Philip Guston, Painter (1980)

With Google Glass, predictive analytics get intimately personal, shaping behavior by overwriting the reality wearers perceive

Google’s augmented reality technology, Glass, has been receiving plenty of attention since Sergey Brin wore them during his recent TED talk – in which he called smartphones “emasculating” and proposed Glass as a better experience. Given the increasing amount of alerts it will presumably be far too annoying to retrieve the device from your pocket every time it beeps or vibrates with a new notification.

Not all of the hype has been positive, though. A number of critical pieces have sounded alarms about potential social problems that may arise. Since Glass is on users all the time, it could be a dangerous, widely distributed distraction, smartphones you can never look away from. At least with smartphones, though, it’s usually obvious that a user’s attention is divided. With Glass it will be much easier to surf Facebook, check email, and chase memes, all while pretending to pay attention to those around you. At Engadget, Joshua Fruhlinger draws parallels with people’s habit of texting while walking or driving. He worries that “we'll see a rash of accidents caused by people paying attention to their Glass, making adjustments or trying to execute a command while they should be paying attention to other cars, pedestrians, poles and children.”

Others point out that Glass will cause a culture clash when people – mainly geeks and the curious members of the upper classes, at first – wear the distinctive accessory in public, in places like bars and restaurants. Any new technology takes time before it stops being unusual and odd. Glass has this problem more than most technologies because it’s so blatant and (ahem) in your face. We can already see resistance arising as “Glass Explorers” begin beta-testing. Alexis Madrigal reported on how the owner of Shotwell’s, a well known San Francisco bar, responded to two people walking in wearing Glass: To the owner, “If you are super nerdy and you like to show off that you're in tech and smart and all those things, I can see you probably wearing Google [Glass], but you are probably in a bubble...” For him Glass was too obviously a signal or marker of membership in a different class; the rich and/or tech-elite crowd.

One Seattle dive bar has already preemptively banned patrons wearing Glass from getting through the front door. In this case, the expressed concern revolves around the biggest issue: privacy and surveillance. The dive bar is supposed to be that sanctuary of dim light, cold beer, and private escape. Glass can disrupt all of that. It’s not hard to see why the thought of people walking around wearing cameras — always pointed at eye level and always potentially recording —  has sparked a firestorm. There’s more to this than just etiquette or social awkwardness. Glass will herald the next phase of a ubiquitous surveillance society. Mark Hurst, the founder of Creative Good, put his finger on the problem when he wrote that “the most important Google Glass experience is not the user experience — it’s the experience of everyone else. The experience of being a citizen, in public, is about to change.”

One could analogize Glass to the CCTV systems that many cities have installed on street corners, but there’s something starkly different about a city full of people walking around with cameras on their faces. Glass instantiates social surveillance — the many watch the many — with a twist: Ultimately, all that data is sent back to Google for them to do as they will with it.

Engineers are already hard at work creating facial recognition software for Glass. One app called InSight has been tested; it uses a person’s “fashion footprint” — based on the colors, patterns, textures, and so on of the person’s outfit — to help the Glass wearer pick them out in a crowd. An article in New Scientist explains that “this fingerprint is constructed by a smartphone app which snaps a series of photos of the user as they read web pages, emails or tweets.” The intention here is to make it easier to find your friends in crowded places, especially since InSight works even if the person isn’t looking directly at you. In reality it sounds like a great piece of software for helping authorities pick out dissidents in a crowd.

As immensely important as privacy matters are — and too often they are dismissed as antiquated, progress-impeding ideals — another crucial point has been missing from discussions about Glass: They are a platform par excellence for persuasive technologies.

Perusaive technologies collect information about a user’s life (where she’s at, what she’s doing, who she’s with, and so on) and generate personalized prompts — like a reverse Siri or digital Jiminy Cricket — for how to behave. Google has already paved the way in “predictive searching” with their digital assistant Google Now, which uses ambient information and user data to pop up contextually based “cards” — notifications with suggestions, prompts, or relevant information — on your smartphone. All you have to do is walk down the street and Google Now could automatically recommend a restaurant to you, let you know that a nearby used book store is running a sale, tell you a historical fact about the building across the street, and alert you that your favorite sports team lost that key game.

Google Now does more than manufacture pseudo-serendipitous discoveries. It is also, by default, taking upon itself the role of the fitness trainer you never hired. Part of its function is to use GPS to track everywhere that you have been, calculate the mileage, use the built-in accelerometer as a digital pedometer to determine the vigor of your activity, and then convey that data back to you. As Forbes blogger Kashmir Hill wondered, “How long before your smartphone starts insisting you lay off the dessert and hit the gym after work?” When persuasive technologies attempt to predict or alter our preferences they are more akin to “techno-nannies” than our digital servants.

Glass threatens to intensify the nannying. As wearable-computing technology like Glass integrates with Google Now’s software, Glass wearers will find it nearly effortless to read and follow Google’s next prompt for them. Much of what makes Glass such an effective medium for persuasiveness is the way it hopes to melt into the routine of wearer’s daily life. According to one journalist’s report, wearing Glass is unusual at first, but it doesn’t take too long before its heads-up display goes from feeling odd to feeling, as he put it, “more powerful.” So much information and so many possibilities — all beamed directly onto your retina.

But how many of these possibilities are shaped but what we would actually want, as opposed to what various companies would like to sell us? It’s important not to forget that Google itself relies on advertising for most of its revenue. Corporations already have an enormous amount of data about each of us, and Glass will allow Google to collect even more. It certainly has a seductive incentive to put all that “big data” in the dossier it collects on each of us to use in influencing our behavior in new ways.

The fun ways in which Glass augments your day may be tweaked to simultaneously serve commercial purposes. Oliver Stokes, a designer, told The Guardian that "Supermarkets and packaging companies spend lots of money trying to work out which packages you look at first on a shelf. Potentially, through Google Glass, they would be capturing that data as standard. That would be quite powerful — to be able to say why people buy things." Such information could be used to help better target market displays in the real world and in Glass itself, helping craft ads that wouldn’t appear to wearers as such. With current ads they tend to take a form we’re familiar with; we know they’re ads and we view them as such. But Glass opens up a new medium for making them evermore personalized, subtle, and effective.

Humans are amazingly good at adapting to new technologies, and Google has every reason to make sure Glass is as unobtrusive as possible. This way the digital layer and notifications seem more like friendly nudges or reminders rather than direct impositions. Christine Rosen, a technology ethics scholar, warns that, “like Facebook’s goal of ‘frictionless sharing,’ persuasive technologies will be most persuasive when we no longer realize we are using them. As the technology recedes into the background, so too does our willingness to question it.”

The hurdle Google must overcome is making sure that it’s socially acceptable for people to walk around wearing Glass in public. Their ethical concerns are limited to ensuring that the devices aren’t “weird.” But for everybody else, Glass’s formidable capability to persuade poses major concerns. We need to address them before we’re persuaded to consume and behave in ways that align with Google’s interests, and not our own. Otherwise, the world may become a blank canvas for Glass to influence users, be it through ads or prompts.