Google Glass - now available as shades. Photo: Ajit Niranjan / The New Statesman
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Google Glass launches in the UK, but don't expect to be wearing them anytime soon

Google just launched their prototype smartglasses in the UK, two years after they hit the US.

“Ok, glass.”

Two simple words, and a passable imitation of Benedict Cumberbatch’s public school tones – think Sherlock, not Smaug – start a frenzy of activity in the top right-hand corner of my eye. A list of voice commands appears on a screen that feels as if it's projected eight feet away, which I scroll through with the slightest tilt of my head. 

I triple-tap my temple and suddenly I can see the solar system from within the showroom by Central St. Martins on an overcast Monday evening. Constellations and planets are annotated in space but the text is unnecessary. I turn slowly on the spot till I locate the sun hovering over St. Pancras, and a soft voice reads out a Wikipedia-style entry of the star.

This is Google Glass, the latest in high-tech gadgetry. Star Chart, just one of the apps in the prototype I’m playing about with during Glass’ UK launch last night, is like a virtual planetarium which operates on a point-and-look model – no swiping or clicking needed. GPS and gyroscopes make it perfectly suited to Google’s hands-free headset.

The technology giant is selling the prototype of Google Glass for £1000, but don’t write it off because of the price-tag. Though the final version will undoubtedly be much cheaper, the current model is being released now to get public feedback on the project. Just as it has been in the US, Google is looking for British “Explorers” to test the product out and report their experiences of it. Speaking to The Guardian, 'Head of Glass' Ivy Ross – the intellectual counterpart to Blondie – said:

What you’re seeing now is that the people in businesses that acquired them are coming up with all these amazing use cases for it, but the same thing is happening with consumers – artists, mums, dads, school teachers, scientists – they’re doing amazing things with it too.” 

Their London video gives a little taster of how they expect it to take off.

Set aside the technological jargon – one of the team describes it as an “optical head-mounted display optimised for augmented reality” – and it's hard to deny that Glass is actually quite nifty, and user-friendly too: within ten minutes I've got the hang of interacting with the headset, through a combination of vocal commands, swipes and head nods. The employee demonstrating Glass to me – whose Polish accent is just a touch too strong for the voice recognition software – even showcases the surreptitious "wink-for-a-photo"  command. 

Fun as the applications are, there's a strong mood in the room that Google is onto something bigger than a snazzy gadget. Global director of marketing Ed Sanders believes Glass might help us interact more with the real world by taking us away from smartphones and tablets:

People are looking down; people are getting buried in technology. We have a deep, sort of philosophical desire to help people look back up. And one of the big things behind Glass is how you put people back in the moment.”

Supposedly, its functions can be called up without taking the user away from the action. The demonstrator puts this in perspective: imagine you’re on holiday. Want to find directions to a fancy restaurant? Translate the indecipherable Italian menu? Shazam the Pavarotti in the background? Google thinks Glass will let it embed technology in day-to-day life without detracting from the experiences.

Sanders – who managed to use Glass to record the first time his son said ‘Dada’ – thinks the company really might be onto something. The smartglasses were developed by Google X, a “Charlie-and-the-chocolate-factory” division of Google responsible for projects like the driverless car. The guiding mantra at the semi-secret research facility is to make technology ten times better, not just ten percent – hence the X in the name.

But Glass isn't without its shortcomings. The product's been plagued by bugs and it looks to be a long, long while before a polished, glitch-free version is on the market. Unfortunately the criticisms don't stop there. In the short time I used it, the demonstrator accidentally 'took control' of my glasses by saying commands a bit too loudly. In America it’s come under so much criticism for intruding on privacy that bars and restaurants in tech-hub San Francisco have banned it. Civil liberties groups have voiced concerns that the technology will enable stealthy spying.

Of course, there's the fashion angle as well. Despite partnering up with Ray-Ban and other high-end fashion brands, the fact remains that many users are reluctant to publicise their purchase. Google can make the design as streamlined and versatile as it likes, but something about the mini-computer sat on the bridge of your nose just screams "dweeb". 

So don't expect to see Glass becoming a part of everyday life anytime soon. The technology might be getting there but there's a whole marketing minefield that Google will have to navigate through first. After all, who really wants to be a "Glasshole"?

Photo: Getty
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2017 is the year we realise we've been doing the Internet wrong

Networks can distribute power or they can centralise it.

A couple of years ago I visited Manchester tech start up Reason Digital. They were developing an app to help keep sex workers safe. The nature of sex work means workers are often vulnerable to crime, crimes which can be particularly difficult to solve because witnesses are reluctant to come forward and crime scenes often public and subject to interference.

Reason Digital thought if they could alert sex workers of relevant incidents in their vicinity – harassment, a foiled attack – that would help sex workers protect themselves.

So, of course, they created an app which tracked the location and habits of all sex workers in Manchester in a central database and sent out alerts based on where they were and what they were doing, right?

