Arrival of Google Glass and other devices to record what we see and load it onto databases which store all manner of information is a threat to our sense of selfhood, says Lori Anderson
‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.” When Christopher Isherwood wrote these lines in his memoir, Goodbye to Berlin, he was referring to his desire to capture the moment, the zeitgeist of the decadent time and place in which he had found himself, Germany’s Weimar Republic.
Yet what Isherwood imagined 70 years ago has now come to pass. If I were to sum up the prevailing mood of today’s age it would include those two naked spectres: voyeurism and exhibitionism, and next year they will embrace a new dance partner from which they will soon be inseparable.
The latest threat to personal privacy comes from Google, which next year will launch Google Glass, a device that mixes a pair of glasses with a mobile phone. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator, those who purchase the device will be able to see footage and information projected, not on the inside of their eyeballs as in the 1984 movie but on one of the lenses.
A miniature microphone on the glasses can record the surrounding audio, which means if one is in Starbucks and an unknown song comes on, the title and recording artist will scroll down the inside of the lens. If you wander around a museum then every artefact on view could be accompanied by a potted history; take a stroll in a garden and what you previously recognised by the bland generic bouquet of “pretty flowers” will soon spread out its petals as the glasses detail each bloom’s Latin name and horticultural background. There will be no need to look down to one’s phone or iPad as the answers will be in front of your eyes.
Yet trouble will also be staring us in the face, in the form of a pair of wacky, narrow sci-fi glasses. The problem for privacy is the hidden camera fitted to the glasses which allows the wearer to take pictures and video footage of everything they see. Think about it. If a stranger was walking towards you holding a video camera and filming what you do, you would, at the very least, want to know why and what he or she planned to do with the footage. In the next few years you won’t notice a man or woman with a video camera, or an iPad or even a smartphone – it will be a stranger in a pair of specs. Those who take a warped voyeuristic pleasure in taking “creep shots” of women’s cleavage or up their skirts will be putting in an early order with which to deliberately fumble and drop when a choice opportunity arises.
In the past, pictures were expensive to develop and video footage was stored on two-hour tapes, but now the advent of cloud storage allows millions of images and thousands of hours of footage to be kept for just £100 a year. The new glasses will appeal to “life loggers”, those individuals who believe every aspect of their existence should be recorded and stored, so shortly everything they see will be squirrelled away. What makes this a problem of privacy is that the actions and behaviours of passers-by, friends, family, lovers etc will also be stored without their consent.
Facial recognition software currently allows authorities and those in the know to search hours of footage for a particular person. There is no reason then if Google Glass becomes popular – and both Microsoft and Sony are also developing their own systems – that a person can’t be traced and their actions tracked by anyone gaining access to the stored footage.
What is interesting is how different cultures had subtly different attitudes towards being filmed. As the Economist explained in a recent article, in parts of Europe it is necessary to secure a person’s permission before publicly displaying a person’s image. In Japan and South Korea, all cameras have to make an audible noise when a picture is taken. In Austria, dashboard cameras are illegal and users can be hit with a £8,000 fine, while in Russia they are fitted in more than a million cars.
Google is aware of such concerns and has designed the glasses so that a manual button must be pressed to begin recording and a light flashes on to alert the unaware. However, when the glasses were put out to 10,000 people to trial, hackers reconfigured the software so that secret filming could commence with just a subtle wink. In 2011, Google tried to take out a patent on a camera that monitored what adverts a person looked at and also recorded their emotional response.
The next attack on our privacy will be by air. Pilotless aerial drones have already been used by paparazzi to take pictures of celebrities in their own gardens but their ubiquity is set to expand rapidly over the next few years as costs drop. Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, this week announced that by 2015 he wants premium customers to be able to take delivery of goods by drones within 45 minutes of an order being placed.
Privacy as our parents understood it has changed dramatically. We have all become Americans. We “share”. As Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, said recently: “Privacy is no longer the social norm, people have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people… That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.” Personally I couldn’t live without what the legal scholar Alan Westin, who died earlier this year, defined as the four key states of privacy: solitude; intimacy; reserve; and anonymity.
In an interesting new book on the subject, The Private Life, the author Josh Cohen explains how modern life is eroding our true sense of self as people favour dramaturgy – a staged persona. As he said in a recent interview: “Social media and other forms of electronic communication encourage a kind of constant externalisation of our thoughts, feelings and activities, exerting a subtle pressure to be visible at all times. The more time and energy we dedicate to this, I fear, the more apt we are to confuse the self with what’s on the surface, and so lose touch with our interior lives. There are futurological prophets who claim interiority is a thing of the past, that we’re destined to become parts of a ‘collective externalised mind’. I think that’s fanciful – technology can’t do away with inner life. But it can leave it desiccated and undernourished.”
Be afraid: soon you will be a camera and we will all be Canon fodder.