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World’s First Cybernetic Hate Crime July 18, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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That’s how it was described by i09 at least.

Steve Mann, the “father of wearable computing,” has been physically assaulted while visiting a McDonalds in Paris, France.

The Canadian university professor was at the restaurant with his family when three different McDonalds employees took exception to his “Digital Eye Glass” device and attempted to forcibly remove it from his head. Mann was then physically removed from the store by the employees, along with having his support documentation destroyed.

This may be the first ever recorded assault of a person instigated by the prominent display of a Google Glass-like wearable computer.

This story has been out there for several days now so rather than give a recap I’d like to offer some thoughts.

Firstly, though it seems unclear whether the motivation for this crime was the headset’s camera ability, the fact that it looked very odd or simply that Parisian McDonalds workers are particularly violent the incident raises the troubling issue of what privacy really means in a world where these kind of devices become widespread.  The actual issue is not so much that he had the ability to tape them as today anyone with a phone can do the same thing but rather that he was taping them.  Think about it, walk around with you cell phone out recording everythin you see and you will no doubt recieve angry responses from many people (just ask some local police departments).

The problem is that, as is often the case, our technology has outstripped our societies ability to integrate that technology harmoniously with our current social order.  We are largely obeying social rules that originated in an era where the idea that anyone could be filming you at any time was unthinkable.  As there is no going back to the days before the ubiquity of cheap and small video taping technology we are left with the difficult task of adjusting to a world in which old rules of privacy no longer apply.

The good news, and for the record I do think the spread of this sort of technology is ultimately a good thing, is that the ground work for this change is already in place.  In public place (at least in America) people already understand at least implicitly that they have no expectation of privacy.  In certain countries such as the UK people in large urban areas are being monitored largely from the moment they leave their homes.  While there are of course concerns with the level of monitoring by the government it has largely been implemented without major pushback and of course everyone accepts being on camera while on private property without question.

The strange irony for detractors of the eye piece recorders and other miniature recording devices is that they are arguably the only thing capable of leveling the currently slanted playing field.  If our choices are between a world in which those who hold the reins of power watch us at every moment and a world in which we can watch them back I know which one I will choose.  We may have to give up a little of our privacy but we will retain a greater share of our freedoms.

Secondly, there is the question of whether these sorts of attacks will become more widespread as augmented reality technology does.  I actually don’t have much fear of that.  As more and more people adopt augmented reality glasses and as the glasses become less Borgish the shock of seeing someone wearing them will disappear as well.  That in combination with it’s obvious potential as the next great advance in social media almost assure it a welcome place among my generation.  The privacy concerns will remain but the stigma of being a “cyborg” will not.

That being said, and this is final point I want to make, it is telling that in reading comments on the story a large percentage of posters have noted the “weird” appearnce of the headset.  Though mostly these have been relatively innocuous in a few cases it has been used a justification for the assualt (i.e. if he didn’t want to be thrown out he shouldn’t have provoked them wearing the glasses).  This line of thinking is troubling and the fact that so many still have a negative gut reaction to what we might call obvious cyborgization leads me to add a caveat to the previous paragraph.  People will accept new technologies as long as they do not challange their preconceived values and cross the invisible line between “technology as an extension of humanity” and “technologies as a replacement/alteration of humanity.”  Storing excess information on a harddrive, or in books for that matter, is fine.  Enhancing your memory by installing a usb port in your brain is not.  Of course such old ideas inevitebly change with the march of time, few today would join Socrates in condemning the written word, but it is a long and often painful process.

What we have witnessed here may be the beginning of that pain.

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