Smart glasses aren't.
By Mark Hurst • September 17, 2020
I've been meaning to tell you this for awhile, but the news this week has finally spurred me to get this out:
We have one year before tech gets much, much more intrusive.
It may seem like the tech world is in a lull right now. If you saw anything from Apple's recent day-long product advertisement, you might have noticed that it was a long list of sequels and retreads: new phones, new tablets, and new ankle-bracelets-for-the-wrist (now for the whole family!). But the feeling of doldrums will be temporary, because Big Tech's next wave of products is just about to hit.
Surveillance eyewear will arrive in 2021, and you'll be asked to put it on.
Silicon Valley is already beginning to drip its pre-launch teasers to the tech press. For example, The Verge yesterday reported that Facebook's first 'smart glasses' will be Ray-Bans, coming next year. This is just one of several Big Tech projects, going on right now, for so-called smart eyewear - as Apple, Google, and Amazon, as well as Facebook, all have glasses in the pipeline.
It can be tempting to dismiss the idea of Big Tech eyewear simply because the product design, so far, has been moronic. Just last month, the Washington Post's Geoffrey Fowler reviewed Amazon's smart glasses, the Echo Frames. "You have to really love Amazon's Alexa to let the Echo Frames whisper in your ear all day," Fowler wrote. The Echo Frames are outfitted with tiny speakers, so as to deliver nonstop audible interruptions:
All day long, Alexa whispers notifications from apps into my ear: "Slack." "Battery is at 20 percent." "Outlook." And more "Outlook."
The most infamous example of tech-eyewear, of course, was the 2013 launch of Google Glass. The clunky glasses-with-a-screen were so dorky looking that failure was probably inevitable, though I may have had a small role in hastening their demise. The day after Sergey Brin unveiled Google Glass on-stage at the TED conference, I posted The Google Glass feature no one is talking about. Picked up by news sources worldwide and shared tens of thousands of times, that column was probably the most popular thing I've ever written.
What caused people's violent rejection of Google Glass, I believe, was the realization that the glasses weren't simply for the convenience of the wearer, delivering news and calendar alerts and so on. Instead, the glasses were meant as surveillance devices - outfitted with a camera and microphone - meaning that anyone in the vicinity of a "glasshole" was liable to be recorded and stored in Google's data vaults in perpetuity. As I concluded the column, "There will be no opting out."
Now in 2020, this sort of device is much more dangerous. The Big Tech companies prepping their eyewear launches are the most powerful cartel in the world, with practically unlimited money to push their products into society. That's not how it was at the time of Google Glass. Our life in 2013 was an idyll of freedom and privacy compared to the dystopian monoculture that Big Tech is fitting us for today. Everything must conform to Big Tech's wishes: the economy, media, politics, education, healthcare, entertainment, commerce, transportation - all of it.
But even with their vast power, Big Tech companies desperately need these glasses to succeed - because phone sales have plateaued. Everyone has a phone already, and other than their planned obsolescence (mobile software running slower and slower until you upgrade), there's no real incentive to buy a new device. Silicon Valley needs growth at any cost, and the "smart glasses" are the ticket. Hence the breathless pre-launch announcements like the one in The Verge.
You should expect to see many more eyewear pitches in the coming months - on-stage at product advertising events, in tech blogs and podcasts, and in newspapers and magazines either largely supported by Big Tech advertising or owned outright by the tech oligarchs themselves. Some of these will tout the new partnerships - like Facebook and Ray-Ban (more accurately, Facebook and Luxottica, two monopolies with a common interest in maintaining a chokehold on their markets). Others will hype the devices' built-in features and apps.
But the most important pitch, and I'm sure Big Tech is readying this right now, is eyewear for safety. After all, looking down at a phone is unsafe - while walking, cycling, driving - which calls out for some solution. Thus we'll hear: "Are you one of those losers who walks around while looking down at a screen in your hand? Get up-to-date! Put on the new [eyewear product name] from [Big Tech company] and you'll never look down again." And then the tag line: "[Product name.] Look up."
There's a giant reward waiting for the Big Tech company that cracks the eyewear market. Much like Apple vaulted ahead of Google and Microsoft when it introduced the iPhone in 2007, any one of the giants could establish new dominance with a successful eyewear launch. The device sales alone are a gold mine. But that's not the real value.
Despite the name, this coming wave of eyewear has nothing to do with "eyes." (And nothing to do with "wear.") In the end, it even has little to do with device sales - as helpful as they will be for the stock price for a few years.
Instead, the eyewear is really aimed at achieving two benefits for Big Tech: data and habituation - or, put another way, surveillance and control.
Google Glass's original dream of recording the people, places, and events around the wearer is finally within reach, thanks to today's mobile technology. Cameras, microphones, and batteries are much more powerful than they were in 2013 - and there's a lot more bandwidth to carry the data to Big Tech servers for surveillance-capitalist analysis and rendering.
One might ask how eyewear is any different from smartphones, which have served as surveillance devices for years, generating enormous profits - especially for Google and Facebook. Ultimately smartphones are inferior because, when they're not in use, people tend to carry them in their pockets. The GPS still works to track the user's location, but there's not much to see or hear down there. Eyewear, by comparison, sits on the face, whether in use or not. From this elevated position, the camera and microphone can generate surveillance data - and thus profit - in a continual stream.
And for the data to keep flowing, it will be important that the wearer never take the glasses off. This will require habituation. Big Tech thus will have a long-term goal of convincing people that it's attractive to wear the glasses. Once that succeeds, it will evolve to becoming normal to wear the glasses. Finally, if Big Tech has its way, it will become compulsory for people to wear a surveillance device. Not in a pocket, like a smartphone, but worn in full view of its surroundings, for the camera and microphone to be fully activated.
There's even a further stage, and this is where habituation really pays dividends. Once the market is saturated and sales of Big Tech eyewear start to plateau - much like smartphones are doing today - the cycle can start all over again. "Are you one of those losers who wears smart glasses, like a dork? It's so much easier when you get an implant . . ."
Dermal, then retinal, then neural. Once the implants begin to arrive, we'll learn the meaning of "control."
Big Tech will own it all.
Until next time,
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