Glass Menagerie: Initiation

Virginia Heffernan gets Google Glass and experiences a confounding, exhiliarating initiation

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

by Virginia Heffernan | @YahooTech

Hot, like a hard-ridden horse, my stallion-white Google Glass is resting.

It’s charging. At rest, the exclusive, pricey and futuristic Glass device doesn’t call to mind a racehorse. Or a Maserati, a DeLorean, or the must-have iPhone six years ago. Glass appears, frankly, weak. Amid other plastic jazz from my purse, including turquoise sunglasses and a cheap vented hairbrush, Glass looks instead like a hated orthodontic device, or the never-used headset to a very old cordless phone.

It scares me, actually, how much Glass in repose resembles any another hunk of obsolete technology found around the house that will eventually be thrown away. Discarded — not by the culture, but by me, the person who bought it and who already from time to time aimlessly holds onto dozens of gadgets and chargers and wires that, though once greeted with erotically high hopes, will be scrapped with the coffee grounds, unrecycled.

But I should not race ahead. Because now is the time of treasuring and pageantry for Google Glass. The first wearable Internet unit is having its moment. No one but real jerks are talking ashes to ashes, or Segways to Segways, when it comes to Glass. We’re not anywhere near that.


I was just “fitted” with Google Glass on Friday, at an undisclosed location: spacious, minimalist, done in exposed ducts, painted pipes and reclaimed wood. A bar lined one wall; espresso on ice was offered. Spunky grass-fed humans, of various hues and gender-codings, in non-GMO cotton, danced attendance on me. I am a so-called Glass Explorer, chosen to try out Glass on the strength of my (admittedly overworked) 140-character “application” to Project Glass from February 27. In this tweet, I told Google what I would do were they to endow me with an early pair of Glass:

“I read what you wrote,” said Norm, my warm and adorable Glass Guide, as he greeted me in Glass’s organic-modern loft in Manhattan. “I really liked it.”

It occurred to me that I had never liked a person more than I liked Norm, for that moment. I had tweeted something, and connected with Norm through words like “poetry” and “grief,” but connected so exactly that he—and Father Google, of whom Norm was an emissary—wanted to mark that connection by giving me the company’s finest and newest invention: the Internet, strappable to the human skull.

By “give,” of course, I mean I had the exquisite privilege, along with several thousand other “contest winners,” of paying $2000 for Glass, plus accessories. Because it is nearly summer I chose the white color called “cotton,” which spoke to me more than orange “tangerine” or blue “sky” or “shale” or “charcoal.” I asked Norm about the silliness of the color names, and he told me they were meant to invoke “nature.”

“We’re bringing the humanity back to technology,” he added, just as I tried to imagine what Google was bringing the nature back to—but I didn’t ask.

He asked me what app I was most looking forward to using on Glass—Norm just said Glass, never your or my Glass—and I told him Twitter.

“I use Twitter a lot, too,” Norm said. “Currently, though, you can’t initiate tweets.” You can only retweet and favorite, not actually tweet from Glass, he explained, looking sanguine as he expertly moved me through some minor fitting and Wi-Fi hookup, which involved pointing the Glass eye at a kind of barcode on a laptop screen. It lamped the bar code and presto—connected! Amazing! Who cares if I couldn’t “initiate tweets”?

Wait, that means I can’t tweet.

But Norm was onto the next thing: taking photos and videos. He showed me a burnished late-afternoon early-summer view of ravishing Manhattan, from the broad and high Google window in Chelsea, looking south. He instructed me to speak “the magic words" -- “OK, Glass” -- which activate the system and precede any command.

“OK, Glass, take a picture,” I said. It did—a hologram the size of an olive pit with an image of the golden Big Apple suddenly framed that image and froze it. The photo, somehow, flew to Google+.

As I half-expected, I am having to finally learn about Google+. I’ve had a Google+ account for years, or however long it’s been around, but now that it’s the main depot for all things shareable from Glass, I’m committing to it. This is partly because currently—as my savior Norm has taught me to say—Facebook and Twitter and the other social networks play only warily with Glass.

Like a lot of things. In addition to Twitter and Facebook, here are some more things Glass currently plays only warily with: Third-party apps; stuttery users (on Glass, I managed to look up “um” on Google seven times, and now I am a budding expert on UM, The University of Miami); and network names that have “special characters” like hyphens in them. I was not able to access Wi-Fi by the beach, because the network I typically use (“Guest-Cottage”) contains a hyphen.

But somehow this didn’t bother me, all the things that Glass is currently stymied by. It’s in my wiring, after all, to believe that something works when it doesn’t, or doesn’t properly, especially when it’s new. And I never, ever think anything’s “creepy”: not cloning, not Mars expeditions, not Google Glass. If I sense that something is fresh and exciting, like Google Glass, everything in me wants to move heaven and earth to spin it into bliss.

Now, I am holding onto the last sales line that Norm -- who was both cheerful and sphinx-like, come to think of it, like an oracular character from “Inception” or “Vanilla Sky” -- gave to me. His parting advice about Google Glass was the koan: “Ease into it.”

“Ease into it?!” I said. “What does that mean? Like a psychological thing?”

“Like an epilepsy thing? A brain control thing?” asked my boyfriend, Jamie, who had come as my plus-one.

Nothing but dogged reiteration from Norm. “Just ease into it,” he said. “Ease into it. It’s new. It’s like anything else. Just. Ease. Into. It.”

And then Norm was gone.

Still, as I left my Friday initiation with Jamie, I fairly tripped out into the sunset. In a way that has never happened to me before, people actually stared at us, with me in the medical-cyborg headgear, as I snapped photos of Manhattanites with my cotton-colored Glass; waiters and taxi drivers and teens on the sidewalk evinced a childlike sense of wonder.

Life’s too short to be blasé about -- or to ease into -- Google Glass. Isn’t it?


I’m going to keep documenting my efforts here in The Glass Menagerie, to find the poetry and grief and hallucination in Google Glass. Next entry up: My experience as a Glass Pariah in Brooklyn -- where I live; where they cherish 1870 and 1940; where they avert their eyes from all things futurish; and where now, thanks to the Glass on my head, no one will talk to me.

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