Thad Starner is a pioneer of wearable computers who invented a head-mounted device three decades ago. It offered some of the Internet-connected functions we’re familiar with today on our smartphones, but it put them in his field of vision rather than in his hand. There was one important exception: Although Starner experimented with putting a camera on his gadget, he quickly removed it. As he would later tell journalist Clive Thompson, people found the camera on his head unsettling. The average person doesn’t want to have a creepy mobile recording technology forced into their social interactions.
Unfortunately, if companies like Facebook get their way, we may find ourselves in just that situation. Big Tech firms want to continue shaping our behavior to their benefit. And there’s lots of advertising money to be made when people transmit data by wearing smart glasses inside and outside their homes. It may not seem likely that a technology that typically leaves people feeling self-conscious and anxious about losing privacy can become normalized. Sadly, I believe it can.
To understand how we’re getting pulled toward an undesirable future by cunningly executed, long-term business strategies, it’s crucial to revisit the rise and fall of Google Glass — an early descendant of Starner’s wearable computing technology.
In 2012 Time Magazine called Google Glass one of the year’s best inventions. It was a tiny voice-activated computer built into the frame of a pair of eyeglasses. If you wore the glasses, you could see a half-inch-square screen on one of the lenses. You could surf the Web or get real-time walking directions, among other applications.
Back then, the smart glasses weren’t available to the public and Google had free rein to create an idealized vision of Glass improving the quality of people’s lives.
Public consciousness changed in 2013 when Google released a preliminary version of its specs for $1,500 to 8,000 users, whom the company branded Glass Explorers. Even though Starner wound up working on Glass, cameras were the technology’s defining feature. Users could record photos and videos by touching a button and issuing voice commands (“OK, Glass, take a picture”).
The launch marked the beginning of the end. Google misjudged mainstream public sentiment, and the outcry was swift and severe. In short order, the derogatory term “Glasshole” came to designate someone who breaks social norms with technology. Glass seemed to invite uncool uses, like pretending to use the device to search for information online while secretly recording people in the room. Or pretending to listen to what someone was saying in a face-to-face conversation while sneakily watching cat videos on YouTube. With the added uncertainty of how Google would develop Glass over time — would the company eventually allow apps to run facial recognition technology on the device? — Glass became something more than a gadget. It morphed into a symbol of everything wrong with tech companies pursuing profit over societal well-being and arrogantly believing they could persuade the public to embrace anything they put a positive spin on.
Responding to the backlash, Google changed course. It abandoned the consumer model of Glass and focused on a version designed for factories and warehouses where hands-free computers are helpful. Google appeared to conclude that smart glasses with cameras are a technology society will reject outside of limited environments, such as those in which the devices can enhance accessibility for people with certain disabilities.
Why, then, did Facebook recently release Ray-Ban Stories, smart glasses that take photos and video and play music, for $299? Well, according to Mark Zuckerberg, the technology is “one milestone on the path” to a “long-term” goal of normalizing augmented reality glasses. This means, as anthropologist S.A. Applin points out, we should focus less on what the current generation of glasses can do and more on Facebook “claiming the face as real estate for its own technology.” In other words, we should ask whether Google’s critical mistake wasn’t getting in the consumer smart glasses business but trying to normalize the technology too quickly. Perhaps Facebook is taking a savvier approach by playing the long game and trying to slowly reengineer our sensibilities.
As far as I can tell, that’s exactly what Facebook is doing. Unfortunately, it or another tech company stands a good chance of succeeding. Given Google’s failure, Ray-Ban Stories could sell poorly and Facebook could declare the outcome a win simply because the public didn’t freak out. Even if the technology has only limited appeal, that’s enough for Facebook to continue nudging us toward a future where folks are comfortable spilling their data all over the metaverse — the integration of experiences across real, augmented, and virtual settings. Once a science-fiction concept, the metaverse has become an actual goal for companies. Zuckerberg so desperately wants “to help bring it to life” that rumor has it Facebook is planning on changing the name of the company to something reflective of the metaverse.
It may seem like a stretch to envision society ever embracing the metaverse when, at present, there’s a lot of outrage over the information that whistleblower Frances Haugen provided. It looks as if Facebook is choosing profit over a responsible approach to issues like teenage mental health and the proliferation of harmful online content. And yet, although The Wall Street Journal was the first to publish Haugen’s indictment, the newspaper also ran an article written by its men’s fashion editor that gushes over Ray-Ban Stories and says “smart accessories” are “fashion must-haves.”
The article also straightforwardly identifies the key steps Facebook appears to be following in its normalization playbook.
The first step is choosing better timing than Google. Between the Glass failure and now, Apple normalized a new wearable device with the 2015 release of Apple Watch. It has a pleasing aesthetic design and emphasizes a use case consumers find compelling: monitoring bodily functions like steps and heart rate to improve health. It doesn’t have a camera, but it nonetheless moves beyond smartphones toward smart glasses because you don’t have to hold it.
Initially, critics worried that wearing smartwatches would exacerbate the tendency for folks to rudely look at a screen instead of the people around them. But Apple did an excellent job of designing the watch not to be a focal point. Flash forward to now, and, as the Wall Street Journal writer observes, “spotting a wearable on someone’s wrist no longer seems remarkable.” Becoming commonplace is a hallmark of normalization.
The second step for normalizing smart glasses is to piggyback on the features that led the public to embrace smartwatches. Since a fashionable appearance was key, Facebook shrewdly partnered with Ray-Ban to develop a model as “close to looking like real glasses as possible.” That’s a major point of product differentiation from Glass, which “made it look like you were wearing the world’s laziest robot costume,” in the words of Yahoo Finance’s tech editor.
The third step for normalizing smart glasses is to embrace an idea that technology scholars Chris Gilliard and David Golumbia call “luxury surveillance.” When Business Insider journalist Kyle Russell was mugged in 2014 by someone who shouted “Glass” and ripped Google Glass off his face, the $1,500 price of the device signified extreme wealth disparities. But $299 for Ray-Ban Stories puts them in the ballpark of the noncontroversial Apple Watch. The price isn’t high enough to evoke eat-the-rich hostility. And while reaching into a pocket or purse to grab a phone can take you out of the moment, especially when you have to turn it on and aim it to take photos and video, Ray-Ban Stories is being marketed as a way to stay present.
Facebook’s initial offering is meant more to keep us in our comfort zone than to impress us. But as with everything Facebook does, there are strings attached. The company surely plans on enticing us to accept more invasive models later on. For a sense of the company’s ambitions, look at what the company’s AI team is developing. There’s software that might improve our episodic memory (“Here’s where your keys are,” the glasses might someday say), understand the context of our actions (good for coaching someone through a multistep recipe), and boost our perceptual powers (helpful for hearing someone more clearly in a crowded setting). If Facebook can develop this software, the only way to apply it effectively is for people to once again accept heightened surveillance and allow the technology to record “what they see, do, and hear,” as Verge senior reporter James Vincent puts it.
Facebook has a bold vision for how we should all live in the future. Smart glasses aren’t the end product but a step toward something far more ambitious, pervasive, and unwelcome — at least from today’s perspective. That’s the core problem with the normalization of technologies: It causes you, step by step, to lose track of your original viewpoint. The best way to maintain that outlook is to never put smart glasses on in the first place.
Evan Selinger is a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and an affiliate scholar at Northeastern University’s Center for Law, Innovation, and Creativity. Follow him on Twitter @evanselinger.