Google Glass: Visionary or transparent invasion of privacy?

It was labelled one of 2012’s most important inventions and “the next big thing”.

So it was, with great fanfare, that Google sent its first batch of Google Glasses out into the geekdom in March – and was met with a resounding “meh”.

Critics claim the sleek new device brands the wearer as an irredeemable nerd, will make it too easy to invade people’s privacy, and will be a danger when driving, to mention just a few problems.

But are the critics right, or are they simply reacting with knee-jerk aversion to an emerging paradigm of computing?

A culture of fear (of change)

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It shows us that new technological paradigms have a strongly polarising effect on public opinion – people either love them or hate them, with little common ground.

But extreme views cannot last for ever.

When the telephone first came into widespread use, people were sure it would be an invasion of their privacy.

When television arrived, conventional wisdom held it would rot people’s brains – indeed some people are still saying it.

But society has a way of integrating new technology through the evolution of acceptable-use protocols, such as places where your phone should stay in your pocket (in change-rooms) and when it is not polite to make and receive phone calls (at funerals).

What makes Google Glass different?

Google Glass is the latest addition to the emerging field of “ubiquitous computing” (UC). Unlike the old paradigm of desktop computing, UC is designed to fit comfortably into people lives.

In the old paradigm, people had to adapt to the demands of the computer. In a world in which user-friendliness is as good as money in the bank for technology developers, it’s not difficult to see that UC has a big future.

Glass is a personal assistant that connects directly to the Web via WiFi, or tethers to a 3G or 4G smartphone via Bluetooth. Weighing less than a pair of sunglasses it is operated by touch and voice.

You pass a billboard for your favourite band, so you ask Glass to remind you to buy tickets. Arriving at your destination, you query the location of a friend, and you arrange to meet.

This latter aspect is a major source of criticism; the thought of talking to your glasses seems absurd. Yet using your voice is more natural than typing on a QWERTY keyboard, or even using a mouse.

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