Google Glass, big data and the digital self
As Google Glass moves from in-house project to consumer product, it's generating a great deal of buzz. Ever since Google uploaded its How It Feels video showing the glasses in action, the devices have been the subject of news stories, blog ruminations and SXSW sightings.
All this will bring out the inevitable backlash as factors like pricing and feature bloat remind us that the journey from concept to polished gadget can be a bumpy one. Already, the backlash seems to be happening alongside the hype. Even as Sergey Brin makes the bizarre case that Google Glass is somehow less emasculating than holding a smartphone, a Seattle bar famously banned the devices, encouraging ass-kickings for violators.
That a dive bar's half-serious Facebook update about a product not even on the market could become a news story picked up around the world says something about Google Glass. It's not that Glass represents a radically new idea. Rather, it combines two concepts that have been around for decades: wearable computers and augmented reality.
It's more that many people who are only now learning about Google Glass have that queasy feeling that a new product is going to make their personal privacy that much more complex. After the first wave of gee-whiz reaction to Glass came the more dystopian reactions: horror scenarios about threats to our privacy, if not its very end.
It may well be that Google Glass becomes a historical footnote, the first casualty of a privacy backlash against wearable computers. Even if bans on Google Glass don't become commonplace, the creepy factor could make them widely unwanted. In the same way that no one wants to be heard talking to Siri in public, it's unlikely many people will want to be caught sporting Glass the way some people once wore Bluetooth earpieces as fashion accessories.
But even without Google Glass, wearable computers are likely to become an everyday fixture in our lives someday soon. And with them, ubiquitous cameras that record audio and video of the people around them, facial recognition software that identifies those people, and augmented reality devices that can pull up personal data about them. All of this in one portable, inconspicuous device.
The simplicity of Google Glass as a gadget underscores the inevitable convergence of several emerging technologies that will, thanks to the network effects of these technologies interacting with each other, make the prospect of Sergey Brin getting a nosebleed at a dive bar look like a benign threat: Tiny cameras, cloud services to store their data, facial- and-speech-recognition programs, publicly available social networks, augmented reality displays and, most of all, big data. Like any technology, these innovations are capable of good or bad, depending on how they're used.
Combine all of these technologies and, left unchecked, they could change a lot of things in our lives: the rate on a rental car might be determined by income or driving records; discounts may or may not be offered at stores based on our buying history or Facebook likes. All decisions made as soon as we walk through the door. Job applications, airport screenings, routine police stops could also be quite different.
How companies, consumer groups and legislators address such concerns will determine how or even whether such scenarios become reality. But much of it will also be left to each individual. The more time any of us have spent on the Web the more we realize and ultimately accept that privacy really doesn't exist there. That at the end of the day privacy is the price of admission to the Web.
Most of us have adapted by either avoiding social networks or managing our exposure on them. In managing our exposure, we are basically creating a kind of digital self, an online version of our lives aggregated in the compilation of everything we leave there. In the future, thanks to technologies like big data and wearable computers, the digital self is going to be a bigger and bigger part of most of our identities. For some, it's already that way for a while.
In the early days of the Web – back when blogs, anonymous chat and online role playing were new – creating or maintaining a digital self was an active, largely voluntary process. As social networks like Facebook have encouraged seamless sharing, it's become less voluntary and more passive. Still, most people have learned through trial and error to be conscious of what they make public about themselves. Like it or not, we become our own personal PR agents. To use a common buzzword, we curate our digital selves.
Newly emerging technologies may well make the sharing of data even more passive, and its curation much more complex. In the past, we went to the Web to put our personal data online, soon the Web will be coming to us. And in this sense, Google Glass is a wake up call. Yes, they can be regulated, or banned here or there, but like many other aspects of the Web like spam or viruses, wearable cameras and big data will never be blocked out entirely.
The result won't necessarily be as dystopian as it might sound, but that depends on how early we begin discussing the potential impact of newer technologies on our everyday lives. If privacy fears mount, there will be industry best practices. If those fail, there will be the blunt knife of privacy laws. There's no easy solution, but the simplest - and the one most likely to let these new areas of tech thrive - is to hand complete control of personal data over to each individual.
Whatever the outcome, our lives are going to become even more enmeshed with the Internet. We are going to be present even more online that many of us are today. The digital self is no longer going to be an option. Like it or not, it's going to become as real as any other part of our personal identities.
(Photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk on Flickr.)