrictions on its use. Any new explorers should have to sign a contract that allows Google to take the device back if there is evidence that they are being a glasshole.

Secondly, google needs to modify the Glass hardware to mitigate against its worst abuses. Most of the complaints about google glass seem to come from the camera. People don’t like the idea that they are being constantly photographed and Glass makes it difficult to ignore that this is happening. I suspect that objections to Glass would be considerably reduced if the constant threat of filming was removed. This could be accomplished by making the camera removable, or creating a way to turn it around backwards to signal that it is not active. An appropriately stylish piece of plastic could be designed to fit over the lens and obscure it. Hell, a piece of duct tape would do the job. If Glass could be temporarily reduced to a cell phone with a heads-up display, then people would probably be less concerned, and there would be fewer incidents.

If the Glass design team (who I’m sure are reading this post) aren’t impressed by my suggestions, I’d like to point out to them that it’s now over a century after the first electric cars were built, and we’re just now seeing their potential again. Hopefully Google is smart enough to avoid making the same mistake. If not, then we’re all going to have to resign ourselves to keeping our phones in our pockets for the time being.



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