As people continue their holiday shopping this Cyber Monday, I think about all the new wearable technologies and gadgets that will be exchanged as gifts this year. My gift came in early as part of a grant—a set of Google Glass. I am wearing my Glass as I write this, alternating between watching text appear on my laptop screen to watching text show up on my Glass. My Glass shows me it’s “9:15,” and I respond, “ok, glass.” My right eye glances back to my laptop screen. In a matter of seconds, my left eye is tempted away by an incoming text that appears on my smartphone screen.
That is the way my eyes move nowadays—constantly switching from screen to screen, multi-tasking with the right eye on one screen and the left eye on another. I think about what I must look like to others while eye-fully multi-tasking, and, quite appropriately, it reminds me of all those cartoons with “googly” eyes.
Even though all this technology is supposed to improve my life, the exponential increase in distractions leaves me feeling quite dizzy and drained after an entire day of digitally-enabled hyper connectedness.
As a communication researcher and professor, I am interested in how people use technology to communicate with others. The ability to take a snapshot or video of others without their knowledge and share that publicly through social media is something that I find problematic. The fact that I am having a conversation with my Glass rather than with my husband who is sitting next to me drinking coffee might be intriguing, even fascinating, to some interpersonal and family communication scholars, but to my loved one it’s becoming a cause for concern (“You are crazy … talking to a pair of glasses,” he says while making funny, googly eyes at me). While I am a big believer in technology’s potential to improve our lives when used appropriately, I am also quite aware of the potential disruption that the misuse of technology can bring about. When does being too connected become problematic? How do we measure and define what it means to be too connected?
In a research study, my colleagues and I looked at the misuse of mobile phones, specifically texting while driving. We found that texting while driving has a comparably larger, negative effect on driving performance than driving under the influence of marijuana, and a slightly larger, negative effect on driving performance than driving under the influence of alcohol. So on the one hand, while I cannot conceive of driving without the aid of my mobile phone’s Google Maps app, or simply knowing that it’s there for me in case of an emergency, I am fully aware of how easy and dangerous it would be to misuse the technology while driving. In fact, as part of its “It Can Wait” campaign, a survey commissioned by AT&T showed that while most adults know that texting while driving is dangerous, more than half do so regardless. The takeaway is that it takes a lot of self-discipline and commitment to the well-being of oneself and others to use technology responsibly.
I spend a lot of time reflecting on what we teach students about new media technologies and their use in the classroom. For example, many professors ask students to turn off and put away their cell phones as a way to lessen distractions during class time. However, in the case of a university-wide emergency, one of the first and most immediate forms of communicating the emergency to the community tends to be text emergency alerts sent to mobile phones. What good then is it to have all those cell phones turned off and stored away? This is one case where we forfeit a very useful and important function of a communication technology by focusing on a negative consequence of the technology that has more to do with how the individual uses it than with the technology itself. We shouldn’t be teaching students that banning personal technology in the classroom is the answer. Rather, we should be teaching them self-awareness, self-discipline and how to use technology in ways that are appropriate and positive for the context in which they find themselves.
Google Glass has already sparked a lot of criticism and vitriol, from the rise of the term “Glasshole” to the physical assault of Glass users (for representative articles see The New York Post, The New Yorker, Salon and—my personal favorite—the Daily Show’s segment “Glass Half Empty”). The default response by many is a call for corporate social responsibility. In the context of communication technologies, corporate social responsibility translates into the responsibility of manufacturers and companies pushing the technology to educate and discourage consumers from misusing the technology while promoting positive and appropriate uses instead.
Google has been quick to assume its corporate social responsibility in this regard. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to see that, instead of a traditional user’s manual, the Glass came with a short and sweet Q&A insert, which included answers to questions like “Is Glass useful everywhere?” (to which Google answers: “Like everything, there is a time and a place … Above all, be considerate”) and “Can I use Glass while driving or bicycling?” (to which Google answers: “It depends on where you are and how to use it … always be careful;” click here to read the entire Q&A). As part of its education efforts, Google has also published a list of DO’s and DON’Ts for the Glass user community.
Sure, there are still many issues that need to be addressed. First and foremost, there are the privacy concerns and security issues with data—beyond merely recording or taking pictures of others without their consent. Back in April, Adweek reported that “72% of Americans Won’t Wear Google Glass Because of Privacy Worries.” Moving forward, Google might want to address consumer concerns about the safety of personal data when using Glass. There will always be those who argue that that is a risk consumers always face when using any communication technology.
A second concern is that of copyright issues: The recent ban of Glass by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) in movie theaters has brought copyright concerns to the foreground. A third concern is one shared by most consumer technologies: the deepening digital divide. At $1,500 per Glass (without frames), those who are not able to afford the technology are more vulnerable to the misuse of the technology by those who can. In other words, when one part of the population has the means to record another who does not have the means to do the same, there is always a risk of increased vulnerability and exploitation.
As a researcher, I always think about the ethics involved. For example, this January I am spending a week with immigrant farm workers who might not know what Glass is or how it can be used. Would it be ethical for me to record them without their knowing in the name of “research”? Of course not, but I know others who would, and that, in my mind, creates opportunities for exploitation of already vulnerable populations.
When teaching students about the impact of communication technologies in the world around us, corporate social responsibility is a great concept, but consumer social responsibility is a greater one. How do we teach students to use communication technology responsibly? How do we help them discern between uses that are appropriate and those that are inappropriate based on context? How do we build the self-awareness and self-discipline required to be a responsible consumer in this new and emerging media landscape? Specifically with Glass, rather than giving in to fear and commanding my students to “Check your Glass at the door,” how can I, as a professor, incorporate this new wearable technology into the classroom in ways that are appropriate, respectful and reinforce learning? That for me is a more exciting challenge and is better than banning technology in the classroom altogether.
So as you exchange technology gifts this holiday, don’t forget to remind your loved ones about their own consumer social responsibility. Happy Cyber Monday to all!By Paola Pascual-Ferrá, Ph.D. Assistant Professor Master of Arts in Emerging Media