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Assignment: Impossible

Assignment: Impossible

Exploring the area between the unknown and the impossible.

A Modest Proposal: Google Glass Neighborhood Watch

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In the series "A Modest Proposal," my colleagues and I will propose inventions and projects that I think are eminently doable and would love made real.

Google wants to help change the way people see the world with Glass, a lightweight transparent video display that rests in front of your eyes and whispers into your ears. I had previously suggested Glass might help improve tech support or spark a wave of filmmaking, but the first fight and arrest filmed via Glass earlier this year reminds me of another potential application for the device I first read about in science fiction author David Brin's 1991 novel "Earth" — essentially a neighborhood watch enhanced by Glass.

In "Earth," eyeglass cameras are used by senior citizens to form neighborhood watches, helping curb street crime, although some feel their gaze oppressive:

"Watching, all the time watching... goggle-eye geeks... rotten old apples that sit an' stink and stare atcha..."

The very moment they came into view the old woman laid her wire-knitting aside and fixed them with the bug-eyed, opaque gape of her True-Vu lenses -- staring as if they were freaks or aliens out of some space-fic vid, instead of three perfectly normal guys, just hanging around, doing nobody any harm...

"Oh, it started as a way to fight street crime -- retired people staking out the streets with video cameras and crude beepers. And the Seniors' Posse really worked, to the point where perps couldn't steal anything or hurt anybody in public anymore without getting caught on tape.

"But after the crime rate plummeted, did that stop the paranoia?" He shook his gray head. "You see, it's all relative. That's how human psych works. Nowadays seniors -- you call us geeks -- imagine threats where there aren't any anymore."

Brin said the point of those scenes in "Earth" was that eyeglass cameras "would create a global village of reciprocal accountability with many benefits, like preserving freedom and accountability. But that there would be costs."

Neighborhood watches armed with Glass could help deter crime, but there could be many unforeseen consequences. The events after the video revealing police brutality against Rodney King show just how powerful camera footage can be.

Surveillance cameras are now everywhere in the world, with London's "ring of steel" network of nearly a half-million cameras perhaps being the most noteworthy contemporary example. One might argue that citizen cameras can help counteract government infiltration of private lives — Big Brother may be watching you, but you can watch Big Brother as well. Brin certainly advocates such sousveillance to counter surveillance.

Of course, not all private citizens like Glass either. The term "glasshole" is now routinely used for people who do not use the gadgets in socially acceptable ways. At least one bar in Seattle has banned Glass from the premises.

You can email me regarding A Modest Proposal at toohardforscience@gmail.com and follow the series on Twitter at #modestproposal.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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