“Forgetting to Forget: How Google Glass Complicates Social Interactions” by Teo Yu Siang

Google Glass might just be the next big thing. Due to be released to the mass market sometime in 2014, it is a wearable Smartphone in the form of a pair of glasses, one that is worn on the heads of users. Glass is a device designed by Google to enhance social interactions by minimizing distractions to its users and enabling the easy capturing and sharing of life’s moments. For instance, Glass is designed by Google to “[get] out of your way when you’re not interacting with technology” (Steve Lee qtd. in Topolsky), hence minimizing the possible distractions to its user. Furthermore, Glass’s voice-command feature and social media integration enables easy, hands free capturing and sharing of photos and video clips.

However, many technology analysts, while lauding Glass as a revolutionary consumer product, have been quick to point out another way of understanding Glass. Because wearers of Glass are able to record videos and photos using its inconspicuous camera, technology analysts are concerned about its ability to capture and permanently store information—not only of the wearer, but also of everyone around the wearer. Using these articles as a lens to examine Glass, we arrive at a new and intriguing way to examine it: Glass could be understood as a device that potentially disables our ability to forget. How, then, does this disability to forget complicate Glass’s aim of improving social interaction? By exploring the potential implications of forgetting to forget on users as well as nonusers of Glass, this paper hence asserts that, rather than enhancing social interaction and reducing distractions, Glass could potentially achieve the opposite.

Before we problematize our understanding of Glass’s implications on social interactions, let us first understand how Glass could—and is promoted to—enrich and enable greater social interaction between its users and nonusers. Right from the beginning, Glass was designed to free wearers from the distractions of technology (Topolsky). By having a form factor of a pair of glasses, Glass allows its user interface to be situated just above eye level, enabling wearers to see it only when they need to, thereby minimizing distractions. This, according to Google, allows users to focus on interacting with the people around them. Perhaps more important, Glass is fitted with a camera to enable wearers to capture photos and videos of their lives. This, together with Glass’s voice-command feature, presents wearers with a greater ease of capturing photos and videos than ever before. In its promotional video, Google showcases Glass by letting viewers glimpse what it feels like to wear the device: in one scene, a father is shown recording a video of a precious moment as he swung his daughter around in a human merry-go-round; another scene depicts a family using Glass to hold a video conference to bring more family members into a birthday celebration (“How It Feels [through Glass]”). We can see, thus, that from Google’s point of view, Glass can be understood as a device that offers to enhance social interaction by minimizing distractions and enabling the capturing and sharing of life’s moments.

This view, however, is not one shared by everyone, as some technology analysts have pointed out the ways Glass might complicate social interactions. Mark Hurst, in his article “The Google Glass Feature No One Is Talking About,” warned that “anything you say within earshot could be recorded, associated with the text, and tagged to your online identity…. Permanently” (Hurst). Jan Chipchase, Executive Creative Director of global innovation firm Frog Design[1], expressed similar concerns in a column in AllThingsD[2], in which he observes that Glass “could record and measure ‘everything,’ and associate that data to a person” (Chipchase). These technology analysts hence look at Glass as a powerful tool to not only capture, but also remember permanently, information in the form of external digital memory. In other words, Glass could be seen as a device that disables our ability to forget.

Before we can meaningfully explore the implications of Glass as a device that disables forgetting, we need to understand how, in the first place, it could be understood as such a device. Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell, in his book Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution will Change Everything, explores the idea of Total Recall: the recording, storing, and searching of digital information (Bell 5). In explaining how his quest for Total Recall begun, Bell described that he “didn’t start out thinking of Total Recall” (27) but rather with scanning and digitizing a few of his books. After experiencing the de-cluttering benefits of doing so, however, he thought: “Why stop here? … Why not just keep everything?” (28), and thereafter arrived at the idea of Total Recall, where all information is recorded, stored and made searchable. Following his experiences and thought process, it is not difficult to imagine that many users of Glass would reach the same realization: if they could capture images and videos of their lives with such ease, why not just capture everything? Indeed, this thought process was observed in a 2005 empirical study led by Prof. Van House from UC Berkley School of Information. The study, conducted when camera phones had just entered the consumer market, sought to understand “how people use photos as well as how they adapt emerging technology to their photographic practices” (Van House et al. 1). Van House observes that, “with a camera always at hand and easy viewing, uploading, and sharing, photo-taking becomes for many a frequent, even daily, activity” (4). More important, Van House further points out that “subjects found new ways to use images” for not only “enduring social uses” such as sharing photos with friends, but also “activities for which photos were not previously used,” such as setting reminders (4). Glass, being voice-activated (hence hands free) and mounted on the heads of users (hence always ready to capture information), presents users with a greater ease of capturing moments than ever before, and could therefore potentially change the way and frequency with which wearers capture information. As such, with Van House’s study and Bell’s description of his quest for Total Recall, it is not difficult to understand how it is not only possible, but probable, that wearers of Glass would use the device beyond merely capturing moments of their lives but use it as a means of documenting their lives. Glass, with its unique form factor, camera and social media integration, might just be the technology that brings Total Recall to reality.

