Sergey Brin, in a recent discussion of Google Glass, noted that smartphones are “emasculating.”
Let’s look at a more or less standard definition of “emasculate”. (I generally hate arguments by pedantics who pull out dictionary definitions as a kind of proof text for an argument, but I think this is worth it).
1. Make (a person, idea, or piece of legislation) weaker or less effective.
2. Deprive (a man) of his male role or identity: “he feels emasculated because he cannot control his sons’ behavior”.
3. To deprive of virility, to castrate.
A few things jump out at me here–it’s not much of a stretch to tie this thought, at least implicitly, to a kind of subliminal misogyny, in which a fear of (social, technological) castration can be invoked in order to create buzz for male early adopters. This is the tech field we’re dealing with after all! I’m reminded of the semi-mythic recent rise of the “brogrammer”.
This is the same smug certainty of any early adopter-speak; to try to lure men into being more virile through, er, glasses (made by FOXCONN, let’s not forget) strapped to one’s face. Here’s a good example here of the breathlessness and pliancy of a mainstream tech-press organ framing this not in terms of information, but desire: YOU WILL WANT GOOGLE GLASS (I mean, seriously, this is almost a parody on the levels of the rock journalist going to Ozymandias’ palace in The Watchmen). But this righteousness is compounded by the product itself:
Google Glass is like one camera car for each of the thousands, possibly millions, of people who will wear the device – every single day, everywhere they go – on sidewalks, into restaurants, up elevators, around your office, into your home. From now on, starting today, anywhere you go within range of a Google Glass device, everything you do could be recorded and uploaded to Google’s cloud, and stored there for the rest of your life. You won’t know if you’re being recorded or not; and even if you do, you’ll have no way to stop it.
It’s the coolness of cyberpunk with all of the Gibsonian creepiness stripped out (or at least, they are trying to strip it out), coupled with the voyeurism of the X-ray goggles sold in the back of comic books in the 70s.
That glee of being able to see what others cannot see: THAT is what is “virility” for the brogrammer-esque adopters who want to have Google Glass.
To have a form of technognosis.
Indeed, it probably goes without saying this is a real sf’nal moment: a kind of dystopian, disruptive surveillance technology being unleashed not in the pages of Analog, but in press releases, SXSW and TED talks.
It’s a true cyberpunk moment very different from smart phones, because of the closeness of the interface. (In fact I’m sure that the idea for this had to have popped up first in a SF magazine decades ago, before the possibility of it could have been even dreamed of.)
When Gibson presented this “virility” in prose in the Sprawl stories–the diamond-cut sentences, the cockiness of the cyber-cowboys–this was hardly presented as a tableaux of joyful consumption, but rather one of deep alienation, suspicion (between the characters and each other, between the characters and corporations), and even decay, “lost under superstructures of muscle graft that their outlines weren’t really human.”
But, well, we are at a somewhat different juncture now. It’s hard to know where this is going. But when we as a society have been making incredibly slow progress in ridding ourselves of misogyny in the public sphere, Google Glass is kind of a platonic ideal of an adolescent male fantasy brought to life, an almost cartoonishly dehumanizing piece of technology that posits its users as literal super-users, upsetting a power-balance through the spectacle of “augmentation.”