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Google's Virtual Light: The Digital Humanities as a Space for Cognitive Dissidence?

Google's Virtual Light: The Digital Humanities as a Space for Cognitive Dissidence?

I should be writing something else, but I read the news today, oh boy. 

I read it and I stood in the smell of fresh-ground coffee, awaiting my turn.

Yes, it is a cliché now, and as the New York Times noted,  this is not the first report about Google developing wearable technologies, particularly eye glasses, but it's almost impossible not to think of William Gibson's 1993 novel, Virtual Light.

The term "virtual light", William Gibson told us in the book, " was coined by scientist Stephen Beck to describe a form of instrumentation that produces 'optical sensations directly in the eye without the use of photons' (Mondo 2000)." (Remember that magazine?). 

In his novel, Gibson sets the scene of a dystopian San Francisco-Oakland in 2006 after a major earthquake. The middle class has disappeared. Society is polarised  between multinational corporations and their overpaid elite and the poor who are mostly security officers, couriers like the main character and other minimum-wage unskilled jobs. The poor survive in the informal economy, crime and the black market, the law-abiding have barbershops and second-hand shops. You know the deal.

Gibson's protagonist happens to steal a pair of glasses that  contain the plans by an evil mega corporation to rebuild San Francisco using nanotechnology, and so the plot unfolds.

Google's plans for wifi glasses with in-built webcams, according to the New York Times article, are likely to be available by the end of this year and "are expected “to cost around the price of current smartphones,” or $250 to $600."

We are not talking about incredibly expensive, elite technology, but gadgets that are meant to be as pervasive as mobile phones.

Go to any live music event these days. Even with the harshest of private security, any pop music event will be defined by a crowd, of all ages, holding their smartphones up to take photos and record videos and audio, which are often posted online in real time to social networks; when wifi and 3G gets better, concert goers will be able (aggressive online anti-piracy legislation permitting) to upload their videos to YouTube not as soon as they get home, but as the concert unfolds. 

Cut to the near future, where hundreds if not thousands of kids are wearing Oakley-like sunglasses --mirrorshades-- with inbuilt cameras. Everyone will be a mobile, wireless broadcasting studio. Unlike the broadcasting studios of the past, this mobile surveillance-and-market-research units previously known as humans will be tracked as well.

We all know this already happens whenever we have our mobile phones on or access the Internet; it's how "The Cloud" works. It's the double-direction of the looking/recording/watching/archiving/data mining/following that is both fascinating and terrifying. And this is only the nice picture.


photo via Android Pit 


Real-time geolocation, facial recognition software, the journaling and storing in the cache and third-party's servers of everywhere you go and see whilst wearing the glasses. 

 "Google expects some of the nerdiest users will wear them a lot", says the New York Times. 

It is already the case that everything we share online can potentially be used against us. Having someone point their smartphone at us still indicates an obvious breach of privacy (or sign of mutual trust), but what about strangers in public places wearing normal-looking glasses? Again, dystopian fiction comes to mind: in Robocop (1987), the character Dick Jones famously says: "He's a cyborg, you idiot! He recorded every word you said. His memory's admissible as evidence!"  

According to the reports Google (and Apple) have shown concern for privacy. But we all know this term has suffered a radical transformation. 

The default theoreticians of discourse, networks, technology (Benjamin, Foucault, Kittler) and more recent popular commentators (Jarvis, Shirky, Morozov) have addressed in several ways the double-binds of technology. In this case, instead of me thinking of the potential of mobile hands-free libraries, I imagine the imminent possibility of a world of total surveillance, accepted willingly and happily by almost everyone who can afford it. 

I see great possibilities for these gadgets in education, entertainment, journalism... security, policing... war. 

For a long time it's been conspiracy theorists, technophobes and technological determinists who have dominated the most vocal critiques of the dangers of technology.

What role will the digital humanities play in all this? Can the digital humanities offer a space to become, to use a phrase by William Gibson, "cognitive dissidents", embracing the liberating potential of online mobile technologies whilst defending human rights as freedom of speech or at the very least the right for an ad-free existence?

Walter Benjamin warned us about the double-edged sword of photography and film. Ethically and politically, what is the role of the digital humanities in discussing the imminent effects of current off-the-shelf digital technologies, particularly when they can clearly point towards the dystopian futures that many have imagined?

There is, of course, so much more to discuss about this, but let this be a possible start. 

I stand in the smell of fresh-ground coffee, awaiting your turn.


From Brazil, by Terry Gilliam, 1985










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