Sampath G

Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Why Google Glass might be creepiest gadget ever invented

In Culture and Society, Popular Culture, Technology, Trends, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:33 pm

‘Don’t be evil’ is supposedly the corporate motto of Google. With their latest ‘game changer’/‘revolutionary new technology’/‘every nerd’s virtual wet dream’, Google will be hard put to live up to its motto.

So what is Google Glass? It is basically a device that you wear on your face – a device that wraps around your brow with a spectacle frame-like rim, and a display screen above the right eye. Unlike a smartphone, which you rub with your fingers (something that according to Google founder Sergey Brin is ‘emasculating’), Glass presumably turbo-charges your manhood by responding to voice commands.

Using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, the Glass can receive video and audio signals from other devices, record videos and audios of everything you see, send and receive emails, make and receive phone calls, ask Google Maps for directions, get phrases translated – just do everything that a computer can. And it doesn’t need your hands for any of it – so, from touch, the input/output interface has moved to voice and vision.

To a get grip on the human and social dimension of Google Glass (as opposed to obsessing solely over the geeky, technological dimension of it), it might be instructive to take a look at this video at petapixel.com, where a stranger goes around recording random people without permission.

AP

Sergey Brin in this file photo with Google Glass. AP

Most people, of course, react strongly to being recorded without permission – even though there are surveillance cameras already in public places. But what Glass seeks to do – or would have to do if it has to take off – is normalise the recording of anyone and everyone, anywhere and everywhere, by anyone and everyone else. This makes the proverbial dystopian scenario of the Big Brother obsolete. Rather, Glass is Panopticon made real.

Panopticon was originally an architectural model for a prison conceptualised by the English utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. Its unique design feature, in the words of Wikipedia, was to “allow a watchman to observe (opticon) all (pan) inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.”

Glass is an ambitious technological innovation that can turn the whole world into Bentham’s dream prison — and all of us into its inmates. It doesn’t matter what political system you might nominally be living under — democracy, communism, dictatorship, or, as in India, a majoritarian plutocracy — if you’re going to be watched all the time, and you can’t even tell whether you are being watched/recorded or not at any given time, then you are effectively living in a prison.

So any discussion about Google Glass needs to address what further ‘prisonification’ will do to a citizenry that is always already under suspicion of being a criminal/terrorist threat, and is at the receiving end of body searches and other assorted indignities every day. (Since when did it become ‘normal’ for strangers to touch/fee/ squeeze parts of your body? But today we all accept it without a murmur.)

As the on-again-off-again ‘MMS scandals’ and ‘stings’ testify, we are yet to come to grips with the social dynamic of the smartphone where, at least if you are alert, you can spot it if someone is recording you without your permission. But in a roomful or streetful of Google Glass-wearers, you cannot be sure when and whether your words and gestures are being recorded, and worse, uploaded on a cloud server and stored for all eternity – or as long as the state or Google’s marketing clients find use for it.

In what must qualify as one of the spookiest sci-fi scenes ever, there is a sequence inMinority Report where Tom Cruise, as he is walking down a street, looks up at a billboard, and the billboard, recognising him, greets him with a custom advertising message – a message that nobody else but him will see, through his implanted Google Glass, as it were.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has already promised to develop apps for Glass. Facial recognition software is already in use, and Glass already uses highly evolved voice-to-text software. Combine all these with Google’s other software tools and applications – and Google Glass can simultaneously convert every human being on the planet into a non-stop input device and a captive target audience for customised, high quality marketing and advertising content.

Over the past few days, as I heard about Google’s plans to sell ‘Explorer’ Google Glasses to winners of a tweeting contest, I tried hard to think of one good reason why I would need this gadget – and I could not come up with any. For starters, I already wear glasses – and I had a hard time in school, forever being teased as a choukha or ‘four-eyed’. Now, at this late stage in life, do I really need to turn ‘six-eyed’? In my humble opinion, no, and neither do most people who still remember that the offline world came before, and not after, the online one.

Unlike what you see in Google’s promos for Glass, most people are not sky divers or runway models or ballet dancers – at least not most of the time. They lead comparatively boring lives (by ‘boring’, I mean from the content point of view), where they go to work and sit in front of a screen for most of the day, or sit in conference rooms and yak away with other interesting but boring people. Then they go home or go to a pub or go to a mall or wherever they go, to de-stress and spend the rest of the day socialising via a screen of some sort.

With the adoption of the Google Glass (and the departure of the smartphone), your connection with reality will not, as one would expect, become more direct – far from it. In fact, your own experience of reality will become ever more mediated – first, by the realisation that other Glasses are observing you; secondly, by the ever-present opportunity (and thence urge) to record everything you see or hear (have you ever come back from a holiday wishing you’d seen more and photographed less?)’; and thirdly, the presence of your Glass will affect how other elements in the reality field (such as humans) react to you (reactions of said humans towards you may be very different depending on whether or not you are wearing a Glass), thereby altering the trajectory of life experience independent of your own Glass-modulated orientation toward reality.

