This is my best-effort translation of my Dutch blog Gaat Sergey Brin de uitdaging aan zich via Google Glass te laten observeren?
Sergey Brin and Larry Page are the founders of Google. This omnipresent company was founded only 15 years ago and nowadays has over 30.000 employees. Each founder currently owns over 20 billion dollars and this amount will grow with another 4 billion the year to come, although it won’t be entirely cash money. Anyway, they can be regarded as part of a very select group that became extremely rich and powerful thanks to the ICT. It was a combination of factors that made them so wealthy. At the right moment they got the right education at the right top university, where they did the right research. But also they appeared to be the geniuses who kept their most important inventions more or less secret and they had the guts to start their own little company at exactly the right moment. The ‘Internet’ was rapidly growing and there was an urging need for algorithms to search in huge databases. The traditional search algorithms were not powerful enough. Brin and Page had elaborated on certain algorithms that had been developed at the Stanford University by others and they appreciated their potential power and started their little company. It became a huge success. What struck many people was that these two boys showed to have an ethically sound view about what they were doing. They stuck to ethical principles and this was very much to their own benefit. If they had shown disrespect to moral standards – esp. about privacy – and merely stuck to commercial principles, it is almost certain that their company (Google) would have failed, no matter the quality of their algorithms. Internet users have always evaluated the ethical principles of Google in their decision to use Google. And this surely was the case when others tried to penetrate that entirely new market.
In other words, the ethical principles of Brin and Page are okay. Or aren’t they anymore? What did 15 years of ever increasing success do to them, since they are part of that select group of extremely rich and influential people? These days they are the employer of a whole army of geniuses who work for them – money is not the problem – on projects that others only dream of. Sometimes ideas that stem from science fiction become reality in their laboratories.
I get the impression they are no longer entirely in contact with how real life is for most of us. I do understand and accept that our ethics require a little shift time and a while, in order to enable us to implement real improvements. However, I get the impression that Brin and Page are currently fooling themselves and us here. To be specific, I’m now talking about their newest toy, Google Glass. This toy is a pair of glasses that combines a camera and a projector and that is wirelessly connected to the servers of Google. The possibilities seem almost limitless. Although many of the possibilities are already realized since the introduction of the advanced smartphone, Google Glass will add an extra dimension. Regular smartphones, cameras, microphones and video recorders still require you to aim them at the target. Having those devices integrated in your glasses enables you to aim them far less obtrusive. This will enable the wearer to intrude into our private life much easier than we are already kind of used to. Our privacy is again under scrutiny. Some try to convince us that we must change our concept of privacy, in order to get full advantage of current and future technological developments. They argue that we must accept and – even better – appreciate that certain personal details that we always felt to be private will be totally public in the future. In my opinion this is a cynical, or at least undemocratic, point of view. Isn’t this something that we at least all should vote on?! Or do we no longer have an option simply because new technological possibilities rule what’s still private and what’s no longer? If that’s the case, then we may as well get rid of all philosophers, ethicists and politicians, and even of democracy. My point of view is that from now on all new technological possibilities should be evaluated beforehand with regard to their consequences. Let’s try to make laws in time; don’t wait with closing the door after the horse has bolted. The high speed of modern life developments demands that we make laws in time and proactive, also because it is oftentimes quite impossible to reverse the effects.
Especially Sergey Brin, being the ‘lead inventor’ of many special Google projects – Google Glass being one of them – has introduced himself as the major advocate of Glass. Google has offered the device, available later this year, for 1.500 dollars to 8000 gadget lovers. Brin himself has worn the device in the New York metro. At conferences he tells the public that he had to get used to wearing the device, but that he liked it more and more. He even told them that he now thinks that staring at your smartphone is actually antisocial behavior (“You’re actually socially isolating yourself with your phone”) and he even suspects that it’s “emasculating”. And that you will get back the manly experience when using Google Glass. I wonder, what does this tell us about his mindset …
Okay, let’s assume, or admit, that the device offers an advantage to the wearer (for now neglecting certain security issues that might pose a problem to the wearer too). But did Brin spend enough attention to the issue of the privacy impact on those who are the target of the wearer? Let’s test this …
Mister Brin, I propose you do another experiment, but this time you will be the target of the Google Glass wearers. To be specific, you will be surrounded by several wearers, all being unknown to you, and all observing you. The experiment will last for at least one whole week and will not be limited to a single spot or hour of the day. Moreover, all data that the devices collect must be stored on the internet and be easily available to us all. This is the challenge I hope you will accept. Regards.
And until the moment that we all have been able to vote about Google Glass in our parliaments: Personally I tend to sympathize with anyone who wants to tear off the device and pulverize it on the ground. Yes, I know, this is a far more drastic approach than what the Stop the Cyborg organisation asks us to do. They ask us, actually quite decent, to wear a t-shirt with an overprint of a prohibitory sign.
Remark on the clip hereunder: If you use Google Search to search for ‘google glass’ and choose for Images, you will get an almost endless sequence of photos of very beautiful and happy people wearing this device. Coincidence?