Privacy Advisor

PRIVACY IN POPULAR CULTURE: Going Gaga for Google Glass

May 14, 2013

By Sam Pfeifle
Publications Director

While it’s unquestionably true that the advent of Google Glass has created, and will continue to, all manner of interesting privacy discussions, Glass may end up being as much a boon to comedy writers as to privacy professionals.

Maybe the most erudite of Glass send-ups came from the Wall Street Journal, which posted this month its “Google Glass: An Etiquette Guide,” complete with turn-of-the-century illustrations modernized for the Glass era. Right from the outset, the tone is certainly tongue-in-cheek, but maybe even downright hostile:

It's the most anticipated gadget since the iPad, iPhone or iAnything, really. And the best part? You members of Google's "Explorer Program"—mostly app developers and supernerds—will be testing Glass in the wild months before the general public will get to wear it, fingers crossed, at the end of the year.

Ouch. Supernerds?

And if you think that’s bad, check out the photos presented on the Tumblr White Men Wearing Google Glass. Just the sight of these people wearing Google Glass is apparently enough for comedy. No comments on the photos are provided or deemed necessary.

And when you see a shot like this one, it’s hard to argue:

I mean, taking a picture with your phone of yourself wearing the Glass, which has a camera built in? Aren’t you missing the point?

Quickly, though, the WSJ gets to the heart of the privacy queasiness Glass can induce. “Naturally,” writes Kevin Sintumuang (also editor of GQ.com), “people are going to be spooked out about whether or not you’re recording them.” How to avoid that? Sintumuang recommends taking Google Glass off in “locker rooms, public bathrooms,” and the like. I’m looking forward to Reader’s Digest’s public bathroom etiquette guides being updated appropriately.

In fact, Sintumuang eventually boils Glass etiquette into a term most privacy pros will understand: “Don’t be creepy.”

How easy is that going to be, though, when just wearing the device in the first place makes you creepy? As NPR noted this week, Glass is becoming the object of scorn before you can even really buy the thing. And the object of bad puns. Even just from that NPR report, we get “Google has been incredibly transparent … with their Glass rollout.”

Ha! Get it? Glass is transparent! Mashable’s excellent explanation of how Google Glass actually works is full of cool infographics, but even they can’t resist calling it a “visionary” gadget. (Cuz, you know, it’s forward-looking, but also works with your vision!)

You’ll also find puns with “specs,” “focus,” “cracked,” “envisions,” “exposed,” “screen,” and, well, too many other words to keep up with, actually. Puns are sort of epidemic among the journalistic community as it is, but Glass really does seem to bring out the worst in wordsmiths.

NPR also hits on, though, one of the reasons that many journalists might be more concerned with Google Glass as a cultural phenomenon than privacy professionals are concerned with it as a privacy problem:

Right now, Google Glass might be the world's worst spy camera; if you go out in public with a pair on, you are guaranteed to attract attention.

As this excellent send up of Google Glass on "Saturday Night Live" points out, it might be kind of hard to be creepy, since you’ll already be so busy being creepy:

You know, “It’s great because no one knows you’re doing it.”

Regardless, the public backlash is, indeed, already starting. Cafes have begun banning Google Glass over “secret filming fears,” the Mail Online reports, and it’s likely that banks, casinos and the like will also disallow the devices.

Just like they do with smartphones that can take video. Oh, wait. No they don’t. Actually, casinos don’t allow smartphones at the gambling tables, which is understandable, but cafes and banks and parks of all kinds don’t seem to have any problem with people surreptitiously taking video with their smartphones (really, how else would People of Walmart exist?).

So why the hate for Google Glass? Well, it’s new and different and that’s always a good recipe for public scorn, but maybe the privacy fears that have been percolating among the general population have just crystallized (crap, now I’m punning!) with the release of Glass.

Let’s just hope the attention to privacy concerns doesn’t go away as fast as the comedic value likely will.