TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Even though it hasn't yet been released to the public, there's already been a lot of controversy about Google Glass, which is like an eyeglass frame that has a very small, voice-activated mobile device with a camera. Some say it will open a new world of experience. Others see it as a major threat to privacy and civility.
According to our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, your reaction is apt to depend on who's wearing the device: you or someone else.
GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: You and I can't buy Google Glass yet. It's only available to the select developers and opinion-makers who have been permitted to spring $1,500 for the privilege of having the first one on the block. But I've seen it around in my San Francisco neighborhood, among the young techies who commute down to the Google and Facebook in WiFi-equipped shuttle buses, or who pedal downtown to Zynga and Twitter on their fixies.
You've probably seen pictures of one of these. It's an eyeglass frame with a camera and display tucked into the temple, and a tiny track pad and speaker in the earpiece. You operate it with finger swipes, head movements and voice commands, or even winks. The effect is comically geeky. Fred Armisen demoed Glass in a "Weekend Update," segment on "Saturday Night Live" a couple of months ago in May, and he didn't have to exaggerate much - jerking and swiveling his neck to get it to boot and reboot, repeating voice commands over and over again, all the while marveling to Seth Meyers how simple and unobtrusive it was.
Still, it's cool to contemplate. You're going to want one, my wife says, and she's probably right. I'm not sure what I'd do with it - actually, at this stage of development, neither is Google. But I could've videoed my daughter's graduation speech without having to stick a screen in front of my face. And I fancy that table talk at dinner wouldn't have to go into a holding pattern while somebody reached for a smartphone to redress some collective memory lapse.
I could just say, OK, Glass, who starred in "Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel"? But Glass can seem a lot creepier when it's being worn by somebody else. People have started to call the early adopters glassholes, and I can see why. A colleague was telling me how she'd seen somebody she knew wearing Glass at a party, and went out of her way to avoid him.
She said, look, even if he isn't going to surreptitiously take my picture, it's as if he's poised to put me on call waiting if anything interesting comes in on his Twitter feed. Anyway, she said, why would you want to talk to anybody who'd wear Google Glass to a party in the first place?
The opportunities for glassholery don't end there. Not long ago, a developer announced that he'd built a face recognition app for the device. Google promptly said they'd block it, but you figure somebody's going to make this work eventually, given the possibilities. Hey, Glass, see if you can get me the name and email of the hottie over there at the vegetable bins.
The champions of progress counter, as they always have: You'll get used to it, they say, the way you got used to everything else. They're probably right. After all, glasshole is just a variant of the word we were using back in the 1980s for the jerks talking loudly in restaurants over a $4,000 mobile phone the size of a lunchbox.
The only difference is that now, the opportunity for jerkiness has been democratized. The spirit of Gordon Gecko lives on in the guy behind me in the airport check-in line who's yelling at his admin over his cell. It's no less annoying, but now it's just another one of those unavoidable rents in the cultural wallpaper. And there really isn't much you can do with Google Glass right now that you couldn't already do with your smartphone, with just a little more effort.
But I think Glass really does cross a threshold. There's a yearning that's driven the whole history of human communication from the earliest cave painting: the desire to experience what's happening somewhere else without leaving where you are. Over the centuries, each big technological advance has reduced the effort and imagination it takes to slip from one place to the other. There is no frigate like a tablet to take us lands away.
And now there's Glass, which brings the here and now and the there and then to just a twitch of the eye apart. That's as close as they can get without somebody actually going in and rewiring your optic nerves. But the one thing we've learned in modern times is that when the here and now goes toe to toe with the there and then, it's invariably the here and now that gets hammered.
I look at how many pictures I've already got on my smartphone, and I know that with Glass, I'd turn into one of those people I see at concerts and museums who video everything in front of them, putting their whole lives on tape delay for potential replay later on. It occurred to me that it would be cool to have Glass at the ballpark, so I could call up player stats while I was watching the game. Augmented reality, as it's called.
But who am I kidding? I'd spend the whole game swiveling my head and ignoring the play on the field. The New York Times tech blogger Jenna Wortham pointed out that the real problem with the devices isn't so much the glassholes as the glassed-out, the people with the slack-jawed look of druggie disengagement as they focus fixedly on the little screen in front of their eyes.
It reminds you that in Shakespeare's time, distraction was another word for madness. Indeed, Google Glass brings us literally to face with a fundamental metaphysical perplexity of modern life, as it was described in the title of the classic comedy album released by Firesign Theatre back in 1969: "How Can You Be Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All?"
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California Berkeley School of Information. Coming up, Merle Haggard and Buck Owen's hits from the '60s and '70s covered by country star Vince Gill and pedal steel guitarist Paul Franklin. Our rock critic Ken Tucker will review the new album "Bakersfield." This is FRESH AIR.