The Segway was an achievement. It was nimble and simple, balanced on two wheels, and moved with barest of intents. The Segway delivered on its lofty technical goals. It was magical.

But the Segway was doomed. After summiting its technical challenges the Segway hit a brick wall of cultural challenges. It was too fast for sidewalks and too slow for roads, a liminal mode of transportation that mowed down pedestrians and held up cars. To ride a Segway is to be antisocial, to implicitly admit to not being of the culture one glides through1.

Google Glass faces the same roadblock as the Segway. Both products focus too heavily on their users while ignoring the societies users exist within. Both products are (and will be) significant technical achievements brought down by the cultural challenges encountered.

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume Glass works perfectly. Information is delivered smoothly, image capture is instinctual, notifications are subtle yet effective and the display is balanced and clear.

“We created glass so you can interact with the virtual world without obstructing the real world,” explained Isabelle Olsson, who is leading the design efforts for Google glasses. “We don’t want technology to get in the way.2

The imporant question to ask is for whom the technology doesn’t get in the way. We should note the Segway was intuitive and welcoming to it’s users only, a fluid means of removing the distance between A and B, but cars and pedestrians were apparently never considered. Glass is similar in that it’s product design is focused on purely the user, never on those around it.

Glass’ screen is visible only to it’s user and it’s camera looks out documenting everything except the user, storing content to be shared at the user’s discretion. I believe that these always on, core functions of Glass will prevent it from being welcomed in social settings. Those around the Glass users must implicitely trust the Glass wearer, for they have no idea where the Glass user’s current attention lies and cannot visually confirm whether or not they are currently being captured by Glass.

Google is working so hard to keep technology out of the way that they’re forgetting why it’s important to see technology when it’s present.

If someone holds a cellphone sideways to frame a shot, we can assume we’re being photographed. If a conversational partner starts fidgeting with their phone, we can read into that as well. With Glass all these options are constantly on the table because their functioning is imperceivable to anyone but the user, creating a feeling of unease among all present.

In an article on Mashable yesterday, Chris Taylor makes the case that all personal technology starts with a wave of handwringing like my own. Eventually, he says, the tech becomes the norm and we forget to protest. Headphones, cellphone cameras, and even PCs started this way.

While this acceptance cycle does exist, the always-on but never-apparent nature of Glass is unlike any the cases Taylor cites. Headphones can be taken out and cellphone cameras pocketed or checked at the door. This awkward dance can go on for a year or two without sacrificing the benefit to the user, affording the new tech and culture time to understand each other. But Glass is all or nothing. I’m certain they’ll be occasionally placed on table tops or cases for the first couple years, but because they’re active at most times (and this is largely the selling point) these explicitly ‘off’ periods will be the exception, not the rule.

Glass is doomed because of social imbalance, an ignorance of culture. Glass empowers it’s users technologically for social situations that don’t exist yet, just as the Segway deployed to a world filled with ill-suited sidewalks and roads. I believe non-users will begin to shun Glass just as the masses shunned the Segway. We will see restaurants, gyms, and bars banning the device to keep their patrons at ease. Offices will fear a world where all conversations are on the record, especially large corporations, doctor’s offices and legal firms. Social settings will not emerge for Glass and its usage will be confined to places where it was never an issue to take out your cellphone in the first place.

  1. It’s no coincidence that the last vestige of Segway use is confined to tourists and security guards, two groups explicitely outside of their current social setting. They’re observers and referees, respectively, not participants. 

  2. Nick Bilton, in the New York Times, emphasis mine.