In John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live, a drifter in Los Angeles finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see a world that is subliminally programmed and electronically manipulated. Billboards and bus stop shelter ads are revealed as immense Helvetica commands to “OBEY,” “CONSUME,” and “STAY ASLEEP.” The wealthy and powerful are unmasked as hideous-looking aliens with skull-like faces.
The sunglasses of They Live were sci-fi MacGuffins. The spectacles developed by Google are real-world marvels.
If you haven’t heard of Google’s “augmented reality” glasses yet, you will soon. The devices allow all your social media alerts, email and web feeds to float in your visual field at a simple voice command. Want directions to the nearest sushi joint? Videorecord a friend’s skateboard trick and post it online immediately? Capture overheard conversations on the bus? Just talk to the headset.
Much of the tech buzz on the cyborg-ish glasses has involved their “dork factor.”(Google is leading a social media blitz to win over Early Adopter hipsters and geeks, and partnering with Warby Parker, a youth-friendly marketer of designer glasses.) But there’s been little on the immense social dislocations the new tech may portend. Beyond the issues of safety for drivers and pedestrians equipped with the attention-fracturing specs, there’s a host of new questions about digital etiquette. How do you know someone with Google glasses is not being distracted while you talk to them? Or for that matter, that they’re not videorecording your exchange and sharing it online?
The specs are part of the company’s project, Google Glass, which will be integrated with the other apps the tech firm has made available to the masses: Google Plus, Translate, Calendar, Photo, Drive and all the rest.
Tech blogger Mark Hurst at Creativegood.com nails the potential social fallout: “First, take the video feeds from every Google Glass headset, worn by users worldwide. Regardless of whether video is only recorded temporarily, as in the first version of Glass, or always-on, as is certainly possible in future versions, the video all streams into Google’s own cloud of servers. Now add in facial recognition and the identity database that Google is building within Google Plus (with an emphasis on people’s accurate, real-world names): Google’s servers can process video files, at their leisure, to attempt identification on every person appearing in every video. And if Google Plus doesn’t sound like much, note that Mark Zuckerberg has already pledged that Facebook will develop apps for Glass.”
In the future, any conversations recorded through the specs could potentially be geotagged, attached to the speakers’ identities, and called up on a keyword search any time in the distant future by law enforcement agencies, intelligence gathering firms or justice institutions, and fed through speech-to-text apps as hard copy. (But if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about, right?)
As Hurst points out, the problem isn’t so much at the user end; it’s for everyone else. All it takes is one person wearing the glasses on a bus to funnel all the other passengers into the facial recognition/movement-tracking Borg. And if Google contact lenses are to follow, there will no way of knowing who’s wearing them.
Combine the above with the vast domestic surveillance state under construction that makes CCTV cameras seem like Fisher-Price toys. Last January, the Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Programs Agency (DARPA) released details of its ARGUS-IS 1.8 billion megapixel camera. From 17,500 feet, Argus-equipped drones are capable of making real-time video feeds of urban activity, right down to an inch of pavement.
I’m not saying Google is playing footsie with the U.S. national security apparatus. I’m saying the company’s private apps are a natural fit for the all-seeing panopticon state, by normalizing electronic omniscience as hipster cool.
The sunglasses of John Carpenter’s film awakened street people to the awful truth. In contrast, we’re talking about a real-world scenario where glasses offered by a company whose motto is “do no evil” turns consumers into sleepwalking cyborgs, performing profit-line tricks of public reconnaissance. However, a backlash may already be building. Last week the Seattle dive bar 5 Point announced a ban in advance on Google glasses. “And ass kickings will be encouraged for violators,” reads a post on the bar’s Facebook page. Hmm. I seem to remember They Live devolved into a punch-up at the end, too.
The Vancouver Courier, Mar. 15
This morning I received a letter from a “HARRISON, GEORGE” In Burkina Faso. I bumped up the prose a bit before sharing it.
From: Harrison George <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: THANKS FOR YOUR KINDNESS AND UNDERSTANDING TEL +226 66 29 40 71.
To: undisclosed recipients
Received: Thursday, March 14, 2013, 2:17 AM
FROM THE DESK OF MR. HARRISON GEORGE NO #24 Ahaji Kabriu Crescent, Ouagadougou Burkina Faso,West Africa. Telephone +226 66 29 40 71. Email.(email@example.com)
I am Mr. Harrison George, an auditor with Apple Records Bank, West African division (ARB). There was an account opened in this bank in 1964 and since 2000 nobody has operated on this account again. After going through some old files in the records (non-vinyl), I discovered that if I do not remit this money out urgently, this funds will go down the drains, into the hands of either the board of directors of this bank or the funds may eventually be discovered by the government as a dormant fund in the forth coming audit by the Nations auditors.
They will confiscate or send it into the government’s treasury account. And then someone undeserving will say, “I, me me, mine”. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. The question now is who is the government and where is the treasury? These are human beings like you and I. Human beings who like money and dislike the taxman (yeahhhh, the taxman). The owner of this account is Mr Morris Thompson,a foreigner and a former talent scout for Andrew Loog Oldham, and he died in 2000. There was something in the way he moved money that attracted me like no other investor. No other person knows about this account or any thing concerning it, the account has no other beneficiary and my investigation proved to me as well that his company does not know anything about this account.
