Google is about to launch a new device which will take our relationship with the virtual world to quite a different level of engagement. The Google Glass, demonstrated by the Google founder Sergey Brin at a press conference this week, is a miniaturised camera and web browser attached to a pair of glasses. As you walk along the street, you will be alerted to incoming emails and social media entries. You may give voice commands and surf the web as it appears before your eyes. You may, too, film and record what is in front of you without going to the trouble of raising a camera or a smartphone.
Of course, nobody who has one of these horrible-sounding devices will ever write a novel or a poem. They will forget how to hold an interesting conversation with another human being; will be simply terrible parents; will, happily, have numbers of facial bruises due to walking into lampposts while watching Kim Kardashian on YouTube. Interestingly, however, the objection that this device will permanently detach individuals from the world around them was not the first one voiced. This week, most people who objected to Google Glass did so because, they said, it was an invasion of privacy to film someone without telling them you were doing so. There is no way of telling whether you are talking in private, or whether your conversation is shortly to be uploaded and seen by chortling dozens.
Google has form in this area. It tried to insist living authors no longer had the right to their own books. Its Street View project brought people’s neighbourhoods and some of their private lives into the public domain without asking. It regards the private history of an individual’s engagement with the internet as its property. Why on earth would it think that somebody would object to being filmed, or need to be asked in advance? Still, I gave a hollow laugh when I read some of the outrage being expressed at this. You worry about being filmed without your consent? And you live in England?
Last night I stayed in a hotel in Bath – an ordinary, respectable, not luxurious hotel. At the entrance, in every hallway, on every staircase, on every landing, there was a camera filming every move. I don’t know – maybe they thought one was about to steal an aspidistra. This is not unusual. If you walk down your local high street, there is probably a CCTV unit every 20 yards or even less. Did anyone ask you whether you wanted one? Every piece of research demonstrates that CCTV is far less use in preventing crime than simply improving street lighting. But still surveillance grows. Why? Well, the same reason that people will buy the Google Glass. People simply love the idea of filming strangers.
If you walk down a street with a video camera and film strangers, you will get an outraged and perhaps even violent response. But there are video cameras fixed to the walls, also filming them. Why does that matter less? The cameras have been put up by the police, by local authorities, by businesses, even by individuals. Some of the uses to which they have been put are outrageous. Oxford City Council decided to film passengers in taxis, and to record their conversation. Others have used their powers of surveillance to discover whether people were really living where they claimed, to track down people dropping litter or cigarette butts. Suffolk County Council used them to intrude into a commercial dating service. Other public authorities, including the BBC, have refused to disclose what they use surveillance techniques to discover.
Some curbs have come into effect since last November. Not enough. Do we really suppose that some of these local authorities and small businesses are the slightest bit more responsible than a drunk student in a nightclub? No. Of course not. Both the drunk student and the local authority are filming strangers on not much more than a whim. There is no privacy any longer, and you might as well accept that you are being filmed at this exact moment.
I loathe and detest the idea of Google Glass. We would be much better off, in our relations with each other, if computers had remained sitting in a bulky manner on desks at home. But to object to this development because you want to live free from the recording attention of ignorant and irresponsible strangers – I’m afraid you’re too late for that one. Perhaps you should have raised it before Britain found itself in possession of millions of wall-mounted cameras, operated by God knows who, for God knows what end.
From James Bond to Jeeves and Wooster
Sebastian Faulks has been commissioned to write a new novel in the style of P G Wodehouse. My envy is unconstrained. The James Bond franchise has regularly commissioned new novels, including one from Faulks himself, and sequels to classic works are 10 a penny. But I don’t think that anyone has been allowed to write a new Wodehouse, outside online fan fiction. There, Jeeves and Bertie live a curious afterlife, often in unsuspected romantic clinches with each other.
There are so many real novels by Wodehouse that only a real obsessive can claim to have read them all – there must be nearly 100, so the need for a new volume is not obvious. But to the real aficionado, the joy would be the permission to emulate one of the great users of English of the 20th century, to dream of writing something as concise, beautiful and expressive as one of Wodehouse’s great lines. “Ice formed on the butler’s upper slopes,” to take a passing example. Mr Faulks is a fine stylist. On the face of it, his task is enviable, but in reality as daunting as a hunting aunt in pursuit of its quarry.