Glass warfare

A bar fight over Google Glass is the latest skirmish in our newest culture war

Google Glass small

A few weeks back the New York Times Magazine published an eye-opening piece on technology’s isolating effects on people. The eye-opening part was this: It’s not isolating at all, contrary to popular belief. If anything, an array of data shows, it’s connecting us in ways we’ve never been connected before  not just on social media but in real life, that place we go when the Internet’s down.

Citing research into people using their phones in public, the author wrote:

“[They] were not ignoring lunch partners or interrupting strolls with their lovers; rather, phone use seemed to be a way to pass the time while waiting to meet up with someone, or unwinding during a solo lunch break….[The] project offers an explanation for that misperception. It turns out that people like hanging out in public more than they used to, and those who most like hanging out are people using their phones.”

Encouraging as this is, it’s hard not to see signs of technology driving us apart in other ways — or maybe providing an excuse for existing divisions to be underlined. Last weekend in San Francisco a tech publicist named Sarah Slocum says she was harassed and attacked for wearing Google Glass into a bar that was hostile to the product. Accounts vary, but there seems to be agreement that an altercation occurred, with her eyewear at the center. According to Slocum, things began innocently, with some patrons expressing curiosity about Glass. Then others at the bar started making snide comments, accusing her and Google of “killing the city”; some appear to have resented the idea of her recording them at the bar. Things escalated, and soon Slocum says someone had snatched the glasses off her face and she was out on the sidewalk fighting to have them back.

The specifics of the story are extreme, but its basic emotional contours are increasingly familiar: On one side, someone considers her technology benign and even inevitable (“This is the future,” Slocum said in an interview). On the other side, someone objects to the wider changes that technology is bringing, objects to its appearance in places that were once happily analog.

These positions go deep — we’re arguing about how life should be lived, what the commons should look like, where personal space begins and ends. But at this point, it’s hard not to suspect that the broader factions of both sides are, at some level, fighting about something even deeper. As with any culture war, the vitriol coming from each side isn’t just directed at the arguments themselves, but the identities of those espousing them. It’s no surprise, then, that the media has picked up on Slocum’s claim that she experienced “a hate crime.” Whatever we feel about technology in 2014, it seems we’ve reached the point of assuming a symbolic dimension. I’d be curious to see the technology capable of bringing us together over this.

Chris Colin
Chris Colin is the author most recently of What to Talk About, as well as What Really Happened to the Class of '93 and Blindsight, named one of Amazon's Best Books of 2011. He’s written about chimp filmmakers, ethnic cleansing, George Bush’s pool boy, blind visual artists, solitary confinement, the Yelpification of the universe and more for the NewYorker.com, the New York Times Magazine, Outside, Pop-Up Magazine, Wired, Smithsonian, Mother Jones and Afar, where he's a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]
Chris Colin
Chris Colin
Tags: Downtime,Gadgets & Devices,Tech Culture