Was an Assault at a Paris McDonald’s the First Cybernetic Hate Crime?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 18 2012 3:00 PM

Was an Assault at a Paris McDonald’s the First Cybernetic Hate Crime?

Steve Mann's EyeTap.
Steve Mann's EyeTap.


Among the unintended offspring of new technologies are the goons that arrive to taunt early adopters. This month Steve Mann, a computer engineering professor at the University of Toronto, was attacked for wearing an augmented vision device he’d developed called an EyeTap. Like Google’s Project Glass, the EyeTap is part of an ongoing experiment with computer-mediated reality. As Mann’s ordeal suggests, its relationship with real-reality is also a work in progress.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

While on vacation in Paris in early July, Mann and his family were sitting down to eat McDonald’s when three men (likely McDonald’s employees) tried to remove the device from his head—unsuccessfully, because, as Mann writes in his blog, the EyeTap cannot be detached from the wearer’s skull “without special tools.” The men then ripped up the professor’s documentation for the vision system, including a letter from his doctor, and pushed him outside. Mann was unhurt, but his device was broken.


The EyeTap, as Mann explains in a research paper, is a “digital eye glass” that makes the eye into “both a display and a camera.” Computer data stream from its lens onto the user’s retina. At the same time, the gadget processes what the wearer is seeing and allows him to alter his visual perceptions, augmenting and diminishing details at will.  For instance, a wearer might issue a command to magnify, say, a menu on the wall of a fast-food restaurant. (That is, if one hasn’t already boycotted that fast-food restaurant, as Techcrunch urged readers to do to McDonald’s Monday).  

After the incident, Mann was able to retrieve stored and unprocessed images from his battered device to obtain snapshots of his alleged assailants. (You can check them out here).    

Some have called the events in Paris the “world’s first cybernetic hate crime.” The billing may be a little extreme: After all, Mann fastened the EyeTap to his head for research purposes, not because he suffered from any visual impairment. Over at Forbes, Andy Greenberg questions whether the McDonald’s employees were actually spooked because they thought Mann might use his digital eye glass as a recording device, in violation of restaurant policy. (Greenberg nicely draws out the tangle of privacy issues that might accompany a trend of inconspicuous wearable cameras.)

Of course, Mann’s problem in this instance was that his wearable computing system didn’t prove inconspicuous enough. And if the Paris assault occurred because a bunch of thugs found the EyeTap funny-looking, their intolerance deserves the Internet fire it’s drawn. Mann, after all, has written that he developed the technology in order to “help people see better.” (He says that he’s also designed visual enhancement systems for the blind and partially sighted.) His experience at McDonald’s doesn’t bode well for those looking into augmented reality as one answer to a visual handicap—a circumstance that would blur the line between a reprehensible case of bullying and an even more reprehensible hate crime.

McDonald’s told Forbes that it “[takes] the claims and feedback of our customers very seriously. We are in the process of gathering information about this situation and we ask for patience until all of the facts are known."

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.



Scalia’s Liberal Streak

The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.

Scotland Votes to Remain in U.K.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

Can Democrats Keep Counting on Republicans to Offend Women as a Campaign Strategy?


Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
The Slate Quiz
Sept. 18 2014 11:44 PM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Double X
Sept. 18 2014 8:07 PM Crying Rape False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion
  Health & Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.