“It wasn’t on. I wasn’t using it.” Google Glass, Public Surveillance, and Entitlement

Written by Stanislav Vysotsky, PhD

The San Francisco Bay Area has been abuzz with the latest controversial actions in response to the increasing presence of the tech industry and its gentrifying effect on the region.  “Tech consultant” and self described “social media marketing” and “public relations” professional Sarah Slocum found herself in the middle of this conflict on the night of Friday, February 21 when she chose to patronize the Lower Haight bar, Molotov’s.  According to Slocum, she was “assaulted” by patrons because she was wearing Google Glass; however, her own video of the incident indicates that patrons were uncomfortable with her filming them and asked her to stop prior to the item being removed from her face.  The incident brings to light several key issues in the development of information and social media technology and gets at the heart of a conflict over the increasing gap between those who have benefited from the tech economy and those who have been left behind.

The conflict over Slocum wearing Glass on a busy weekend night in a popular “dive” and “Punk Rock” bar brings to light some crucial issues regarding the normalization of a surveillance society.  Slocum’s video indicates a serious divergence in attitudes toward the use of private video technology to capture people’s experiences in nominally public spaces.  News media coverage has featured video of Slocum and her friends trying the video feature of Glass in the bar.  Video of the conflict itself shows bar patrons covering their faces and indicating that they don’t wish to be filmed by her.  There is a clear gap developing between individual’s acceptance of surveillance in public.  A segment of the population, driven by tech professionals and young people, have come to accept covert and overt individual and government filming, photography, and surveillance as a normative aspect of life in a technologically saturated, post 9/11 world.  Civil libertarians, political activists, or people who simply don’t want to be the subject of other’s voyeurism find these practices disturbing at best and reprehensible at worst.

Attitudes such as Slocum’s that Glass is simply a novel toy, with its video capturing and easy access to search engines and social media profiles, miss the unsettling impact of ever-present micro- and macro-surveillance.  Personal access to digital cameras and the internet in the form of smart phones has revolutionized individual’s ability to document social life.  This has been accompanied by an ever increasing level of government surveillance of individuals through complex data-mining practices and mass storage of social media and other online content.  Sociologists have long come to accept that public interaction represents a form of performance where individuals temper their actions to the demands of the audience.  In a culture of total surveillance, individual’s experience limits on their freedom to engage in activity that is deemed inappropriate or incorrect by external standards, be they community expectations, formal rules of an institution, or government enforced laws (see for example Erving Goffman’s Asylums and Foucault’s Discipline and Punish).  The Glass wearer’s interactions with others put them on guard for fear of it’s user’s ability to scan their social media presence (something that other Bay Area residents have experienced) and/or capture their image or action through its photo and video capabilities.  Glass effectively creates a world where everyone is potentially under the everyday surveillance of the technological apparatus on the wearer’s face.  At an estimated price of $1500, this surveillance becomes a form of class dominance.

The Slocum incident points to a greater issue than simply the development of a culture of mass surveillance.  It is indicative  of a growing class divide and the role that access to technology plays in this process.  The reaction that Slocum received in response to her wearing Glass was not simply the technophobic, neo-Luddite anger of drunk Bay Area Punks late on a Friday night; it is driven as much by the class position and patterns of gentrification that such technology represents.  The expected retail price of Glass alone will mark owners as individuals with enough disposable income that they are able to spend it on such a luxury tech purchase; but since it’s not even on the market yet, individuals who possess it automatically demonstrate to everyone whom they come in contact with that they are members of an elite group of developers and marketing professionals.  Such people have flooded the Bay Area in recent years increasing patterns of gentrification and economic inequality.  Long term residents are finding themselves priced out of the city that they have called home and established cultural and social institutions are shutting their doors as a result of rent increases and re-purposing of spaces to cater to the city’s increasingly wealthy residents.

Like many relatively wealthy people before them, Tech professionals in the Bay Area like Slocum and her friends believe that their social and economic status buys them access to, and fair enjoyment of, all social spaces regardless of their (sub/counter)cultural locations or traditions.  They treat others as means to an end in their enjoyment of the world around them because their economic status buys them deference and civility in most social situations.   This is the age-old practice of “slumming,” where the culture, spaces, and even people marked by poverty and marginalization are used and discarded by the wealthy for their amusement.  Slocum, her friends, and countless others engage in these actions on a daily basis, which serves as an affront to those who are being marginalized by their relative wealth and privilege.  When they entered Molotov’s on that fateful night, they felt entitled to flaunt their wealth and status to the bar’s patrons, they felt entitled to ignore their discomfort and requests to not use the expensive toy that marked them as members of the city’s Tech elite, and they felt entitled to marshal social and mass media to spread their version of events to the public.  This entitlement is evident in the outrage expressed by Slocum and others at the anger toward her by bar patrons and their supporters.  An anger based on increasing marginalization, gentrification, and the entitlement of relatively wealthy Tech professionals.

This incident is not just an isolated case of, as Slocum puts it, “wanker Google Glass haters.”  It is an expression of a real anger at a growing culture of surveillance where people are simply asked to accept that they will be monitored formally or informally in every aspect of their daily lives.  It is an act of resistance against the increasing income inequality and gentrification of the Bay Area as well as the entitlement of the individuals responsible for these changes.  Sarah Slocum may have won the PR battle (her media blitz resulted in a Molotov’s bartender who was not working that night, but is shown in the video, being fired), but her tactics have brought to light many of the most pressing issues concerning individual’s rights to be free from surveillance and the entitlement and power of an economic class increasingly distanced from the lives of a less privileged majority.

Stanislav Vysotsky, PhD
Sociology Department
Willamette University

Reposted from http://uprootingcriminology.org/blogs/wasnt-wasnt-using-google-glass-public-surveillance-entitlement/

Published on April 23, 2014