Glass Menagerie: Yes, Um

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

are an English rock band who achieved success with their progressive, art and symphonic style of music. They are distinguished by their use of mystical and cosmic lyrics.

So I have been informed, over and over again, by Google Glass, which I acquired on Friday.

I have learned about Yes, yes, from this Wikipedia display on Glass, but I have also learned about myself. Specifically, I have learned that apparently I say “yes” to myself all day long. Glass hears this “yes” as “Yes”—who can blame it?—and for good measure hears that same “Yes” every time we find ourselves in a strong spring wind. And so it sends me to the Wikipedia page for Yes. The English rock band.

The day I first got Glass, I couldn’t stop saying “um,” so I landed on “U.M.,” The University of Miami, which, should you be wondering, is “a private, non-sectarian university founded in 1925.” Today I land on Yes, an English rock band who achieved success. . .

Just as it is news to me that the mystical and cosmic band Yes and the non-sectarian University of Miami are the A1 returns when “yes” and “um” are put into Google’s search engine, so too is it news to me that I am constantly muttering “yes” and “um” throughout my day. And while I can always learn more about Yes and the U. of M., I have increasingly felt like a pariah while wearing Google Glass— and not only because of my involuntary daily mutterings.

Consider this microcosmic example: I ran into a friend on the sidewalk today—a glamorous feminist writer of considerable renown.

“Oh,” she said. “You’re wearing that. Those. Oh.”

“We can ignore it!” I said hastily. “We can totally ignore it!” To be honest, I was glad she’d even stopped.

She looked at the time, then again at my lily-white titanium headset with its small bloodshot-laser eye.

“OK,” she agreed. “Let’s ignore it.” We talked a whole seven minutes. About obstetrics. We didn’t mention Glass.

The English rock band Yes.

So, that’s the bad thing. The sole fact that it hinders sidewalk fellowship should make me hate Glass. But curiously my new loneliness leads me to cling to isolating technology harder, just as voters were once said (erroneously! tendentiously!) to cling to guns and religion.

Which is to say: I am clinging to my Glass, because it’s expensive and new and it’s my job, but I’m not pointing it at anyone, and certainly not firing it (Google Glass, for the record, does not shoot bullets, or bust into brains, or body-snatch people who talk to people who wear it.)

As Glass evolves, the wariness people feel around it may turn out to be like the wariness that scrupulous humanists once felt around SSRIs like Prozac and Zoloft. First there was widespread panic that they might crush creativity, sexuality, passion, humanness. Now there is a widespread panic that they’re. . .placebos. So which is it? Are antidepressants toxic—or inert? The answer, of course, is—like every cultural artifact from prayer beads to cold-press coffee systems—antidepressant pills are just what we need them to be. Like Google Glass.

Here’s how Glass is toxic, then: It puts a gaudy barrier between the wearer and the world. If you can always summon a tiny hologram screen, Tinkerbell-style, you are visited by a fairy other humans don’t know. You can check out of the 3D conversation at hand and talk to her, stare at her, command her. What’s more, your little fairy is, in theory, as sharp as the whole Internet—she unerringly knows, at least, the weather, the time and directions, not to mention the fact that the current line-up of Yes since February 2012 consists of singer Jon Davison, guitarist Steve Howe, bass guitarist Chris Squire, keyboardist Geoff Downes, and drummer Alan White.

So that Glass fairy is legitimately distracting, impressive. And if you’re inclined to fear an interlocutor with a wandering mind, Google Glass stands as an unmistakable emblem of the Un-Monopolizable Attention of the Other, or rather an emblem of her total freedom to be, say, reading about non-sectarian universities rather than thinking about your obstetrics story. Or my obstetrics story.

Anyway, here’s how Google Glass is inert: it doesn’t do a thing! It doesn’t do a darned thing except bother people! It doesn’t play games; it doesn’t really tweet; it doesn’t connect to wireless networks with hyphens in their names. I mean, I am still trying to get Bluetooth set up, so most of the time I’m not even online. Glass can take photos and videos, but you’ll hear me saying, “OK Glass, take a picture,” and I’m not sneaking photos anyway. I don’t do it with my iPhone, so why would I do it with Glass?

And then—they’re just photos. I do take a ton of photos #throughglass, as the hashtag has it. And lots of people take pictures of me, when they try out Glass, and mostly I’m beaming like a buffoon, talking and waving to the Glass eye like a 60s mom on a Super 8. It’s funny, because my kids and their friends have also been hamming it up for Glass photos as if they’ve never seen a camera before, when with parent smartphones they’ve had their picture taken nearly as many times as they’ve drawn breaths. But posing for Glass they’re suddenly kooky marionettes. They’re amused and antic and thrilled at the newness of it. At least someone is.

When I have Glass, though, I have to admit all I want is for you to ask to try it. Everyone’s reaction to the little holo-screen is different, and I want to see them all. Then I want to talk about Glass with you and connect and have it be a little sacrament over which we can wonder about the future, technology and this mortal coil.

I’ll be rolling with children, I think, until more adults get Glass. Then I’ll march right up to them and say, “Is that Google Glass? Is it creepy? Is it weird? Is it fun? Can I try it?”

And the answer, of course, will be: “Yes.”

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