Google Glass fans need a reality check (and the Internet needs seat belts)

Being in public doesn't mean you give up all rights to your personal privacy -- no matter how cool that techno gadget might be.


There’s been a disturbing trend lately in the public discussion about privacy, mostly surrounding Google Glass.

On one hand, we have people who are getting their knickers in a knot over the privacy implications of a device that could, at least theoretically, record images and audio in virtually any place and automatically upload it to the Internet. Admittedly, some of these folks are a bit more hysterical than others.

On the other hand, we have the pro-Glass crowd, which is doing its best to paint its opponents as horse-and-buggy-loving dinosaurs who need to get the hell out of the way of progress and profits or get flung into the tar pits. 

One recent example is from Harvard Business Review, where consultant-author Larry Downes compares calls for privacy legislation surrounding Google Glass to the ‘red flag’ laws of the 1890s, which required drivers to have someone to walk in front of them waving a red flag to warn others that a horseless carriage was approaching. 

In retrospect, of course, Red Flag Laws always look ridiculous. But in the heat generated by torch-wielding mobs, the absurdity of calls to do something — anything — to stop the march of progress aren't always so easy to counter.

So let’s forget about red flag laws, Larry, and talk about seat belts. The first seat belts were invented in 1885. They weren’t required as standard equipment in cars until 1968, and drivers weren’t legally required to use them until the 1980s. That 100-year-gap was due almost entirely to opposition from car manufacturers.

How many millions of people had to die in car accidents because someone was afraid to halt the march of progress? Even today, some people cite seatbelt laws as further steps down the “slippery slope of tyranny.” (Talk about looking ridiculous.)

Another example: New York Times Bits blogger Nick Bilton, who compares the pro- and anti-Glass crowds to characters in Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book.

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