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Google Glass and Vanilla Cyberpunk

Tech totalitarianism has been feared for decades. Never did we think it could be this boring

It’s hard to know what’s really transgressive these days. The counter-cultural signifiers of old have long been appropriated, commodified and depoliticised, the guitar no longer representing what was once perceived as a very real threat to Capitalism, studded belts and leather jackets an outsider’s worn out staple. It’s probably because there really is no real threat to Capitalism, the voracious appetite of the neoliberal system continuing to absorb cultures, generating new markets and creating an oppressive climate of collusion, rather than the agency it promised, and Google Glass is its newest mascot.

No more intrusive than a pair of sunglasses, Google Glass can record on command, film at the touch and lock its user into a Google ecosystem of what Stephen Fortune calls a new contortion of the web in “parasiting our anticipation”; a next level model for desire creation. As a company founded on an unofficial motto of “Don’t Be Evil”, it’s a mantra that’s as misleading as the “charcoal”, “tangerine”, “cotton” and “sky” (see: black, orange, white and blue) colour range of the soon-to-be-released head mounted computers. It’s an aesthetic reflected in entities like DIS Magazine, the apparent futility of opposition to corporate culture surfacing in their similarly slick and sinister parodies of fake organic authenticity. It’s the imagery of a queerly innocuous cyber dystopia as a response to the unobtrusiveness that the green grass, white walls and exercise balls of the Googleplex are meant to represent.

That’s because the grimy sci-fi of William Gibson and other “Mirrorshades” members’ 80s allegiances no longer apply. Open opposition is bound to be integrated, like 70s punk styles and green hair, by the “Armani-wearing corporate mega-yuppies who make and break national economies with the stroke of a pen”. That’s a quote from the blurb of Cyberpunk 2020, a role-playing game from 1990, which, incidentally, followed up 1988’s Cyberpunk 2013 and was set between LA and San Francisco in a period of martial law, following economic collapse and a government reliant on so-called “Megacorporations”. Those are some interesting parallels to make between then and now, except that, where “hardwired mercernaries” roam the streets of a post-apocalyptic US in the video game, our own New World despotism comes in the form of products we never truly own and a surveillance culture that we have no choice but to be a part of.

Representing the next stage in the disappearance of the computer and the shifting of its role from “tool” to “experience”, while logically relocating the consumer from “user” to “captive audience” in the process, Google Glass sets a worrying precedent. Because when John Naughton praised the invention by iterating Douglas Engelbart’s idea that machines should do what machines do best “thereby freeing up humans to do what they do best” one can’t help but wonder what that is. If it means recognising a familiar face, we’ve now got facial recognition software for that, remembering how to get to work, there’s Google Maps, or interact with another human, why bother when you can use Gchat instead?

It’s as if we’ve given up trying. The reality of our submission and despondence is represented by the anaesthetised imagery of diaphanous 3D graphics and integrated augmented realities in art, its implications all the more unsettling because the oppressor is invisible; recording our conversations, taking our fingerprints and scanning our irises, all in the name of ease and efficiency. Tech totalitarianism has been feared for decades. Never did we think it could be this boring.