Short Cuts

John Lanchester

Last week I took 61,240 steps, covering 28.88 miles, and climbed the equivalent of 142 flights of stairs – not bad, but not as good as the week before, when I took 67,131 steps, covering 31.66 miles, and climbed 122 flights. I note with gloom that even then I failed to make my target of ten thousand steps a day. I know this with such precision not because I’ve turned into a cross between Bruce Chatwin and Rain Man but because I’ve been using a Fitbit One, a fancy-schmancy pedometer which tracks how much I’ve been moving about and automatically synchronises it, via a Bluetooth dongle on my computer, with a website and an app on my phone. The Fitbit can also track how much I’ve been sleeping, but although the company and the device’s advocates say it does so unobtrusively, I don’t believe them. The whole point of these devices – the reason they work, insofar as they do – is they make you self-conscious about how you’re behaving, and prompt you to behave differently. They notice your being virtuous, where no one else notices (or cares), and so prompt you to be more so. Being self-conscious about how well you’re sleeping surely can’t help you sleep.

The Fitbit is an example of what’s being called ‘wearable computing’, which is the Next Big Thing in technology, or at least the current candidate for Next Big Thing – which is very far from being the same thing. There are lots of Former Next Big Things. Industry seers keep talking about internet-enabled fridges, and have been doing so for about five years, without noticing that they’re an obviously lousy idea. Visual phone calls were a goal for a decade, and then when they came, it turned out hardly anybody wanted them. Three-dimensional television, indeed 3D technology in general, was a dream and aspiration, despite the twin facts of no evident consumer demand and the dissatisfying, headachy, fussy and half-baked nature of the 3D experience. When 3D TVs finally came, the punters ignored them. So there are no guarantees. My hunch, though, is that wearable computing is indeed going to be a big deal, much more so than any of these other products, and the industry is certainly betting that way. The Fitbit has many equivalents – the Up, which is a wrist-band that does more or less the same stuff, and the Nike Fuel Band, which ditto. Apple is said to be developing something along the lines of an iWatch, which does the same things and presumably much more – heart rate, maps, messages and emails, weather forecasts. Let’s hope they don’t leave out the cool bit where it tells the time.

The most keenly anticipated product, though, the game-changer, the one that is forecast to ‘make a dent in the universe’ (that’s a term of praise, by the way), is Google Glass. This is wearable computing in the form of glasses which do two main things. They display information on a screen projected in front of the user, and visible to nobody else; and they allow the user to record and transmit what they’re looking at through the glasses. Videos of the prototypes in use are easily found, and they show us what the inventors have in mind. People swing their children round in the park, and film it; skydive, and share the streaming images in real time via ‘Google Hangouts’; follow map directions, get public transport information, find restaurant and shop locations and reviews; send and receive SMS messages; arrange wake-up calls; conduct web searches; and let’s not forget it also tells the time. To the wearer, the image displayed for their personal use is the same size as a 25” television monitor seen at a range of eight feet. From the point of view of someone looking at the user, Glass looks like a lopsided modern-ish pair of frames with a clumpy thing over the top half of the right eye, stretching down along the right ear. The ear thing conducts sound directly through bone. That’s a new patent, one of many embodied in Glass.

There’s a useful term in the tech business: ‘vapourware’. It means a piece of technology announced with lots of cool features, which never arrives in the market because practical factors prevent it from being built. Glass is not vapourware. It is due for general release early next year. Available colours will include black, orange, grey, white and blue, or to put it in Google-speak: ‘charcoal, tangerine, shale, cotton, sky’. The prototypes have already gone out and are being used by the first generation of – sensitive readers will want their sickbags to hand – ‘Glass Explorers’. The Explorers, who shelled out $1500 each for their new specs, are by definition technophile and Google-friendly, but they are not paid PR people. Their posted responses show that whatever else it is, this product is real and coming soon to a face near you.

Look at the videos and it’s hard not to be impressed by the technologies incorporated in Glass. Think about it for five minutes, though, and it’s hard not to be alarmed by what they might mean. To dispense with one of the subtler consequences first, what does this mean for the user of Glass, in their interactions with other people? We already have an unprecedented range of tools for not-being wherever we are and not-doing whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing. But at least when we take out a phone to check our messages, people can see that we’re doing it. What if we could do that without anybody knowing? The already extensive ecology of Google Glass parodies dwells with some force on this point: we see a first-dater ask his date’s surname then check her page on Facebook. He finds out she likes dogs, looks up some dog jokes, then gets bored and, after photographing her cleavage when she bends over the table, starts watching a football match on his Glass. All of this unbeknownst to her. The user of Glass has the option to be permanently not-there. She can go into internal exile, at will and for ever. What’s that going to be like? T.J. Clark wrote recently in New Left Review that ‘the essence of modernity, from the scripture-reading spice merchant to the Harvard iPod banker sweating in the gym, is a new kind of isolate obedient “individual” with technical support to match.’ Difficult to better that as a description of selfhood in the world of Glass.

The cruder and more obvious problem with Glass is less to do with the user’s self-engagement, and self-withdrawal, and self-whatever, and more to do with the effect on the rest of us. Imagine a world in which anyone around you can be recording anything you say, filming anything you do. We already live in a version of that world, of course – especially in Britain, global capital of the CCTV camera. But you can see a camera or a phone or a tape recorder when it’s held up in front of you. Glass is different. William Gibson tried on a pair briefly at a conference, and tweeted: ‘Expect Google Glass to be reworked into less obvious, more trad spectacles, sunglasses etc, for covert use.’ A racing certainty, I would have thought. (And a disaster for those of us who are lifelong spectacles wearers of the old-fashioned type. You already have to leave your phone outside places where they’re super-sensitive about recording images or words: blockbuster movie previews and 10 Downing Street. Can it be long before we’ll have to leave our specs behind too, or at least prove that they’re Glass-free?) It’s hard to get one’s head around the disruptive potential of this omnipresent recording. At the end of an hour’s general chat in a newspaper office the other day, the conversation turned to Glass, and we all replayed the talk in our heads, editing out the bits we wouldn’t have said if it had been possible someone present had been recording everything. The conclusion was we’d have managed about five minutes’ small talk about the weather, followed by a 55-minute silence.

This aspect of Glass is already causing controversy, and a Seattle bar has already banned it on the basis that it interferes with customers’ privacy. The good news – or bad news – is something that the company doesn’t seem to have acknowledged yet. It is that, in the UK anyway, many or most of the recording functions of Google Glass seem likely to be illegal. The 1998 Data Protection Act defines data as ‘information which is being processed by equipment operating automatically in response to instructions; or is recorded with the intention that it should be processed.’ I don’t speak fluent lawyer, but it seems clear that definition encompasses the recording function of Glass. As for ‘processing’ the data, or doing stuff with it, the definition covers ‘obtaining, recording or holding the data, carrying out any operation or set of operations on the data … disclosure of the information or data by transmission, dissemination, or otherwise making [them] available’. Again, Glass looks as if it is, one might say, in the frame. I would have thought this renders its recording functions all but unusable. You aren’t allowed to share a taped phone call without the other party’s permission; why should you be allowed to share a Glass recording? Technology and privacy have had many skirmishes in the past, but the coming generation of wearable computing has the potential to escalate the conflict to all-out war. Still, it’s cool to be able to count those steps.