Google Glass social norms: Will it be too awkward to use in public?

Think Using Google Glass Is Awkward? Early Phone Calls Were Worse.

Think Using Google Glass Is Awkward? Early Phone Calls Were Worse.

The citizen’s guide to the future.
May 14 2013 8:15 AM

OK, Glass, Don’t Make Me Look Stupid

Lessons from the phone and the Walkman on integrating new technologies into society.

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At the park, groups of people emerged, all wearing Walkmans. There were children doing different activities, du Gay said, like roller-skating. There was even a Buddhist monk in the mix, walking around and listening to music. The spectacle was an attempt to send the message that wearing headphones in public could become a regular thing.

Some of the criticisms the Walkman faced are eerily similar to those that Google Glass faces today. The sentiment, du Gay said, was “Is it going to cause accidents when people are walking into the road and getting knocked down because they’re listening to this thing? Or not answering people’s questions or not hearing cries for help? All the kind of standard stuff.”

Of course, the Walkman did take off. The more that people saw others wearing headphones, the more likely they were to wear them. One of the social hurdles was understanding how to interact with people who were wearing headphones, or figuring out how to talk to people if you were wearing them yourself.


But society tends to find ways to adapt to new technology, according to Blair MacIntyre, a computer science professor at Georgia Tech. He cited the conventions we’ve developed, like taking out an ear bud to have a conversation with someone, or leaving our headphones on to signal that we don’t want to talk.

On the other hand, not every technology lends it self so readily to adaptation. Consider the Bluetooth earpiece. Like Google Glass, it tends to make a person look like she’s talking to herself. And although these earpieces aren’t uncommon, they’ve never made quite made it into total social acceptance. The technology has been around for more than a decade, but its users still have to point at their heads and mouth that they’re on the phone to let others know they can’t talk. Still, this hasn’t stopped people from using Bluetooth ear pieces altogether.

A lot of people have asked whether Google Glass may be the new Segway—a much-heralded technology that can’t quite overcome the silliness barrier. But maybe it will end up more like an acceptable, but slightly goofy, peripheral—the Bluetooth earpiece of the future. Glass can indeed be connected to a smartphone via Bluetooth to use the phone’s 3G or 4G data capabilities when Wi-Fi isn’t available. In fact, Glass can’t currently send text messages without such a connection. (The man in the concept video, presumably, had a phone in his pocket.)

Like all of the technologies that came before it, the proliferation of Google Glass will ultimately depend on its usefulness. It will have to add value that our smartphones are lacking if people are going to adopt it. But for the foreseeable future, people will likely continue to pull out their phones and send texts the old-fashioned way when they want to tell a friend to meet them at a bookstore. Except maybe for those Bluetooth users who already are comfortable looking a bit ridiculous in public.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Keith Collins is a freelance reporter and programmer from Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.