Did they hell.

They knew a real-time centralised, location database would immediately be a target for the very people they wanted to help protect sex workers from. Moreover, they wanted their app to empower sex workers, to put them in control. And they knew that sex workers would be reluctant to hand over any part of their hard fought privacy.

So the Reason Digital app kept the location and other data on the sex workers’ smart phone and let it decide which alerts were relevant and what information to share.

That is the kind of distributed, autonomous app putting people in control we just don’t see on the Net.  No, all the apps that improve our lives – from Facebook to Uber to match.com – cull the intelligence and data from the user and stick it in the vaults of a company or, occasionally, a government.

Thankfully, the majority of us are nowhere near as vulnerable as the majority of sex workers – to physical crime at least.

But we are increasingly vulnerable to cybercrime, a vulnerability which will increase exponentially once everything is connected to the Internet of Things.

And we are vulnerable to the exploitation of our data, whether through data mining or algorithmic determinism. Google’s search engine can be “gamed” by extremists, used to strengthen hatred and spread stereotypes. I have also been told one major dating site optimises it matchmaking algorithm for short term relationships – it means more return business. And Uber have admitted it knows you’re likely to pay more for a ride if your battery is low – which it also knows. Our data is what drives services and profits on the Net - but we’re unable to reap the rewards of the value we create.

That’s why 2017 will be the year we realise we got the Net wrong.

Not the underlying internet, designed by the public and third sectors in the seventies to be as distributed and autonomous as possible.

Or even the World Wide Web, invented in the nineties by the public and private sectors, again without central control.

But the apps developed in the last couple of decades to use the infrastructure of the internet to deliver services.

Networks can distribute power – like the electricity power grid –  or they can centralise it – like old boys networks.

Increasingly, I fear the Net is doing the latter.  And for three main reasons.

Firstly, a technical legacy of the early internet: in the days of slow broadband and unreliable devices it made sense to transmit as little as possible and control your user experience by centralising it. That problem is by and large history, but the centralisation remains.

Secondly these apps were mainly developed by a small group of privileged people – white, male, relatively well-off engineers. That’s why, for example, the biggest campaign of the early  internet pioneers was against porn filtering. Yes, for many years the most inspirational internet civil rights struggle was for rich western men to have absolutely untrammelled access to porn. So often I was the only woman at the conference table as this issue was raised again and again, thinking ‘is this really the biggest issue the tech community faces’?

But there is a seam of libertarianism in technology which sees it as above and beyond the state in general and regulation in particular. Even as a replacement for it. Who needs a public sector if you have dual core processing?  When tech was the poor relation in the global economy that could be interesting and disruptive. Now tech is the global economy, it is self-serving.

And thirdly these apps were developed in a time of neoliberal consensus. The state was beaten and bowed, shrunk to its role of uprooting barriers and getting out of the way of the brilliant, innovative, invisible hand of the private sector.  When I was at Ofcom in the 2000s we strove valiantly, day and night, to avoid any regulation of the internet, even where that included consumer rights and fairer power distribution.

As a consequence now the Net is distributing power but to the wrong people.

  • It’s not empowering the poor and dispossessed but the rich and self-possessed.
  • It’s not empowering sex workers in Manchester but criminal cartels in China.
  • It’s not empowering the  cabbie in Coventry but the $62Billion Uber everywhere.
  • It’s not empowering the plucky little startup in rural Hexhamshire but the global enterprise headquartered in Bermuda.
  • It’s not empowering the Nigerian market woman with a yam to sell but the Wall Street stockbroker with your data to market.
  • It’s not empowering the Iranian dissident but the Russian state.

That’s a betrayal of the power and original purpose of the net: for greater human empowerment.

To be sure some of that is happening. The Arab Spring, for example  Campaigns for the tampon tax and Black Lives Matter are enhanced by the web. Apps such as Pol.is and MassLBP look to make 

digital democracy work. Institutes like Newcastle’s Digital Civics Institute are working at systems to enable real democratic collaboration. Groups and enterprises such as Medical Confidential, MySociety, Cap Collectif and Delib try to deliver control back to the citizen consumer. European research project d-cent has helped develop tools that can make deliberative democracy work.

But against that we have the rapacious data centralisation of big companies and, at times, the state.

What we need is a government that is capable of leading and inspiring the tech sector to empower citizens and consumers. Ignoring the libertarian technocrats who say it’s for them to determine how tech power is distributed and remembering that the white heat of technology should be at the service of the people, not the other way round.  This government has neither the capacity nor the will to take on that mission. As part of our review of industrial strategy, Labour will be examining ways in which tech can be empowered to deliver the economy we want, and people empowered to make the best use of it.

Tech and politics are the twin drivers of progress, and I’m lucky enough to have worked in both. If there is one thing we have seen it is that as people become richer they have fewer children, more education and a greater sense of privacy and autonomy.  2017 is the year to start giving back to the people the data and control they should never have lost.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.