Glasshole nation: Tech's culture war takes another ugly turn

A viral video showing a violent response to Google Glass reveals the deep schisms wrought by new technology

Published February 28, 2014 12:43PM (EST)

                (<a href=''>martin-matthews</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(martin-matthews via iStock)

Molotov's is the kind of San Francisco dive bar where you are guaranteed a hostile response if you break the house rules about who's next at the pool table. As a reviewer noted on Google+, the bar "can be intimidating if you aren't rocking your punk rock cred." It's a place to "bring your dog, order a two dollar PBR, and get your grime on."

Media feeding frenzies do not ordinarily ensue when a fight breaks out and a purse gets stolen at a punk rock bar on the lower Haight. But throw a woman wearing Google Glass into the middle of the scuffle, a woman who later reports on Facebook that she was the victim of a "hate crime," and faster than you can sing the chorus to "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" an entire city will be foaming with bile. The woman in question, Sarah Slocum, a social media consultant from San Mateo and self-described "glasshead," instantly became the new face of the tech culture wars.

Most people who have experienced real oppression will likely scoff at the notion that having your $1,500 Google Glass ripped off your face outside of a dive bar at 2 in the morning constitutes a hate crime. But that doesn't mean Slocum deserved having her phone and purse stolen, or all the over-the-top negative sentiment that has been showered upon her ever since. Drunk people do inappropriate things in bars every night. That doesn't make them evil.

But what about Google Glass? That's where this story gains some heft. Google Glass is a fascinating device because it simultaneously appears to foreshadow our cyborg future while also symbolizing -- and enacting! -- our growing anxieties about the present. The ubiquitous surveillance state? Google Glass plugs right into it. Technologically driven income inequality? What could be more potent than this expensive new tribal marker for the tech elite?

The people who don their cyborg head-dresses and manage not to grasp how off-putting they may be to the lumpen proletariat are betraying a revealing lack of self-awareness -- so much so that Google recently felt it had to publish a list of "Dos and Don'ts" for Glass users. What more do we need for proof that Google Glass is the antithesis of punk rock?

* * *

The details of what exactly went down last Friday night at Molotov's are rapidly taking on a Rashomon-like inconsistency. Slocum says she was attacked -- "flicked" at with wet bar towels, to be more specific -- and that her Google Glass was ripped from her face by a "hater." Another eyewitness claims a friend of Slocum's threw the first punch.

Again, typical stuff for the wee hours in a punk rock bar. But here's what we do know: Sarah Slocum wore Google Glass into Molotov's. Some patrons of the bar expressed discomfort at the possibility that Slocum might be recording them using Glass. Slocum herself acknowledges that “after being verbally accosted " by one woman, she turned on Glass' video recording function, apparently operating under the extremely dubious assumption that taking such action would result in more restrained behavior.

That was dumb. Farhad Manjoo, newly crowned tech pundit for the New York Times, captured the stupidity at the heart of this story in one pithy tweet:

[embedtweet id="438773623730356224"]

So maybe the story should end here.  It is one of the odd byproducts of our hyper-networked society that every instance of inappropriate behavior is immediately transmitted everywhere and becomes the gist of a culture-wide aneurysm. Let's all learn from Slocum's example: There are some places and times when it is inappropriate to wear a video-camera on your face.

If Google Glass-like technology is ever going to become acceptable in civilized society, a proper etiquette for its use will have to evolve. In his account of a year wearing Google Glass, "I, Glasshole," Wired journalist Mat Honan wrote about all the times he didn't wear his Glass.

My Glass experiences have left me a little wary of wearables because I’m never sure where they’re welcome. I’m not wearing my $1,500 face computer on public transit where there’s a good chance it might be yanked from my face. I won’t wear it out to dinner, because it seems as rude as holding a phone in my hand during a meal. I won’t wear it to a bar. I won’t wear it to a movie. I can’t wear it to the playground or my kid’s school because sometimes it scares children.

Honan believes that eventually, as prices drop and the technology becomes less obtrusive (Google Contacts!) and people become more generally comfortable with state-of-the-art cybertech, wearable technology will become as ubiquitous as smartphones are now. It's a possibility that can't be ruled out. If the steady bubble of incidents involving Google Glass can in large part be attributed to Glass users simply not getting that there are situations where it comes off as rude and invasive to be wearing a video camera on your face, maybe they'll eventually grow up.

But the problems with Glass go deeper than etiquette. As stupid and juvenile as so much of the "tech hate" is in the Bay Area now, there is no denying that, as a society, we are reassessing how we think about technology, and becoming more suspicious of it in the process.

The emergence of the ubiquitous surveillance state is exhibit A in this reevaluation. We know now that the original "Don’t be evil" Google is one of the primary architects of a new order in which vast reserves of data are collected every day about all of us. This data has enabled both the NSA and advertisers to track our every movement in extraordinary detail. How hard is it to understand the symbolism of Google Glass in the context of this sea change? If we're already nervous about our email and our texts being scooped by spooks, the last thing we want to see after we've been pounding PBR for a few hours is someone staring at us with technology on their face that could be transmitting a live feed of us to just about anywhere.

The increasingly obvious negative economic and cultural consequences of technological progress are exhibit B: During the 10-second video clip recorded by Slocum, one bar patron can be heard saying: "You are ruining this city."

There are many reasons why the animosity  captured by those five words is unjustified, especially when it is brought to be bear indiscriminately on anyone who happens to be employed in the tech sector. Tech culture is as deep a part of the San Francisco Bay Area as the Gold Rush and the Summer of Love and the gay rights movement. There are thousands of people in the tech sector who contribute to its culture and vibrant economy.

At the same time, in San Francisco right now, art galleries are closing, nonprofits are being forced out of their offices, and seniors are being evicted from their homes. And if you happen to be losing your home, or even just your favorite gay Latino bar, you really don't want to hear how tech workers are feeling demonized. Their victim-hood is low on your list of priorities.

Change is constant in any big, dynamic city, but the rate of change in the San Francisco Bay Area right now is so fast as to be palpably destabilizing. And what is happening locally also connects to a deeper unease, a growing sense that our increasingly sophisticated technologies are automating people out of their jobs and putting downward pressure on wages.

In that context, the emergence of thousands of Google "Explorers" as an obvious tech elite avant-garde is bound to be perceived as irritating by those who feel threatened by recent change. The people who are benefiting most from the new economy are separating themselves from the rest with silicon circuitry on their heads. As Mat Honan wrote, "Glass is a class divide on your face." That kind of conspicuous consumption is bound to inspire conspicuous resentment.

It could well be that as Moore's law kicks in and prices fall and the technology becomes less obtrusive, and as we all educate ourselves on how and when flaunting our cyborg tech is appropriate, we'll arrive at some new equilibrium. The current paroxysms about tech culture are rife with contradictions. This morning I was looking through reviews of Molotov's on Yelp. Not surprisingly, there are a handful of new reviews posted since the Glass incident, more or less split evenly between people trashing the bar as a seedy hole full of ignorant Glass haters and as a righteous center of resistance to the new tech overlords. But I was struck by the realization that the vast majority of those involved in the conversation about what happened at Molotov's last Friday night were probably using a mobile, Wi-Fi-connected device to communicate, something that would have seemed like sheer fantasy just a decade or two ago. Who's to say that the version of this conversation we are having 10 years from now won't be conducted via ubiquitous augmented reality devices like Google Glass?

Maybe next time around we'll be hating on the freaks who are implanting new tech directly into their skulls. Which, come to think of it, sounds pretty punk rock.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Class Google Google Glass Privacy San Francisco Sarah Slocum Silicon Valley Surveillance