More Tech Magic, if You Can Afford It

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LAST week, I glimpsed the future. I tried on Google Glass, the much-anticipated computer eyewear that lets you skim e-mail and shoot video.

After some awkward fiddling, I managed to make the device work for me. It was a dazzling taste of something I'd previously seen only in science-fiction movies. I marveled at many things, but mostly at the magical way the display -- a glowing, transparent cube -- floated over my field of vision, showing maps, photographs and simple messages.

All too soon, my time was up. I handed the high-tech glasses back to a Google employee, with the sinking feeling that it could be a while before I'd be that close to them again.

 That's because they cost $1,500, and they are being made available largely to developers and people who are eager to figure out how to build applications for them. When they go on sale to the rest of us later this year, they'll probably be cheaper, Google says, but not by much. The company doesn't have plans for a partnership with a carrier that might be able to subsidize the cost of the hardware, and it evidently isn't seeking a mass market immediately.

Of course, there are very real-world business concerns behind the pricing, noted Susan Etlinger, an analyst at the Altimeter Group.

"New technology is always expensive when it's introduced because of the research and development costs," Ms. Etlinger said. "It's the same with drugs."

My brief encounter with Glass doesn't prove anything about its chances of success. The gadget might not work effectively all the time, and it might fall flat on its face in the mainstream consumer market, as many have predicted. But in some significant ways, the product is pushing the boundaries of the way we think about omnipresent computing, Web search and the ownership of data and privacy.

Surely, wearable computers are in our future, whether they are embedded in glasses or smart watches or even contact lenses. But the experience of wearing Glass raised questions for me about the future of new technology and who gains access to it first -- part of a much larger debate concerning the undercurrents of power and privilege that course through the Web.

At the very least, the release of Glass could shape how we think about human and computer interactions, and -- considering Glass's abilities to quietly take photographs and record videos -- how we influence policies about privacy and public spaces.

And it would be a shame if the only people who participate in this leap forward are those who can afford it.

It's not just Glass that poses an inkling of a trend toward technology for the 1 percent, or at least for the relatively affluent. Facebook, for example, has been testing a feature that requires people to pay to send messages directly to people who are on Facebook but who have not agreed to be their "friends." Then there is app.net, a Twitter-like service that promises a higher-quality stream of information and news, if you pay for it, with subscriptions starting at $5 a month.

Some analysts say the future of security and privacy on the Web will belong to those who can afford expensive, anti-hacking software and other protective services. That could be the antithesis of the rise of the social Web, which promised a utopia imbued with the ability to empower those who used it, regardless of their location, financial means and level of privilege.

"We used to have a distinction between early adopters and people with the most disposable income," said Anil Dash, an entrepreneur and blogger who raised similar concerns last year in a post titled "You Can't Start the Revolution From the Country Club."  

"Ignoring the value of inclusiveness is tantamount to building a gated community," Mr. Dash wrote. "Even with the promise that the less privileged might get a chance to show up later, you're making a fundamentally unfair system."

He says we are at an interesting inflection point where the cost of computing has never been lower, and services like Facebook and Twitter give people a free and relatively frictionless way to connect with hundreds, even thousands, of others with the click of a button. Understandably, many companies are trying to cash in on these developments. But will it be at the cost of excluding most people from the best and safest technology?

This isn't an entirely new phenomenon. When the iPhone came out, it cost almost $600, in its cheapest form, and I couldn't afford one. By the time I'd picked up enough extra shifts as a waitress to pay the price, the second and third versions of the gadget were on the market.

There's no doubt that the device changed my life. It made me a much more streamlined individual and eventually gave me a competitive advantage as a budding technology reporter who had firsthand experience as the Apple ecosystem evolved. Relatively early access thus proved beneficial, as it has for many others who were the first to adopt and use new services, like the early "vloggers" (that's video bloggers) on YouTube or developers in the App Store.

AT the moment, the new Google Glass is also out of my price range. But it stands to reason that this won't always be the case, says Bill Maris, managing partner at Google Ventures who is also involved with the Glass Collective, a venture fund devoted exclusively to financing the production of applications for the computer glasses.

"There's an evolution curve to new technology," he said. "This isn't the endpoint."

In other words, if Glass is good enough, and enough people want to buy it, the cost will come down significantly. It's just a matter of time.

"If it is not useful, it will go away. That is the market force," he said. "The latency between introduction and general availability is shortening."

He pointed to the way that most smartphones have dropped in price. But for the most part, the cheapest devices aren't the newest or fastest ones. And the implications of that -- that hand-me-down technology is a good-enough for poorer people -- are troubling in their own regard. 

David Lee, a managing partner at SV Angel, an angel investment firm, doubted that consumers would immediately embrace a shift as radical as wearing a computer in fancy eyewear.

"Unless you're a Steve Jobs, a change in user behavior comes from the ground up," he said.

Wherever the next innovations come from, I hope they are reasonably priced. Otherwise, the future may start to look a little more like another science-fiction vision: a Brave New World.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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