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Tarun Wadhwa Headshot

Google's Glass Explorer Program Was A Social Experiment That Backfired

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Google Glass was introduced without a clear explanation of what it was supposed to be used for. When promotional videos started to show people going about their daily routine, it quickly became clear that what we were being sold wasn't a gadget, it was a lifestyle. The actual product was the intoxicating prospect of instant access to information. Glass offered to be much more than a device, it was a ticket into an exclusive club that promised special abilities.

In a much celebrated launch, Google allowed early adopters to shell out $1,500 get a prototype version of Glass and be part of its "Explorer Program." But this wasn't so much a product rollout as it was a social experiment. Through this strategy, Google was able to get thousands of people to challenge society's conventions on privacy and connectedness without having to address it directly.

Over a year later, Glass has yet to gain mainstream acceptance. Society remains largely unmoved. Instead, in some places, it has become a divisive and controversial technology. It appears the experiment has backfired - but Google likely knew this would happen, it's a risk they took.

The hype is fading, the wheels on the bandwagon are starting to come off, yet Glass is far from gone. In part, because it is actually quite a useful and promising technology. Augmented reality and wearables could provide significant benefits to our lives in certain situations. What's strange is Google chose not to focus on this; instead of showing the many ways Glass can enrich the work of doctors, fire fighters, or extreme athletes, the company chose to let the technology loose into the world to see what happened.

Speaking to Forbes' Jeff Bercovici, the executive in charge of marketing for Glass admitted that the company deliberately decided to roll the product out in this way. He explained, "I see it as quite a necessary symptom of a company that's trying to be disruptive." Yet he sees Glass's greatest weakness as its lack of availability - giving inadequate attention to the most important issues and suspicions that Glass creates, whether warranted or not. That's a problem for all of us, not just for Google's bottom line.

Since the initial announcement, its legions of techno-optimist supporters have contradicted themselves about the promise and perils of the device. On one hand, they've preached that Glass is transformative because it's not like a smartphone, it allows for many new possibilities. But when it comes to discussing the social implications, they then argue that the technologies aren't that different.

Technology enthusiast Robert Scoble believes that the ingredient Google is missing is "empathy." In a broader sense, when someone looks at you with Glass it is the equivalent of having a smartphone pointed at you. Even though the devices aren't always recording, there are different conventions to taking a photo compared to talking on the phone. It's not techno-phobic to prefer not to be recorded when speaking with friends - it's natural.

There doesn't seem to be widespread opposition to wearable technology, you don't hear about people being harassed for wearing a FitBit. Something about Glass is different. When you wear Glass you are challenging the social values of the people around you on behalf of the world's most powerful corporation.

Whether this version of Glass is a commercial success remains to be seen, but a whole host of competitors are working on their own glass devices. Over time, the design problems will be worked out, it's likely that "smart" glasses will be indistinguishable from regular ones. If we are to get to a point where people can feel comfortable wearing the technology, and have the people around them feel unperturbed as well, there are two underlying issues that must be addressed.

The first is the fading allure of a completely connected lifestyle. A decade of smartphone usage is starting to wear us down; Glass represents our worst fears about never being able to unplug. Established technology companies seem especially unprepared to handle these changing sentiments. To the vast majority of people, the argument that Glass gets technology out of the way by putting it directly on your face is not convincing. There are legitimate concerns that it can amplify the disconnect and power imbalance between people.

The second is that we need to rethink the notion that we should have no expectation of privacy in public. This was once a common sense observation used to protect the work of journalists; what it has become is something entirely different. This idea wasn't built for a time of ubiquitous sensors, smart cameras, and analytics. It was never meant to be used as a blanket justification for private companies to track, measure, and catalog your every move outside of the home. It's becoming an anti-social tool used by corporations to gather your personal information - and we should reconsider how far we are willing to let it go.

A world where everyone is wearing Glass requires us to have different priorities than the one of today. Nobody wants a world where they feel uncomfortable speaking in public or they are discriminated against for what they choose to wear. Google's strategy has shown that we are not ready to have this thrown at us, but we could gradually get there one day. We haven't seen the last of Glass - and it surely hasn't seen the last of us.

This article originally appeared on Forbes - Disruption and Democracy. Check out my upcoming book, Identified: How They Are Getting To Know Everything About Us

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