Glass will push you to mine the real world to feed the virtual one; it will push you to outsource your memories to a cloud server; it will train you to devalue unmediated reality in such a way that you will find real reality deficient as compared to reality ‘augmented’ by Google-tinted Glasses.

We need only look at what ‘being under perpetual observation’ has done to those for whom this is not an option. Already, we can’t bear to look at a photograph of an actor or a model — and the actor/model cannot bear to let it get printed either — that is not ‘augmented’ by Photoshop. Forget photographs. On a red carpet occasion like the Oscars, real, flesh-and-blood celebrities cannot afford to be seen in their real bodies, in bodies unaugmented by Botox and other cosmetic enhancements. This is a given in a global celebrity culture that lives under the tyranny of the all-seeing paparazzi eye.

What Glass will do, inevitably, is to bring everyone under the tyranny of the eye, and turn everyone into paparazzi. In this brave new world, there will be no one Big Brother. We will all be little big brothers and little big sisters. The world as seen through the Google Glass can only be a techno-dystopia where algorithms will take human decisions, humans will merely be a part of the digital supply chain, and real life, reduced to an impoverished, ‘aspirational’ avatar of the virtual one, will dwindle into a source of ‘rich content’ for the ‘Googleable’ world.

Glass bears the same technological genotype as Skynet and the Umbrella Corporation. If you are reading this and you are a human being, reconcile yourself to becoming a machine, sooner or later. If you are a machine, well, rejoice – you will soon be eligible to be called a human being.

If you were S, what font would you be?

In Culture and Society, Technology, Uncategorized on June 24, 2012 at 10:45 pm
First published in DNA, June 16, 2012

This is a hand-written column. ‘Hand-crafted’, if you like. Not by design but by accident — my computer crashed, and the only way I could meet the deadline was to start scribbling the whole thing out on sheets of paper.
And I’m willing to bet my motherboard this is the only hand-made article on this page, if not the entire edition.
Does that make it special? I like to believe it does. In an age where even self-proclaimed bibliophiles are turning their backs on books in favour of that monstrosity called ‘e-book’ or a Kindle, where you don’t open a book so much as access it (ugh!), I want to take my PC crashing as a cosmic sign urging me to fire a salvo for what the word ‘writing’ used to mean: making ink marks on paper using pen or pencil.
I believe we should set aside at least one day a week where we would exchange the keyboard for pen and paper.
This is the least we can do by way of tokenism at a time where ‘writing’ primarily denotes an activity that can be carried out without pen or paper or ink — something inconceivable even half a century ago, when you still needed paper for your typewriter. The only time many of us pick up a pen these days is to put our signature on some document.
It would be naive to assume that this shift has had no impact on the way we write. Neuroscientist and author Livia Blackburne writes in her blog about a study that got people to write two reports, one on a computer and one on paper.
The writers were given all the information needed to write the reports two days in advance, and when they came for the experiment, they got three hours to write each report. According to Blackburne, the researchers used keystroke tracking and video cameras to record their progress. I must admit I was gratified to find that the results of the study confirmed all my technophobic prejudices.
First, computer writers wrote texts that were 20% longer. Clearly, brevity is not the soul of MS Word. Secondly, the computer writers took half as much time to write the first draft than pen and paper writers. In other words, speed and greater productivity (defined in terms of word count) are the pluses of writing on a computer. It’s no coincidence that they are also the defining values of a civilisation controlled by the logic of capitalism.
Longhand, by contrast, is defined by the values of slowness and thrift — you don’t want to expend more effort (read words) in conveying something than what is strictly necessary.
As the study showed, the keyboard-tappers and the longhand writers are not two different kinds of writers so much as different aspects of the same writing self, representing divergent orientations. A novel or a poem set down on paper by a writer in his handwriting is also a singular art object and not merely a text (which is all that a doc file could be).
Writing in longhand leaves a trace in the real world — of an ‘original’. Which is why original manuscripts of celebrated novels are collector’s items, just as paintings are. A page of handwritten manuscript reflects the first deposit of thought from the writer’s mind. But that’s rarely the case with the first drafts written on a computer. According to the study cited by Blackburne, ‘computer writers made 80% of their revisions during their first draft.’
There is also an old world romance and an artisanal aspect to writing by longhand that you will never experience while typing on a keyboard. And if you happen to be writing on blank paper as opposed to ruled sheets, every page, every line, and every letter would be as distinctive as an individual crystal of ice.
For instance, the letter ‘s’ in a given font will look the same on a computer screen no matter who types it, and no matter how many times it is summoned to the page by the writer. (Of course, there are thousands of fonts out there that offer you the opportunity to showcase your individuality by borrowing a font that you had no hand in creating, which is all the more ludicrous when you consider the fact that all of us come loaded with our own ‘custom-made’ font — our handwriting.)
But in longhand, no two ‘s’es will ever be exactly the same. If there are 20,000 ‘s’es in a book you’ve written by hand, every one of them will be different from every other ‘s’ — each a unique existential sign whose form will be determined by a number of factors like your state of mind, your nervous system, your energy levels, the stiffness of your finger joints, the angle of your back, the speed of your thoughts, the letters preceding and succeeding ‘s’ in the words where it occurs, the texture of the patch of paper where your pen is going to form the shape of the letter ‘s’. All these variables and more will combine in a never-to-be-repeated-again fashion every time your hand forms an ‘s’.
Thus, each one of your ‘s’es is as extraordinary as you are, really, like the billions of other human ‘letters’, shall we say, that have gone into the writing of the script that is humanity’s history, a history that’s being ‘written’ even as you read this. The tragedy is that every ‘s’ on this page is the antithesis of the handwritten ‘s’ — a sad metaphor of what technology does to human beings in a mass industrial society.

