Google Glasses: Welcome to the Panopticon
Heads Up Display (HUD) technology is nothing new. In use for half a century, and conceived of in science fiction long before that, it was nevertheless relegated to specialty, often military uses. Yet the potential for a widespread proliferation among the masses has long been presumed. Futurists prophesied an era where all information was accessible without even the press of a button, just by moving your eyes or even thinking. Ray Kurzweil talked about the use of wearable computer interfaces miniaturized into contact lenses by 2019 in his 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines. References in popular entertainment, from the Terminator’s info-laden view, to Geordi’s iconic VISOR in Star Trek: The Next Generation, to Minority Report’s glass wall, gesture-based computer interface and personalized holographic ads etched into our retina as we move through the world, planted the seed in us of the potentially transformative power of the technology in our experience. Smartphones have primed us for incorporating ongoing digital assistance and interaction into our daily physical routine.
The first wave of smartphone apps were primarily of the get me through the day variety: news, games, productivity, and location sensitive services to help us find the nearest steakhouse or flower shop. However, one of the unexpected byproducts of the smart phone revolution has been the emergence of a culture that has tipped toward production and sharing over consumption and utility. The extraordinary rise of iPhoneography with apps like Instagram have transformed our culture in a matter of months into a new form of omnipresent self-expression, turning millions into documentarians of their daily visual experience with instantaneous photo sharing.
The Revolution is Upon Us
Google, perpetually intent on yanking us into the science fiction fantasies of yore with projects like its self-driving car and space elevator initiative, recently unveiled a beta project, years in the making, which promises to bring this expression of our direct experience to the next level.
When Google first unveiled its beta Project Glass last month, an attempt to mainstream augmented reality glasses as the natural successor of the mobile devices in our pockets, the teaser video emphasized its practical import in a day in the life of a young urbanite: finding directions, calling friends, texting; basically, the original stated purpose of smartphones as information gathering tools. But in the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen the latter promise of always-on technology as self-expression tool, revealed on the Project’s Google Plus page, in the form of two photos taken with camera embedded in the glasses.
Technically speaking, the 3MP photos are nothing to write home about, a situation which will no doubt improve. But this doesn’t prevent them from being a monumental turning point in the history of photography. What makes both these photos so unique is that they communicate a shockingly direct and unmediated experience of human interaction. There’s no trace of the mental filter and instinctually prepared reaction that accompanies the raising of a camera to the eye. They capture unguarded moments of genuine face-to-face human interaction that could only heretofore been pulled off with incredible stealth or painstaking deception. So here we have a huge plus: we could be entering an era of newly intimate image making, something that could ideally lead to an uptick in empathy, as we can practically live through someone else’s eyes, unfiltered.
Enter the Panopticon
However, as with all revolutionary technical leaps, the potentials are accompanied by as many asterisks. Privacy concerns are the first thing to leap to mind.
In his 1977 book, “Discipline and Punish” Foucault popularized the concept of the Panopticon, an architectural design pioneered in the late 18th century primarily for prisons (but also, disturbingly, hospitals, schools and other social institutions). Basically, the Panopticon is the perfect surveillance paradigm. In it, one guard can hold psychological sway over a theoretically limitless number of inmates, because the observed do not know when they are being watched, just that they could theoretically be. Foucault made the leap that our all-pervasive surveillance society borrowed many cues from this model, and the sense of being observed was used to normalize behavior through the threat of discipline. He posited that all our modern hierarchical structures stemmed from this surveillance mentality. The CCTV cameras that ubiquitously invade our public and private spaces is a more recent manifestation of this. In my trip to the UK, I was shocked not just by the sheer number of CCTV cameras, but also the corresponding notifications reminding you that you were being recorded, lest you forget. Somehow the country of Orwell failed to grasp the irony of posting signs essentially indicating that “Big Brother is Watching.”
The question becomes: if affixing an inconspicuous camera to every individual a move toward democratization, or the logical conclusion of this societal trend toward all-encompasing surveillance, promising to project privacy invasion ever farther into our lives? And is a top-down observational structure necessarily the culmination of this Panopticon ideal, or could we become the vehicles of omnipresent observation?
What’s Really Changed?
Half the adult population, it seems these days, walks around with a DSLR dangling from their necks, and those that don’t use their smartphones whenever a semi-unique moment arises. So what has changed with Google Glasses? The experience changes primarily for the subject.
Having your picture taken has always been a pretty straightforward proposition. I raise my camera, you assume your chosen role. A future alien race, judging on photographic evidence alone, could only conclude that our faces were continually fixed into smiles. Aphex Twin, the alter ego of electronic musician Richard D. James, whose face is perpetually contorted into a full grin, plays brilliantly with this forced surface quality of post-photographic society, painting it across his imagery, both photos and videos, as a literal nightmare of posturing and filtered expression.
Although we don’t stand still in front of a giant box for a few seconds anymore, the ritual of raising a metallic object to one’s eye and pressing a button is still universal sign of “I’m photographing you.” Street photographers may be able to bypass your reaction time, but when all’s said and done, you generally know you’ve had your picture taken. Even ducks know to react by instinctually flying away when you suddenly raise the camera to your eye. We may be more intentional in our reaction to the camera, but it takes on the same implicit assumption of being exposed and even potentially attacked. Look no further than the paparazzi, who crouch behind LA shrubbery like hunters in the bush. Even the language of photography, shooting, capturing, is steeped in aggression, borrowed from hunting.
The weight of being photographed has been watered down as we have entered a world of reality television and camera ubiquity over the last decade. But the camera is still the physical tool used to mediate reality, both for the photographer and subject. Photographer Ryan McGinley may have catapulted to fame with portraits of remarkable intimacy, mainly because his unassuming teen heroes seemed so blissfully unaware of his camera’s gaze. But there was still the sense of a stage show behind the idealized photographs. The meaning of the photographic action, “this moment is being recorded,” still shaped the actions of the subjects. This is why Levi’s is able to build a multimillion dollar marketing campaign with the same raw, unfiltered feeling in the service of dealing denim.
The essence of the Panopticon concept is not that you are necessarily being observed, but that you could be. If cameras are ubiquitously attached to our faces, silently recording the world going by, it will primarily change the photographic experience of the subject. It will probably create a new era of refreshingly spontaneous and personal imagery. But it will also remove the last vestige of mediation between photographer and subject, and that, for better or worse, is a monumental turning point.