Home > Uncategorized > On Google Glass and Gargoyles: a Call to Action

On Google Glass and Gargoyles: a Call to Action

Wearable computing first entered my social circle in 1993, when fellow grad students at the MIT Media Lab (led by Thad Starner) started inventing and wearing devices of their own design.   The amazing thing to me is that a key social implication of wearables was predicted a year earlier (1992) by novelist Neal Stephenson in his book Snow Crash.   Stephenson used the term “gargoyle” to refer to someone with a wearable who is not really listening to you:

Gargoyles are no fun to talk to. They never finish a sentence. They are adrift in a laser-drawn world, scanning retinas in all directions, doing background checks on everyone within a thousand yards, seeing everything in visual light, infrared, millimeter. wave radar, and ultrasound all at once. You think they’re talking to you, but they’re actually poring over the credit record of some stranger on the other side of the room, or identifying the make and model of airplanes flying overhead.

Since the announcement of Google Glass (for which Thad was lead technical advisor), a productive public conversation about its privacy implications has begun.  I’m glad we’re all talking about the privacy factor, but I don’t think enough attention has yet been paid to the distraction factor.  Sherry Turkle wrote in her book Alone Together that our devices are increasingly preventing us from being fully present. I recently quit playing the game Words with Friends because it was always drawing my attention.  I would start playing at an entirely appropriate moment, but then that moment would pass and part of my attention would still be on the game. I have a tendency to be absorbed by games, and having a really good one in my pocket wasn’t working for me.  So I made a conscious decision to quit, and have been in a more comfortable daily rhythm since.

Since some time around the invention of stone tools, humans have lived immersed in socio-technical systems: richly connected combinations of people, tools, and social practices.  Each of these affects the others.  Who we are as individuals and who we are as a culture are intertwined with what tools we possess and how we choose to use them.  There are things about future wearable computers that I am looking forward to.  I said hi to a Georgia Tech student on my way into a restaurant with my family last night.  If my glasses could have reminded me of her name, I would have been grateful.  And I hope this support would help me truly learn her name, though I fear some people would use such a support to not bother to try. And the privacy implications of course are headache inducing.  When we have face recognition working, next could I please have bird recognition?  (Was that really a piping plover or just a sandpiper?)  How about rock recognition?  (Is that schist or gneiss?)  It’s a naturalist’s dream.  There will be a myriad new applications of wearable computing and augmented reality, some trivial and some profound, that we can’t yet begin to imagine.

But you know what I’m not looking forward to?  Hey–are you listening to me or are you reading your email?  I’ve spent 20 years with friends with wearables, and some of them, sometimes, do indeed live up to Stephenson’s “gargoyle” moniker.  Are we about to be even more alone together?

Some wearables advocates argue the opposite–that a wearable stops you from having to look down at your phone, and helps keep (at least part of) your attention where you are.  Only time will tell if they are right.  If wearables ever play Words With Friends… look out.

It’s not just the device, but how people use it.  And a key challenge is that we are all increasingly connected.  Teenagers say they text so many times a day because their friends are texting them.  It’d be rude not to reply, wouldn’t it?  It can become a challenge for any one individual to opt out and make a different choice.  In the 1990s, the director of the MIT Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, told faculty that he expected them to read email every day–even while on vacation.  One faculty member responded to this by planning a vacation to a remote island where there was literally no possibility of Internet access.  One wonders if such islands even exist any more.  It can be a challenge for any one of us to change the pattern, because we are all interwoven in it.

What is mindful use of technology? To address that question, we have to ask, what is the good life–for us as individuals?  As families?  As communities? The issues expand uncontrollably.  We can in the end merely say: Mindfulness is important.  We must make self-reflective choices and not get sucked into dysfunctional patterns by our technologies.  And it’s a learning process.  We all learn together to put a new technology in its proper place in our lives.  My children don’t watch as much television as I did as a child—they don’t want to.  Sometimes it takes a generation to adjust. And then a newer technology comes along and we all go back to square one.

For the present, I have a call to action: Can we all agree not to silently tolerate gargoyles?  If you’re talking to someone with a Google Glass and they seem to be not paying attention to the conversation, do something goofy and see if they notice.  Make a silly face or stick a finger in your nose.  When they ask, “What are you doing?” You can grin and reply, “I was wondering what you were doing…..”


  1. Jacob Thebault-Spieker
    May 20, 2013 at 11:06 am

    I’ve been thinking (not incredibly deeply) about this idea of mindfulness related to technology. It seems like there may be technological mechanisms that counter-act the draw that our devices have on us. All device software is intended to keep your attention on that software (similarly, web sites, like Facebook, have the same goal). It seems like there may be mechanisms to push the user away temporarily (without breaking the ‘underlying’ draw to the technology), or raise the awareness of users in the amount of time they spend with their technology. This is may be something as simple as an “on clock”, where the device tells you how long your screen has been on.

    I think it’s an interesting direction, but not one I’ve put a lot of thought into.

    • May 20, 2013 at 11:27 am

      Totally agree! I was at a session at the game developer’s conference years ago where folks were literally talking about using Skinnerian reinforcement patterns to keep folks playing. Sometimes these things draw us in because they were designed to. So we need a consumer mandate for less intrusive designs!

  1. June 19, 2013 at 2:01 am
  2. February 2, 2014 at 12:23 pm

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