The thing about Google Glass is that it’s success will not be determined by the people who use it: it will be determined by everybody around the people who use it. Looking to the device that Glass ultimately wants to replace, the mobile phone has not glided to its place atop the technology food chain without acquiring some of that messy baggy we call culture. What we do with our phones is not just about utility, but some of it is performative, about conveying messages to those around us. Think of the act of sitting down at a table to share a meal with a friend, silencing our phones and turning the screen face down (so we can’t see it), or dropping the phone into a bag. This isn’t about utility: it is a show of our presence to a conversation. To think that Glass might avoid this show just because it sits on our face seems a bit preposterous to me.
Another thing about phones is that they have become so much more than phones. Ian Bogost hints at why the Wii U is so interesting: it plays with that tension between the large screens around us that we eschew for the tiny glowing rectangles.
The sensation of being split between the television and the handheld computer feels strange and awkward. But isn’t this precisely how all of us feel today, all the time? Torn between the lush absorption of newly cinematic television and the lo-fi repetition of streams of text and image on our mobile phones and tablets? If the Wii attached to television’s past, the Wii U couples to its present: still seemingly unassailable, the most powerful mass medium around, delivering more and more immersion annually, yet substantially eroded by tiny devices delivering quips, quotes, and cat photos.
To me, the largest reason we do this is because of how personal these devices feel: they say the smaller the screen, the more intimate the experience. We find ourselves curling up with iPads and phones in ways that only the most determined laptop users can replicate. They are comfortable. There is less and less space between us and these machines: they have all the intimacy of reading a book, our own little world we can escape to. A conversation happening between ourselves and a device. They have become like tiny little dæmons (in the Philip Pullman sense: we carry them with us always, usually on our person, and even when we are not using them, they are a comfortable shadow). These things are wonderfully personal.
Part of me wonders about this intimacy: can it be achieved with an object that we cannot touch? There’s another, more pressing issue with building intimacy with Google Glass: its voice interface. I have always been deeply uncomfortable with voice interfaces, and prior to this point, I’ve just thought that it had something to do with my deep hatred of using the phone to do things which should be done via a form online (like, say, getting a plane ticket). But it’s not that. If you reread that paragraph above, what’s implicit in this relationship we have with our phones is not just that we are close to them: it is also that they are private, a little world of our own. Everyone in the room can see what I’m watching on TV, if you sneak a glance at my monitor you will be able to see the basic shapes of what I’m doing on my computer. But seeing the tiny little screen on my phone requires a bit more maneuvering. And this makes it a private space in spite of the public places I may use it. If we start to move t owards voice interfaces, we surrender a large chunk of this privacy: you may not see what I see on my screen, but you will know, through what I say, what am I doing. That broken barrier also shatters the relationships we can have with these devices. But that is precisely the relationship you need to out do if you would like to replace the mobile phone.
Maybe we’ll move to gesture based computing instead. Glass and gestures. A little of our privacy will be maintained. We’ll have coffee shops full of people twitching in little kinetic patterns. Maybe the gestures will gain a rhythm, it’ll be a little bit like dancing with our hands. But we’ll probably still take the glasses off when our friend joins our table.