In his book, Bell could be seen to display as much optimism about Glass’s potential as a device that enhances social interaction as Google did in its promotional video. Bell, in analyzing the Total Recall of life’s precious moments, remarked that “it is an awesome prospect that even these kinds of memories can become e-memories, totally searchable, even ready for scientific analysis” (Bell 139). The ability to have perfect recall, Bell argues, provides users with an emotional value, because life’s precious moments can now be recorded, stored and made searchable. Since our memories often involve groups of people, such as families, and since an individual’s memories often overlap and “enhance” (139) others’, Bell observes that perfect recall would therefore “supercharge this enhancement” (139). Furthermore, Bell asserts that the sharing of digital memory would further enhance the social interaction between individuals, explaining that “once the media is shared, if there is even one keener in the family who adds comments . . . then we all benefit” (142). Based on Bell’s observation of perfect recall, we can hence appreciate how Glass could, by permanently remembering and sharing our moments in life, enhance social interaction with regards to not only its wearers, but also the people captured in Glass’s digital memory.

The disability to forget that is brought about by Glass, however, brings with it complications that could adversely affect social interactions. Technology analysts such as Hurst and Chipchase have expressed concern on how Glass could affect the experience of “everyone other than the user” (Hurst): because Glass could record and permanently store information of everyone around the wearer, it could not only invade the privacy of these individuals, but also change the ways they behave. Mayer-Schönberger, in his book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, further elaborates on this effect by examining how digital memory “creates a climate of self-censorship through the perception of panoptic control” (Mayer-Schönberger 112). Mayer-Schönberger observes that digital memory is accessible to unknown third parties, due to its “cheap storage, easy retrieval and global reach” (101), durable as it is stored permanently in servers such as Google’s (103), and comprehensive as information from multiple sources could be aggregated to form an extensive “dossier” of individuals (104). These three features of digital memory create a “perception of panoptic control” (112), in which individuals are, as Google CEO Eric Schmidt describes, “‘living with a historical record’” (quoted in Mayer-Schönberger 109) and unable to tell whether, when, and by whom they are being watched. When this happens, Mayer-Schönberger asserts that “we’ll err on the side of caution, and if in doubt censor ourselves rather than risk incalculable
 damage” (110). Hence, in effect, digital memory produces a climate of self-control, in which individuals are conscious that their actions are potentially being watched and thus alter their behavior to conform to social norms.

Given that Glass is capable of attaching metadata—such as location—to the information it captures and sharing it via social media such as Google+ and Facebook, it is not difficult to see how digital memory that is captured and stored by Glass is thus accessible, durable and comprehensive. In applying Mayer-Schönberger’s understanding of digital memory, we can therefore see that Glass would potentially create a climate of self-censorship, especially amongst individuals in proximity of its wearers. Moreover, because everyone around a Glass wearer would have reason to suspect that their actions are being permanently recorded, Glass could be seen as being inimical to trust, which is the cornerstone of social interactions. Hence, rather than enhancing social interactions, the fact that conversations could be permanently recorded could in fact reduce the quality and spontaneity of such interactions as individuals become more self-conscious and less candid in how they act. As Chipchase observes in his article in AllThingsD, Glass could therefore be seen as “a destructive technology, a conversation- and privacy-killer.”

Glass, in being a device that allows wearers to forget to forget, has another potential implication on social interaction, one that directly affects its wearers. Since digital memory “undermine[s] biological forgetting” (117), Mayer-Schönberger argues that it therefore “make[s] ourselves vulnerable to indecision or incorrect judgment” (117). The logic behind this argument is simple: in forgetting to forget, we not only remember the good, emotionally valuable moments of life, but also the bad choices and moments. As such, having a perfect digital memory might “confront us with too much of our past and thus impede our ability to decide and act in 
time” (119). In other words, in enabling its wearers to forget to forget, Glass potentially disables its wearers’ ability to move on in life. For instance, with perfect digital memory, every argument would also be recorded, stored and even replayed. Past transgressions and hurtful words would be much more difficult to be forgiven if it could not be forgotten; being able to remember such moments in perfect clarity would therefore not only negatively affect the social relations and interactions between Glass wearers and the people around them, but also serve as a distraction to wearers if they allow themselves to dwell too much on them.