If I needed someone to lend you’re the one that I’d be thinking of…if I needed someone. Carve your number on my wall and maybe you will get a call from me.
The amount involved is Ten Million, Five Hundred and thirty Thousand United States Dollars.10,530.000.00. Let me tell you how it’s going to be. There’s nineteen for you and one for me. I am only contacting you, as a foreigner because this money cannot be approved to a local bank account here, but can only be approved to any foreign account and foreign beneficiary because the money is in US dollars and the real owner of the account is Mr Morris Thompson,is a foreigner too.
I only got your contact address from my secretary who operates computer; with belief in My Sweet Lord that you will never let me down in this business so that I will inform you the next step to take immediately. Come together, right now. Over a fee.
I need your full co-operation to make this work fine because the management is ready to approve this payment to any foreigner, who has correct information of this account, which I will give to you later, if you will be able to handle such amount in strict confidence and trust according to my instructions and advice for our mutual benefit because this opportunity will never come again in my life (but of all these friends and lenders, there is no one compares with you).
I get by with a little help from my friends in Ouagadougou. With my position now secure in the office I can transfer this money to any foreigner’s reliable account, which you can provide with assurance that this money will be intact pending my physical arrival in your country for sharing and investment.
You never give me your money (you only give me your funny papers), but I will also use my position and influence to effect legal approvals for onward transfer of this money to your account with appropriate clearance documents from the ministries and foreign exchange department. But, only it will cost us small money as to procure such back up documents from the ministries in concern. I know you, you know me. One thing I can tell you is to pick up the fee.
Like our colleagues in the US, we West Africans all live in a fellow subpar regime, and your earliest response to this letter will be appreciated.
Here comes the sun. I look forward to your earliest reply.
Reply via my mojo filter, NOT my Ono sideboard! firstname.lastname@example.org
Come groovin’ up slowly,
MR. HARRISON GEORGE.
Today’s kids have no shortage of material for distraction or instruction. For boomers and Gen-Xers who grew up in a five-channel universe, the infotainment options were few. In my primary school years, my two main mentors for art and writing were Marvel Comics wizards Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Time-Life books supplied my extracurricular learning.
From the 1940s to the 1980s, Henry Luce’s publishing empire was a major vector for manufacturing consent in Cold War America. Whenever the time came to prime the U.S. middle class for new foreign or domestic policies, Time-Life’s apparatchiks responded with groupthink editorials and articles. It wasn’t the middlebrow boilerplate of Time and Life magazines that gripped my imagination, however. It was the company book series on science and nature.
You can still find worn copies of these early-’60s volumes at garage sales and flea markets. Though now long outdated, the Time-Life books were marked by graphic excellence and workmanlike prose. The chapters of each volume, assigned to a skilled journalist, alternated with graphic sections with excellently produced maps, charts, illustrations and photos. Though written at an adult level, the books seemed designed to catch the imagination of young readers. They worked for me.
As a kid in Ontario, I ate up these books for lunch. I would grok the colour plates of exploding stars, and geek out to the combustible/corrosive effects of the hundred-plus elements listed in a foldout chart of the periodic table — a visual almost as incendiary as the centrefolds I discovered in my dad’s unsuccessfully concealed Playboy magazines.
I suspect the 1957 Russian launch of Sputnik had something to do with the early ’60s explosion of popularized science in North America. What if the “Russian experiment” was producing a class of young technocrats capable of overtaking the U.S. in space? It seems likely that Luce’s print powerhouse, which had trumpeted a fictitious nuclear “missile gap” between the U.S. and Soviet Union, had coughed up its academic popularizations as part of the space-race zeitgeist.
Decades later, I passed on boxes of Time-Life books to my eight year-old niece. In spite of the gap in time and knowledge, she was as delighted with the books as I was, poring over them obsessively at home.
As far as I know, Time-Life books weren’t used as teaching resources in the standard curriculum, although hardier editions with sturdier binding were available for school libraries. In contrast, textbooks and school instructional resources seemed designed less to cultivate critical thinking in students than to crowbar correct answers out of their resistant brainpans (I remember a few bright spots in the educational texts, but only where the authors’ voices shone through, rather than the horse-by-committee prose of standardized learning).
For me, Luce’s volumes imparted an early excitement in the world around me — a frisson I rarely experienced in school hours, even in the chosen degree mill of my postsecondary years. In fact, it’s safe to say the bulk of my learning took place before and after the school bell rang, with material light-years off the curriculum — literally.
Time-Life books started off with an early-’60s bang and ended with a late-’80s whimper. In between there were series on art, history, psychology, anthropology, photography, gardening, the Second World War, the Third Reich, the Old West, lost empires, and finally the occult and fairy tales. Popularization descended into pap, reflected in Time-Life’s launch of its most profitable weekly publication yet: People magazine. At the dawn of celebrity culture in America, Luce’s limping colossus had struck one last seam of gold. The company closed its book division in 2003.
How many of today’s students struggle, and even fail, because the course content fails to spark the flame of intellectual discovery? And how many kids will never be exposed to the kind of “natural philosophy” that supplements narrow specialization with broader understanding? The Time-Life books on nature and science are long outdated and mostly forgotten, but their influence still lingers in my imagination. Even if they were products of the Cold War, my affection for them remains.
The Vancouver Courier, Mar. 6