Monday, 11 March 2013


This seems to be typical of the growing hubbub around Google Glass. Pretty much every article I've read about it has been positive on the functionality - I've certainly seen no complaints from anyone who's actually used the thing - but everyone seems to start and finish by saying something along the lines of 'but would you really be willing to be seen out in public wearing one?'

Before I get into the meat of my problem with this response, there are a few remarks it's worth making. Firstly, there is a legitimate worry over privacy with Glass when it goes live - I can foresee incidents (and there are anecdotes of things like this already) where people object to talking to someone wearing Glass because there's no way to tell if they're filming or not. It's tempting to dismiss these people as the 21st-century equivalent of that old chestnut about 'savages' fearing the cameras of the white man because they seemed to take a piece of their soul, but there is a legitimate concern here (though personally, I feel modern culture is more than a little too obsessed with its privacy). That's not what I want to talk about today, though, since I haven't yet worked out exactly where I stand on the issue.

The other two things I want to point out have more to do with why I think this worrying over image is just hot air to fill column inches. First off, I know a fair number of musicians, and an increasing number of them have forsworn discreet, unobtrusive in-ear earphones for their iPods and what have you, because the sound quality and comfort are much better on a full headset (I'd probably do the same, to be honest, except that I basically never use an mp3 player for anything). The versions of Glass that currently exist all seem far less visible than a massive Sennheiser headset.

Secondly, there's been some speculation over whether Glass can do anything really useful, or whether it will just be a luxury toy. I don't think we'd be seeing any doubts about aesthetics without this more basic doubt, but the basic doubt seems to me a hopelessly out-of-touch, backward-thinking phenomenon. It sounds altogether too much like the scepticism over smartphones five years ago, or personal computers twenty-five.

We have no idea what Glass is capable of once unleashed. We won't really know until it's been out for a few months. But I guarantee you this; within a year of its release, there will be people - probably a huge number - as absolutely reliant on Glass as they are now on their smartphones. Within five years, Glass (and whatever competitors for it Sony and Apple dream up) will be as common as smartphones. As far as I'm concerned, the success of Glass, and the disappearance of complaints about its appearance, are inevitable.

So why, even in top-line tech commentary, is there so much fuss over the way Glass looks? I can't remember ever hearing so much negativity about the look of a product in its prerelease hype. In some quarters, the aesthetic seems to be the sole negative anyone mentions.

I'll grant that most Apple products have a heavy (and, frankly, ludicrous) hype over their elegant aesthetics as a selling point (because they've got to find some way to shift their control-freakery and overpricing), but mostly our technology is utilitarian at best in the aesthetic department, and the subject doesn't come up.

Again, headphones are relevant; it's the only other time I can remember any doubts about aesthetics coming up, and that case is rather different - headphone technology started for the purposes of things like studio recording, then made the jump to streetwear (and yes, only after some significant work was done on aesthetics - my dad has an old pair of headphones, probably from the late 70s or early 80s, that I definitely wouldn't be willing to wear in public, but then they weren't designed for public use).

I probably wouldn't be bothered by this question nearly so much if I wasn't a lifelong myopic. I was first prescribed glasses for distance reading at age 7 after complaining of finding the blackboard hard to read in class. Less than a year later, I was in glasses full-time, putting them on when I woke up and taking them off only to shower or go back to bed. I'd have worn them in the shower too, except that glasses covered in water and/or steam are worse than even my near-useless natural lenses.

Of course, that meant being on the receiving end of all the familiar name-calling at school (seen this, by the way?) - 'foureyes', 'speccy', 'nerd' etc. It feels to me like all these doubts about Glass come from the same sentiment, the idea that there's something wrong with wearing glasses (that's not to say I won't get my eyes lasered as and when I can afford it - I stick to my guns).

And I kind of hoped we were past this as a culture. Up to a third of the population of the world are myopic, depending on the estimate used. That makes it possibly the most widespread disability in the species (and, though normally mild and easily re-enabled, it is an impairment). And for most of the last fifteen years, the world's richest man has been a bespectacled nerd, while the products he created and the revolution they led have transformed our lives in ways that beggar thought.

Why are we still worrying about this? I have real trouble understanding why anyone, looking at Glass, doesn't immediately think 'Oh, wow, COOL. I wonder what they'll think of to do with that?' (Okay, I get that some people will see it and respond with fear - 'what will people do to me with that?' - but that's got nothing to do with aesthetics either).

I take small comfort, though, in the knowledge that as a speccy, I have nothing to lose by getting Glass. I'll be getting Glassed as soon as I can afford glasses with the technology built-in or clipped-on. Of course, since Google seem intent on making a deal with some designer label to provide high-end prescription Glass glasses, it'll probably be a while before I can afford the tech (I wish Google would instead sell a clip-on model, even if it's a clip-on that requires complicated calibration in a shop somewhere, since designer spectacle frames are one of the most pointless and extravagant wastes of money on the high street).

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