Image from Robert Cooke
Image from Robert Cooke

On Monday I posed two related questions:  “Are wearables like Glass relegated to the same fate as Bluetooth earpieces and the Discman, or can they be saved?  Is the entire category irredeemable or have we yet to see the winning execution?” I concluded that most of the problems have to do with the particular executions we’ve seen to date, but it’s also very possible that the very idea of the wearable is predicated on the digital dualist notion that interacting with a smartphone is inherently disruptive to a productive/happy/authentic lifestyle. Lot’s of devices are pitched as “getting out of the way” and only providing a little bit of information that is context specific and quickly (not to mention discreetly) displayed to the user. I contended that the motivation to make devices “invisible” can bring about some unintended consequences; mainly that early adopters experience the exact opposite reaction. Everyone pays attention to your face computer and nothing is getting out of the way at all.

More importantly though, wearables provide an all-too-literal demonstration of engineers’ “view from nowhere.” This phrase, coined by Donna Haraway, is meant to describe how the gaze of experts is perceived (by outsiders and the experts themselves) as neutral and objective. That means certain dominant values or practices common to engineers and their intended initial user base (Explorers) are built into the device at the expense of others’ lived experiences.  I offered one illustrative example of both a problem and solution to this dilemma which I’ve included below as the first suggestion, followed by four more that I think will improve not just future wearables, but design practices in general:

  1. The body is part of the device, incorporate it into the design. With a phone your body posture makes it fairly obvious that you’re taking a picture: Glass isn’t as obvious. Glass’s prism lights up when its recording a video but this doesn’t mean a whole lot if those around you don’t know what it means when the prism on your face begins to glow. Short of projecting [REC.] on the user’s forehead, body posture might be the best indicator of the device’s state. If Glass required the user to continue touching the side of the device during recording it would not only present a much more obvious indication that the user was interacting with the device, it would also make it physically uncomfortable to record for long stretches of time.
  2. Most wearables should not be capable of capturing and saving photos or video. Cameras and the services they provide need to be given much more critical thought. Not just in the manner described above, but more generally and deeply. Cameras have become more of a mediating device between one person and their world, not just an artistic or utilitarian instrument for one person’s use. Instead of capturing and saving images, perhaps a wearable can only identify things (not people) in real time or be used as a sensor for more basic data input like light, shapes, or colors. The obvious caveat here is that a hacked version would be doubly dangerous because no one would suspect anything.
  3. Wearables with image capturing capability should be specialized and prominent or in some other way restricted in their usage context. No one complains about GoPro cameras the way they complain about Glass. That’s because GoPro cameras, those rugged camera-shaped cameras that are so obviously recording devices, are marketed for the specific purpose of recording you’re most eXtreme adventures. Very few people show up to a bar, casually wearing a GoPro. If the do, it’s pretty easy for others to notice that the person is capable of recording their actions and take steps to avoid them or ask them to leave. The current line of fitness-oriented wearables that usually go on your wrist are a good example too. They have limited, dedicated functions that generally do not capture data of anyone except their willing user. That’s important.
  4. Wearables should hide as little information from people surrounding the user as possible. Like the “record” forehead projection I described earlier this week and quoted above, wearables should be “speaking” to more than just one person. With a phone, tablet, or computer it’s very easy to show someone else your screen. With Glass, it’s barely possible to offer an on-stage product demo. Instead of focusing primarily or solely on what the device offers the user, wearable product designers should be thinking about what sorts of social relationships are afforded or enabled when the device is worn and working. Does the device promote or reinforce the kinds of power relationships we’d rather not have in our society, or does it establish new ones? To that end…
  5. Companies that sell wearables should promise to never sell their devices to governments or law enforcement. Call this a pet peeve of mine, but when policing authorities gain access to new kinds of cameras, it gets increasingly difficult to avoid what Melissa Gira Grant calls the carceral eye. That is, your actions are seen as a series of potential crimes that can be used to arrest, convict, or maybe just blackmail you at the discretion of law enforcement. Lots of leftists have applauded the introduction of on-officer cameras connected to on-duty police officers, saying that they’ll bring new levels of accountability for officers. How could a police officer commit abuse if there’s a camera rolling the entire time he’s on duty? As it turns out, police are caught abusing people on their own cameras all the time. In fact, as my colleague Ben Brucato (who studies this very topic, has observed that video evidence almost always works in favor of law enforcement, not civilians. We saw that most prominently and recently in the CeCe McMillian case but it is a widespread phenomena. As Brucato writes: “The camera’s earliest uses included the documentation of observed scientific data. The camera is a most privileged witness, and its privileged status is earned by virtue of its mechanical qualities that render it objective.” Ergo, when a video taken from a police officer is shown in court, framed as “conclusive evidence” to a crime it is taken as such. It becomes the official record and all other accounts, recorded or otherwise, are more easily ignored. It might be naive of me to expect companies like Google to make such a promise but consider this: which company is going to get the unfettered brand loyalty of the the civil libertarian technorati? The one that makes contracts with the government or the one that promises to never have their product sit on the brow of a government official?

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