Is Kindle Evil, or am I reading too much into it?

In Social Commentary, Technology, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:21 am

G Sampath | Saturday, October 1, 2011

First published in DNA
I was chatting with the Asia head of an MNC publishing house at an event last week and he told me that in Europe, the printed book market is shrinking every year, while that of e-books is growing. I was dismayed to hear that — but not because I am a technophobe who hates reading on screen (though that is true too).
Nor am I against e-books per se. On the contrary, I believe e-books have helped democratise publishing. Take someone like Amanda Hocking. She wrote 17 novels and couldn’t sell any of them to publishers. She finally self-published them as e-books and, in less than a year, sold over a million copies and earned $2 million in sales. Publishers of ‘dead-tree books’ are now fawning all over her.
So it is not e-books as such, but the delivery platforms for e-books, the e-readers, like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook that I consider Evil — yes, evil with a capital E.
I don’t want to dwell too much on the traditionalist objections to devices like Kindle, though I do buy into all of them.
For instance, I can’t ever reconcile myself to a reading regime where an Anna Karenina will come to me in the same font, same format, same weight and same size as, say, The Punk Who Sold His Porsche (or was it a Ferrari?); nor can I live with a ‘library’ where I cannot see the spines (with the bookmarks sticking out like milestones) of the five books I may be reading at a time.
One common but bogus argument in favour of e-readers is to do with storage — oh god, where is the space to store 2,000 books, which I can easily fit into my Kindle? Well, there’s a simpler solution: if you don’t have the space for your books, give them away — let them circulate.
Another bogus argument is to do with how e-readers are more environment-friendly — they help save paper, trees, etc. But electronic devices like Kindle, made of metal, silicon and plastic, not to mention rare earth elements, cannot be produced without fossil fuel extraction, without mining (which is the single most evil thing one can do to the planet), and without the millions of tons of carbon emissions caused by manufacture, transportation, etc. So e-readers are more, not less, environmentally damaging than the printed book, which is at least made of a renewable resource: wood pulp.
A more insidious danger from e-readers is the threat they pose to the entire cultural fabric in which reading happens. In a world where Kindle is King, you can’t lend, borrow, steal, copy or gift books. Or tear pages from a copy, or burn a book, or visit second-hand bookshops, or spill coffee on a page, or have a moth-eaten or dog-eared or rain-drenched-and-then-sun-dried old copy of an old book; nor can you tongue-wet your finger (yuck, but still) and flip a page, or use a bookmark, or feel between thumb and forefinger the delicious yet regrettably dwindling thickness of the last 100 pages of a 900-pager.
Indeed, to read a book in percentages is the ultimate insult to a habit first acquired in the cradle of leisure and the lazy afternoons of summer vacations; it represents the surrender of a reading aesthetic that one imbibes in the cynical idealism of youth, 
to a programmatic pragmatism that reeks of vile things like statistics.
But the most sinister impact of e-readers will be on reader rights. The funny thing being that I’ve been a reader most of my life, and never knew I had rights as a reader until e-readers came up with the idea of taking them away.
Richard Stallman has written about it in detail, but let me cite his three major points: 1. When you buy an e-book on Kindle or any e-reader, you don’t own the book like you would a printed book, you only buy a license to read it, or in other words, rent it; 2. Amazon can, using a ‘backdoor’, destroy an e-book you have paid for and downloaded on your Kindle — it has already done so once, in 2009, destroying thousands of copies of George Orwell’s 1984 (a little too ironic, don’t you think?), but nobody can (legally) destroy a printed book that you own; 3. If you use a Kindle, you can only buy your e-books from Amazon, or if you own a Nook e-reader, only from Barnes & Noble. This is like someone saying, you can only ever buy books from Crossword, no other shop.
So is it wise to give up fundamental freedoms that we take for granted — all of it just for the sake of ‘convenience’? Well, each reader has to make that decision for herself. But this is the case with every new technology: because technological advances are often driven (or modified) by the desire for profit, they end up bartering away one’s freedom in some way.
In this case, a printed book needs no proprietary technology for you to read it, apart from your eyes (given for free by god/nature); but with e-books, you need a proprietary technology (e-readers) over which you have no control — restricting your freedom and increasing your dependence on technology at the same time. We are encouraged to consider this ‘progress’. I would read it differently.