Glass Menagerie: Broken

When Google Glass breaks, the griefs and sorrows of ownership arise

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.

Virginia Heffernan | @YahooTech

I broke my Google Glass. The injury is my fault, though I also choose to blame the Google-issued case, a cowboy accessory of gray flannel that is closer to a hard-toed sock than to the Bulgari satin-lined jewelry box that would seem to suit fancy Google Glass.

The soft part of the Glass sack was insufficient armor against the bruising bustle of my handbag, which contains a dusty old iPad and iPhone (hahaha remember that stuff?), sunglasses and my daughter’s Barbie Fairy, name of Silvermist. Some of these obdurate objects—they’re like the tougher organs of the bag, the livers and wombs—seem to have encountered Glass, the feeblest and most fragile, the eyeball of the bag. At some point a collision occurred, and this collision bent, then broke, the hinge that connects the battery to the brace, rendering it operative but unmistakably broken.

My broken Glass occasioned another visit to Glass Basecamp, the site of my original Initiation. That Initiation, you might remember, was conducted at the hands of one Norm, who though he is an exceptional Glass Guide, prefers to remain “in the shadows” (as he told me in a private communication), and thus will here remain surname-free. Norm greeted me again.

“Norm!” I said. Once again Norm was supremely helpful, and set me up, no questions asked, with a brand new Glass, as though Google had suddenly reversed the planned obsolescence on which our whole economy and “upgrade” psychology is now founded, and had revived the old L.L. Bean return policy from 1916. (“I do not consider a sale complete until digital headgear in beta is worn out and the customer is still satisfied.”)

I put my new Glass on, and resolved as much as possible to wear it around my neck when I’m not using it, since that’s the new style at Basecamp. Then I promptly started looking for new people to lend it to.

Norm says he treats his Glass like a small child, and that’s why his never breaks. I treat mine like a small child too, but since I typically pass my real-life children around to anyone who is curious about them, I analogously pass around Glass.

The author, viewed in the mirror wearing Google Glass, at Glass Basecamp in New York City.

Technology is assumed to be isolating, in spite of one million years of evidence that it’s not. Some people prefer solitude to company, and technology—whatever that is—extends the passions of the biological creatures who make and use it. If you are isolated against your will, like my friend Bob in Iowa, digital technology does much to offset that isolation: It throws up abundant connective tissue in the form of the Scrabble app, and Facebook, and Yahoo News.

So Google Glass, which initially threw in my path wise, earnest neighbors who averted their eyes from my sinister headgear, eventually led me to sidewalk gawkers and finally to conversation with people who enjoy novelty - which is to say lots and lots of people.

But in the broken Glass days I finally experienced the grief I knew I’d find eventually with Glass. Not because I (or my iPad or Silvermist) had bent or broken it; on the contrary, it was moving to see this pristine thing out of alignment. Glass is so imperfect now, and so glitchy, that this was only an external reminder of its mortal nature.

No—I felt the grief when Glass was in the shop. In fact, for the short time that my Glass was out of commission—really, just while Norm was getting the new one up and running—I felt like crying. That’s right. The most grief I’ve felt at the hands of Glass was when, briefly, I had to let it go.

Norm says that people come to Glass with all kind of apprehensions and misgivings. They hold it in their hands in a gingerly way, slightly embarrassed by the clumsiness it engenders in them, and look for flaws. They try to get on top of the device; to draw a bigger circle around it, to not let it catch them off guard.

I know I did that. “See, this is going to be inconvenient; this is ugly and uncomfortable and creepy and stupid.”

But then they emerge with one phrase: “I want.” That’s what Norm says. He’s a salesman. But from what I’ve seen, watching people play with Glass, he’s right. I want. I want, still, even with PRISM in the air and surveillance and the wily Edward Snowden still at large, to be part of something new. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” is what I posted to Twitter this morning—a line from Wordsworth, in the spirit of the jubilant tweets celebrating the strikedown of Prop 8 in California.

But I meant those words for the digital dawn, too.

Still—the digital dawn? You might be rolling your eyes, or, if you know your Wordsworth, shaking your head: that line expresses Wordsworth’s excitement about the French Revolution, and in his estimation that bliss came to grief. No dawn ends well. Or rather, dawns all end in darkness. But that geopolitical certainty should not stop us from beholding the sunrise, #throughglass, if possible. Should it?

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