Some proponents of Glass might point out that many of us already are familiar with and have adapted to the ubiquitous capture and storage of information—in the form of photos and videos—through devices such as Smartphone’s and surveillance cameras. If we could get used to the constant capture of information via Smartphone’s and surveillance cameras without being much affected, would we not, too, adapt to Glass and its potential to disable our ability to forget? What makes Glass so different from these devices that it affects our behavior in a different manner than they do?

While it is true that people have gradually adapted to data capturing devices such as Smartphone’s and surveillance cameras, it would nonetheless be dismissive to assume that people would—and should—view Glass in the same light as they view Smartphone’s and surveillance cameras. A particular attribute of Glass—in fact, ironically, its unique selling point—makes it stand out from these devices, and explain why it would (and should) be seen in a different light: its radically different form factor. Being head-mounted, Glass is literally in-your-face and difficult to ignore, unlike Smartphone’s (which are often hidden from view in wearers’ pockets) and surveillance cameras (which are often located in nondescript corners of surveilled areas). Glass hence constantly reminds individuals near its wearer of the possibility of being recorded, and as a result these individuals are much more likely to alter their behavior if they were around a Glass wearer than if they were around a Smartphone user or surveillance camera. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier in the paper, the unique form factor of Glass also greatly increases the ease with which its wearers could capture and share information, and thus Glass wearers are indeed likely to capture photos with a higher frequency and for more purposes than if they were using a Smartphone. Glass, with its unique form factor, would hence necessarily create a different experience for both its users and nonusers, and this is why people’s adaptation to capture of information by devices such as Smartphone’s and surveillance cameras would not be indicative of user acceptance and adaption to Glass.

Furthermore, since Glass is a Google product, information that is captured on the device could be further processed with other Google technologies that make them easily searchable. For instance, Hurst points out that Google’s speech-to-text software, which is currently used in Glass to interpret voice commands, could be used to convert audio in a video into text to be fully searchable. Moreover, at Techonomy, a technological and economic conference held in 2010, Google CEO Eric Schmidt remarked that “if you have fourteen pictures on the internet within a 95% confidence interval, we can predict who you are” (“Eric Schmidt at Techonomy”), illustrating Google’s ability to further identify and tag the individuals recorded in photos and videos captured by Glass. While Google does not currently process information stored in its server, the possibility alone should be sufficient reason why people around Glass wearers should view it differently from Smartphone’s and surveillance cameras.

Having examined Glass as a device that potentially disables our ability to forget, we begin to understand implications that complicate its objectives of enhancing social interaction. Because it could record and permanently store information of people in proximity of its wearer, Glass can be seen as inimical to trust, thereby affecting the quality of social interaction between wearers and the people around them. Furthermore, it could disable wearers’ constructive process of biological forgetting, making wearers unable to move on beyond mistakes and arguments, potentially causing it to be a source of distraction and friction between individuals.

Perhaps more worrying than the two possible negative implications of Glass highlighted in this paper, however, is the fact that by the end of 2014, Glass will be released to the consumer market—and consumers seem to be ready to purchase their pair of Glass. In early 2013, Google launched its Explorer Program, an aggressive beta-testing program with 8,000 participants, to great response from participants. Behind the hype around Glass, there is therefore a troubling situation where consumers simply have not fully comprehended the possible implications of Glass on social interactions, the very element that Glass is being promoted to be enhancing and for which consumers are buying. In this sense, there is hence a great urgency for a discourse on this very subject matter. Indeed, Glass might just be the next big thing: but are we ready for it?

Works Cited

Bell, Gordon and Jim Gemmell. Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution will

            Change Everything. New York: Dutton, 2009.

Chipchase, Jan. “You Lookin’ At Me? Reflections on Google Glass.”

AllThingsD. AllThingsD, 12 Apr. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2013. Google.

“Eric Schmidt at Techonomy.” YouTube. YouTube., 14 Oct. 2013.      Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Google. “How It Feels [Through Glass].” YouTube. YouTube., 20 Feb. 2013.

Web. 7 Apr. 2013.

Hurst, Mark. “The Google Glass Feature No One Is Talking About.” Creative

            Good. Creative Good., 28 Feb. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2013.

Mayer-Schönberger, Viktor. Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Topolsky, Joshua. “I Used Google Glass: The Future, But With Monthly

Updates.” The Verge. The Verge., 15 Apr. 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Van House, Nancy, et al. “The Uses of Personal Networked Digital Imaging:

An Empirical Study of Cameraphone Photos and Sharing.” CHI 2005

            extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems. New York: ACM,

2005.

[1] Frog Design, founded in 1969 as an industrial design firm, is perhaps most famous for designing several products for Apple Computer, including the Apple IIc. It is now a global innovation firm that creates and brings to market products, services and experiences.

[2] AllThingsD.com is an online publication that specializes in technology and startup company news, analysis and coverage.

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