I’m not an early adopter and I didn’t know that Google Glass was coming out. I don’t even have a smart phone. I am, however, a lifelong science fiction reader and I think that having an earpiece that hooks to your glasses and gives you the internet is essentially–at least theoretically-super-cool. I want to try one!
What makes this a Body Impolitic topic is Sergey Brin’s stated reasons to use Google Glass. Brin, co-founder of Google, could could be giving Google’s response (stock or thoughtful) to the extremely serious privacy concerns raised by the new device. Instead, he chooses to play on the insecurities of his expected purchasers, saying that that “Smartphones are ‘emasculating.’ You’re standing around and just rubbing this featureless piece of glass.”
To start with the obvious, standing (or lying) around and rubbing something to make it respond is basic masculine behavior (okay, okay, I do it too; it’s still culturally associated with men).
Remember when cell phones (now “dumb phones”) were new? A common joke was that they were the first thing that ever caused men to brag “mine’s smaller than yours!” So cell phones have been a test of masculinity from the beginning. In fact, new tech is a test of masculinity. How new is yours? How small is it? How much better than the next guy’s is it, and can you see from across the room that yours is smaller/faster/newer/shinier than his? Of course, “how much disposable income do you have?” has been a test of masculinity since the early days of capitalism, and maybe earlier, but this goes further than that. Boys (some boys) do, in fact, judge each other by their toys, and most boys are constantly aware that they are being judged.
At the move from cell phones to smart phones, the questions change, but the litmus tests remain the same. Now it’s “what generation is your phone?” and “do you have the coolest apps?” “How quickly and deftly do you use it?” When smart phones were new, no one was talking about them as “featureless”; the features were the point.
But now Brin is hawking something that he hopes will supplant smart phones, so he has to define the new test early. What, you’re still rubbing your smart phone when you could be fiddling with your eyeglasses? What is the matter with you? Why are you such a failure? Why are you such a wuss?
Mark Hurst, before he gets to the point about privacy (link above), points out why Brin is taking the offensive about making the device cool:
The immediate, most visible problem in the Glass experience is how dorky the user looks while wearing it. No one wants to be the only person in the bar dressed like a cyborg from a 1992 virtual-reality movie. It’s embarrassing. Early adopters will abandon Google Glass if they don’t sense the social approval they seek while wearing it.
In just a few words, Brin establishes that he doesn’t expect any women to buy Google Glass any time soon. New toys aren’t for girls, after all. We can still sit around rubbing those featureless pieces of glass (or something more responsive), while the real men prove themselves. Then they’ll release one in pink and expect us to join the party. The reason he can make this statement so efficiently is the years of groundwork he and his cohort have laid, defining geeks as a male-only club, men as the sum total of early adopters, and women as uninterested in anything that doesn’t come in pink (or frills). These underlying assumptions go deep enough that Brin can get away with this kind of sexist bullshit in a TED talk, in a responsible venue; he doesn’t have to save it for a press conference or a boys’ night out.
Even more sinister, by setting up this masculinity test, Brin is diverting the conversation away from the deeply troubling issues with Google Glass. Basically, Hurst argues that Google Glass (or its inevitable followers and competitors’ improvements) could result in tagged, stored, indexed video, audio, and text conversion of everything that happens within eyesight and earshot of everyone wearing Google Glass.
Welcome to the future. Maybe it’s inevitable. But we could be talking about it, and thinking about how we want to handle it, if the co-founder of the company wasn’t diverting us with the terrifying threat to masculinity that is the smart phone.