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What do the attacks on Google mean? An analysis of the anti-tech phenomenon

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Over the past few months, it was attacks on Google buses in San Francisco and Oakland that made headlines and showed how anti-techie resentment is spreading throughout the Bay Area.

Now comes the latest chapter: a “tech consultant” showing off her Google Glass in a bar in the Haight district was attacked for reasons known only to her attackers, who have not been apprehended. But I think we can surmise what their motives were, and they’re connected with the unease many of us feel about social media in general and the increasing absorption people have with [or in] their mobile devices. (P.S. I am NOT condoning violence! Just trying to fathom the depth of the anger toward tech that’s such big news out here.)

The issue can perhaps be summed up by this observation from a bar owner (not the one where the woman was attacked) quoted in the article: “If you’re old enough to be in a bar, you should be old enough to have conversation with other adults. When you’re in a bar with Google Glass, it’s like saying, ‘I’m only halfway here. I’ll be checking my phone.’”

“Only halfway here…”. Who hasn’t had the experience of being with someone, having a conversation you thought you both were enjoying, when suddenly the other person checks his cell phone? I don’t know about you, but when that happens to me, I feel as though I’ve been dismissed–from the conversation, from the person’s mind, from his consideration. It is–to use an old word–rude, and I was raised (mainly thanks to my southern-born mother) not to be a rude person.

Is it rude to wear Google Glass in a bar? I can infer myself into the heads of people who would be upset about it. For one thing, you don’t know if the glass-wearer is photographing or videotaping you. Surely, people have the right to object to being recorded by a stranger in a public place. But a Google Glass wearer seems to be saying, “I really don’t care if you object to being photographed, I’m going to do it anyway if I want to, and I don’t have to ask for your permission.” Nor is it pleasant to think that the glass wearer might post your image all around the Internet (which is to say, all around the world), with possibly offensive or taunting comments.

The reason why we have to get a handle on this, now, is because the technology is only going to become smarter, and more intrusive. How long will it be before Google Glass can see under clothing or through a thin partition? We know about the problem of spy cams. Google Glass could be far more nefarious.

What’s the connection between Google Glass and attacking Google buses (other than the brand name)? The emotions are similar. People smashing Google buses are worried about getting squeezed out of their neighborhoods, and sometimes their city, by high-paid techies who seem interested only in their jobs and their friends, not the traditional cultural mores of the neighborhood. That rap is, admittedly, not entirely fair; but it is understandable, given the increasing numbers of people who no longer can afford to live in San Francisco, a city they love and presumably don’t want to leave. I know this for a fact: many of these folks are moving to my neighborhood (San Francisco’s loss is Oakland’s gain).

Thus the bus attacks are symbols of the increasing unease with the way technology is altering, and intruding upon and disrupting, our lives. The attackers obviously know that the buses are not the cause of high rents and evictions. They know that throwing a brick through a bus window won’t solve a thing. But they vent their anger on the buses, the same way the Boston Tea Party patriots vented their anger on innocent crates of tea, by dumping them into the harbor.

And what’s the connection to the unease about social media? The absorption some people have in it. Is it really better and more satisfying to stare into a tiny screen and tap out text messages on a bus or subway, instead of talking to the person sitting next to you, or just quietly contemplating existence? I’m not saying that the use of social media isn’t a wonderful thing, useful, entertaining and important to stay in touch with far-flung friends and family. Heck, I’m using social media right now, on this blog. But at some point, its overuse is cause for concern. When I have to be extra vigilant walking down the sidewalk because someone is coming towards me with his nose glued to a device, something’s wrong. People used to nod their heads and smile when passing strangers on the street. Now, they don’t even see them.

I think the burgeoning reaction against tech has to do with the end of human engagement as we’ve known it, an alarming possibility suggested by the bar owner’s “only halfway here” remark. Humans have spent millennia learning how to get along with each other in crowded spaces. It’s not always easy. Some things make it harder. Google Glass may be one of them.

Look: I’m no Luddite. No one can stop the march of technology, nor should anyone want to. But we have to find a balance. That’s why I, and millions of others, are dead set against allowing cell phone conversations on airline flights. That would be going over the edge, a serious disruption to our ability to dwell together in peace. When it comes to Google Glass, people are going to have to learn to be civil and appropriate with its use. Going into a crowded bar wearing one may not be the best idea, if it upsets so many people, which apparently it does. There’s already a term being bandied about out here about people who wear Google Glass in public: they’re Glassholes.

Anyway–having got that off my chest–I’m in beautiful but stormy Santa Barbara, at World of Pinot Noir, which begins this morning. I’ll update as frequently as I can over the next two days.

  1. We have met big brother… and it is us. No doubt that 2-3 years from now, after many more incidents like this, we’ll all be adorned with computing wearables tracking us and the world around us.

    This incident seems quite different from those on Google buses and neither is really anti-tech per se. Or, rather, since everything has tech in it, it’s not really useful to point to that as the driver. Privacy invasion was the cause of the Molotov incident and economic disparity the cause of the Google bus incidents. If wine writing were a lucrative profession for millions of well-paid writers then rest assured that the Wine Enthusiast bus would be turned over just as easily as a Goldman Sachs bus a couple decades ago.

    And neither of these incidents seems related to our half-engaged existence. Angry housing activists are just as likely to be bouncing back and forth between the real world and their phones. But since technology isn’t going away, maybe it’s time to start a grass roots retraining of acceptable behavior. The next time that someone starts checking their phone in the middle of a conversation, explain your dissatisfaction and get up and leave. Stop being an enabler. Or, better yet, write them a quick personal review with a score in the, say, mid-50s. “Slightly charming at first but then drops out in the middle… notes of disinterest and arrogance. 53 points”

  2. Michael, I’ve done as you suggested with people who stare into the void of their cell phones in the middle of a conversation. But I didn’t score them. Maybe I should!

  3. My teen-aged daughter can’t go anywhere without her smartphone, averaging 15,000 text messages in a billing cycle! I am continually reminded of the lyrics of David Gilmour’s (of Pink Floyd) 1994 track, “Keep Talking” with Stephen Hawking’s sampled electronic voice. “It doesn’t have to be like this.
    All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”

  4. I think the attacks on the Google buses are not about tech but about money & class. Google was busing its own employees to & from work, for free, using the municipal bus stops with no payment to the city. The arrogance of Google in not offering to pay rent for using the city’s bus stops is not confined to the tech industries.

  5. I agree with Patrick. The Google buses are exclusive to relatively highly paid people in the Google club. Everyone else at the bus stop is not in the club. Many outside the Google club probably struggle to get by. The Google buses are yet one more hassle to deal with.

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