Sunday, August 18, 2013

Suggested reading: Google Glass

Novelist Gary Shteyngart wearing Google Glass.
Photo: Emiliano Granado
Another in the occasional series of my favorite recent articles, posts, etc. from around the web:

1. Gary Shteyngart on the seductions and irritations of Google Glass ("O.K., Glass: Confessions of a Google Glass Explorer," The New Yorker, Aug. 5, 2013):
'Outside, the summer is coming together at last and Manhattan is just on the right side of sweltering. The man jerks his head, and slides his finger against the right temple of the glasses, across the so-called touch pad. A pink rectangle above his field of vision, which looks like a twenty-five-inch television screen floating some eight feet away from him, is replaced by another message: "SVO Hav Su flight 150 225pm delayed." The man has been Googling the N.S.A. leaker Edward Snowden on his computer, and now his glasses, which are synched to his Google Plus account, are informing him of a delay on the next Aeroflot (Su) flight to Havana out of SVO (Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport). Another flick of the index finger, and a different screen clicks into place. Now it would appear that someone named Chris Brown is defending himself on Twitter and that a water bed for cows has been developed. The man has subscribed to all the news sources currently available for his spectacles: the New York Times, CNN, and Elle...

'There is too much traffic on Park Avenue and Second Avenue to take a taxi downtown to the Momofuku Ssäm Bar. The man does not remember telling his glasses about enjoying that restaurant, but somehow they know.'

2. John Lanchester on the implications and consequences of Google Glass ("Short Cuts," London Review of Books, 23 May 2013):
'Look at the videos and it’s hard not to be impressed by the technologies incorporated in Glass. Think about it for five minutes, though, and it’s hard not to be alarmed by what they might mean. To dispense with one of the subtler consequences first, what does this mean for the user of Glass, in their interactions with other people? We already have an unprecedented range of tools for not-being wherever we are and not-doing whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing. But at least when we take out a phone to check our messages, people can see that we’re doing it. What if we could do that without anybody knowing? The already extensive ecology of Google Glass parodies dwells with some force on this point: we see a first-dater ask his date’s surname then check her page on Facebook. He finds out she likes dogs, looks up some dog jokes, then gets bored and, after photographing her cleavage when she bends over the table, starts watching a football match on his Glass. All of this unbeknownst to her. The user of Glass has the option to be permanently not-there. She can go into internal exile, at will and for ever...

'The cruder and more obvious problem with Glass is less to do with the user’s self-engagement, and self-withdrawal, and self-whatever, and more to do with the effect on the rest of us. Imagine a world in which anyone around you can be recording anything you say, filming anything you do....It’s hard to get one’s head around the disruptive potential of this omnipresent recording. At the end of an hour’s general chat in a newspaper office the other day, the conversation turned to Glass, and we all replayed the talk in our heads, editing out the bits we wouldn’t have said if it had been possible someone present had been recording everything. The conclusion was we’d have managed about five minutes’ small talk about the weather, followed by a 55-minute silence.'
You can see the Google Glass parody Lanchester refers to, "How Guys Will Use Google Glass," along with many others, on YouTube.


3. Google Glass will make designing cheating-proof college assignments and exams even harder. But James M. Lang writes that the high number of college students who cheat do so not because they can, but because they are encouraged to ("How college classes encourage cheating," The Boston Globe, August 4, 2013):
'College administrators largely seem to have accepted the notion that the blame for cheating lies either at the feet of morally bankrupt students or within the overall campus climate. As a result, their efforts to reduce cheating have focused on creating first-year orientations or seminars on academic integrity, or on instituting deterrent measures like suspensions or expulsions for cheaters who are caught.

'But the stability of cheating rates over the past 50 years suggests that these efforts are not having their desired effect—and an interdisciplinary new line of research in education and psychology may help explain why. Increasingly, these findings point to a radical proposition: that the very nature of the college education we provide to our students, in both its design and delivery, may turn out to be the deepest cause of cheating on campus.

'In other words, it may be that cheating rates are so high because too many university curriculums and courses are designed for cheating. And, based on current trends in college education, the problem may be about to get worse.'

4. What about the data that Google collects from Glass wearers? Not only can it be used by Google to bombard you with personalized, geospatially-specific ads (as in this scene from Minority Report (2002)), but as reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill recently revealed, the National Security Agency collects data on users directly from the servers of Google—as well as Yahoo, Facebook, Skype, Apple, and Microsoft—including the content of communications ("NSA Prism program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and others," The Guardian, 6 June 2013):
'The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian.

'The NSA access is part of a previously undisclosed program called Prism, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, the document says.

'The Guardian has verified the authenticity of the document, a 41-slide PowerPoint presentation—classified as top secret with no distribution to foreign allies—which was apparently used to train intelligence operatives on the capabilities of the program. The document claims "collection directly from the servers" of major US service providers.'
The companies have denied that they are cooperating with the NSA, but perhaps we should give their denials the same weight we give to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper's testimony before the Senate, as discussed June 10 on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart:



5. Amy Davidson writes about reports in The Washington Post that the NSA broke its own rules on collecting data on U.S. citizens 2776 times in 2012. We know this, by the way, only because the NSA itself has said so. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court that supposedly oversees requests by the NSA and other agencies for data collection within the U.S., according to its chief judge Reggie B. Walton, "does not have the capacity to investigate issues of noncompliance" ("Breaking the Rules Thousands of Times at the N.S.A.," The New Yorker, August 16, 2013):
'As it turns out, there are numbers packed into the numbers. An "incident" can have affected multiple people—even multitudes. In a single one of the two thousand seven hundred and seventy-six cases, someone at the N.S.A. made a mistake in entering a number into a search request. As a result, instead of pulling information on phone calls from Egypt (country code 20) the agency got data on "a large number" of calls from Washington, D.C. (area code 202). How many, and what did they learn?...Another incident involved "the unlawful retention of 3,032 files that the surveillance court had ordered the NSA to destroy…. Each file contained an undisclosed number of telephone call records." The Post said that it was not able to tell how many Americans were affected in all. Those two examples suggest that the number could be very, very big—even by the N.S.A.’s standards.'

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