Google Glass, privacy and non-publicness…

Chris Dymond
4 min readMay 9, 2013

So Google Glass is the most frightening surveillance device ever devised. Except of course it’s not, because it’s a really terrible surveillance device and was intentionally designed that way.

Now until we’ve reached the point that Glass has ‘always-on’ capabilities and continually streams data back to Google, and/or transnational intelligence services, I think we should leave privacy aside for now, because, important though it is, it distracts us from from something less frightening but just as insidious, namely, for want of a better word, non-publicness.

Let me try to explain the distinction: privacy is the idea that the device can record useful data without the wearer, or people in the wearer’s environment, knowing. So that could be video or location information or movement or whatever.

Non-publicness, on the other hand, is the idea that other people can’t tell what you are doing. You could be reading a book, or messaging someone, or playing a game, and everyone can see that you’re doing something, but no one knows exactly what. Or even approximately what. These aren’t nefarious things, or things that impinge on your or any one else’s privacy, but they are things that used to be public and now are not. And the result of such things is that we end up with public spaces in which everyone is doing lots of different things — including some things they could never do before — but the physical act of all of those activities involves staring at a small screen, either in the person’s hand or, with Glass, suspended in space an apparent few feet away from the viewer’s eyes.

I think this is just as big a problem as privacy, because the conformity of behaviour that results from this non-publicness means our public spaces are less social. In a sense everyone is carrying their private world around with them in a little box, and when they enter that private world, they have a little unspoken ‘do not disturb’ sign hovering over their heads. If you’ve ever suddenly noticed that in a crowded place, say waiting for a train, the majority of people you can see are all doing the same thing it’s pretty creepy. Feels that way to me at least..

And so it has amazed me for quite a while that no one has seriously looked at addressing this issue (please tell me someone has. If you know someone who’s tried it please let me know!)

Which is why I’m really interested in the new YotaPhone that is apparently launching before the end of the year. This phone is like any other mid-range Android phone, but it has an e-ink screen on the back. Now Yota (who are Russian I believe) intend the e-ink screen to be used to stream information to it without needing to unlock the main display and navigate to an app. So the e-ink screen can essentially show you all your notifications without draining the battery.

This is terrible publicness! This is back to privacy again — but in reverse. Instead of recording data about other people without them knowing, the back of the phone shows everyone your information which you don’t want them to see. Not that they want to see it anyway, mind. Yes of course you could cover the back screen up, but if you use a case to do that it defeats the purpose of having an always-on screen. And not covering it with a case means you’ll need to remember to place the phone LCD-screen up and cup the phone in your hands whenever you use it in public. A rubbish experience I suspect.

No, what Yota should do (or what someone should do with their handset), is try to solve the publicness problem and have the e-ink screen show the outside world what the user is doing with the phone. At least for those apps that the user has agreed to share with the outside world and at what level of fidelity. Do you show that the user is reading a book? Reading a book using Kindle? Or reading To Kill A Mockingbird using Kindle? And then what kind of interface should they use to indicate their preferences? Can it be built into the standard notifications interface? Should there be defaults and presets? Which ones make sense?

This is the work I’d like to see being done. Maybe the fuss over Glass’ ‘privacy’ will encourage it, but I rather doubt it.

(Image by John-Morgan)

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