On Monday, a post by University of Toronto professor Steve Mann about an attack he experienced at a Parisian McDonald’s made it to the front page of Hacker News. In an emotional retelling, Mr. Mann recounted how, while on a family vacation in Paris, a trio of McDonald’s employees physically harassed and abused him for wearing a pair of computer glasses called “EyeTap Digital Glass,” a version of which he’s donned since the 1980s.
Apparently accustomed to shifty stares and inappropriately-timed questions, Mr. Mann carries around paperwork from his doctor that outlines the device’s functionality, in order to quell any nervousness or dark fascination that might arise while traveling. Of course, stuffing your face with french fries at a fast food doesn’t usually require furnishing medical paperwork.
The eyeglass system Mr. Mann was wearing is permanently attached and can’t be removed without special tools. It includes a literal retina display that turns your eye into a camera. As such, the eye that uses the display has the appearance of a digital glass eye, and also has the added benefit of making Mr. Mann look like a badass member of the Borg.
According to the blog post, three McDonald’s employees attempted to rip the display off of his face, and ripped up the medical paperwork that accompanied it. The motivation here is supposedly that you aren’t allowed to take pictures in a McDonalds, and the employees became angry when they thought Mr. Mann was recording them.
Indeed, Mr. Mann did snap photos of his alleged assailants. But ironically it was the employees messing with the device that caused it to record. Typically, the device only stores image temporarily. But, as Mr. Mann told Fox News, “[the person who allegedly assaulted Mann] was the person who took all the pictures in the last hour or so, by causing the computer to be broken.” Oops.
The bizarre event immediately ricocheted across the tech sphere. Fox News called Mr. Mann a “makeshift human cyborg” and ran an especially Matrix-looking photo of him wearing the eye glass and a gold, netted brain reading device attached to his skull. “First attack on cyborg,” cried an ominous headline on the singularity futurist blog Kurzweil AI, implying that this will be the first of many violent offenses against our transhuman brethren.
It’s hard not to see Mr. Mann’s McDonald’s incident as a portent about the future of wearable computing. With Google claiming that the first version of Project Glass, the company’s own augmented reality glasses, will be consumer ready as early as 2014, how the mainstream will react to a new swath of freshly minted cyborgs is a concept that most non-futurists haven’t really begun to understand.
At the heart of the issue is the matter of privacy, a basic human right that the openness of the Internet has slowly chiseled away at over the last decade. We eagerly serve up location-encoded data and intimate dispatches about our puny lives, but wearable computing introduces an entirely new problem: How will we deal with the concept that eyeglasses with recording technology could mean we are on stage, 24 hours a day? Will our lives become ever-more performative, the stress that we already feel from being constantly tethered to our mobile devices amplified by the fact that anyone–at any time–could be watching you?
And what of police information requests, which are already so rampant for things like cell phone data. If the police can subpoena Google to deliver the information from your glasses, you’ll never be able to get away with anything. Better luck next time, criminals and chronic masturbators.
The technology that invades our privacy today is largely self-inflicted. Don’t want to give Facebook all your personal info? It’s as easy as not signing up for an account. With wearable computing, even if you personally opt out, there will always be some other excitedly plugged-in soul near you who is capable of recording your every move.
Perhaps this is what the inexcusably abusive McDonald’s employees were thinking when they attacked Mr. Mann. More than likely, though, is that they weren’t thinking at all, and simply experiencing a visceral reaction to the unknown. Unable to properly parse their feelings about seeing the “world’s first cyborg,” they instead resorted to violence, and Mr. Mann suffered for their ignorance.
Before 2013, when Google churns out the clunky “Project Glass” and then Apple inevitably corners the market with a hipper design called iGlass (really, this stuff writes itself), perhaps we need to focus on educating each other about what the future of wearable computing might look like.
There’s still one thing about our first encounter with human-on-cyborg violence that’s left us scratching our heads: Why was Mr. Mann eating at a McDonald’s in Paris? Quel horror.