December 6, 2013 7:14 pm

Specs in the city

‘New devices are being thrown up with such frequency that it is hard for ordinary people to enforce any kind of social norms’
An illustration that depicts banning the use of Google glasses in a coffee shop©Lucas Varela

You have to hand it to Google. There are not many mainstream companies that could get their prestige products banned even before anyone can actually buy them. That’s proper cutting-edge thinking, that is. What follows, then, is another dispatch from the front line of the technology wars.

This story began last weekend when Nick Starr headed into a local Seattle restaurant, the Lost Lake café, wearing – as he apparently always does – his Google glasses. The glasses (confusingly called Glass) are still a prototype available only to developers but they house a mini-computer and camera which allow people to film or photograph whatever they are looking at and upload whatever is recorded to websites.

Although this was not the first time Starr had graced the diner in the X-ray specs, it was to be the last. He was informed that the owner had banned their use and offered the choice of taking them off or leaving. Starr likes to live his life on the record, so he left, bemoaning the iniquity of it all in a Facebook post which suggested the staff should perhaps be fired. It is not clear what Starr was hoping for from his rant. Maybe he just needed to get it off his chest or perhaps he hoped thousands of angry Googlers would descend on the diner, turning it into the Tahrir Square of the Pacific northwest as techies fought for their inalienable human right to look like an extra from Star Trek.

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Robert Shrimsley

Alas, instead Starr found himself derided as a spoilt tech-brat with no sense of proportion – or, to borrow the vernacular of the tech blogs, a “glasshole”. The café meanwhile garnered good publicity as a haven from intrusive hardware.

This is not the first instance of a ban. A number of institutions, including banks, hospitals and casinos, have signalled they will require customers to take off the device. But it is perhaps the first instance of Glass war – albeit in the style of a squealing two-year-old deprived of his favourite toy. Glass is not available in shops and can only be bought by select techies for about $1,600, which may explain the tantrum. For that kind of money, you want to be able to show off. The issue may become more complicated once the clunky device is more ubiquitous and subtly masked within designer frames. I have written before about the invasive aspect of social media sites but Glass can take this to a new level. It is not hard to imagine bans becoming commonplace as people react to the thought of being constantly on the record. As the Lost Lake’s owner put it: “They are invasive and make people uncomfortable. More than that they make me uncomfortable, and it’s my place.”

This may make me a Luddite but I want to be able to have a discreet conversation in a coffee shop, tell off the spawn or knock over my drink without worrying whether it will end up on YouTube. No diner would ordinarily put up with a film crew or a boom microphone pointed at their table while they eat; the fact that the entire production team is now inside a pair of specs should not change that. There is, of course, a perfectly reasonable market solution to this. Some places may ban the specs, others will not and the customers will decide. There may also be a market solution to how often the wearer is invited to join his friends on a night out.

But the real issue, it seems, is that technological development is outpacing ethics and etiquette. New devices and questions are being thrown up with such frequency that it is hard for ordinary people to enforce any kind of social norms. What etiquette there is, is set by the early adopters who, by definition, are likely to side with the new.

But the more the boundaries are pushed before people are ready, the bigger the likely backlash. Some in Google do understand this which is why, initially at least, Glass is unlikely to deploy face recognition software that, for example, a paedophile might use to identify a child.

Happily, the public had an answer for young Starr. As the opprobrium poured down on him following his tech-strop, he disabled his Facebook and Twitter pages. Apparently, living life permanently on the record has its drawbacks after all.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com; Twitter: @robertshrimsley

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