In March of this year during a TED talk in which he discussed the soon to be released “Google Glass” Sergey Brin (one of Google’s founders) strangely suggested that he found smartphones to be “emasculating”. In reference to the way in which many people, including himself, fill their spare minutes by staring down at their phone he questioned:
“Is this the way you’re meant to interact with other people? It’s kind of emasculating. Is this what you’re meant to do with your body?”
The implication of this statement is that there is something emasculating, and therefore feminine, about the kind of privatized and internalizing behaviour associated with the particular bodily comportment of using a small touchscreen device. Crucially, it is not the activity of accessing the internet while in a public place which is emasculating but the way in which one’s body is held. As the talk he was giving was essentially a promotional event for Google Glass we must assume that this product can combat this terrible emasculation through enabling us to access the internet while presenting an outward facing posture and demeanour.
This made me think of what other bizarre ways in which the use of mobile devices could be inappropriately gendered. The necessity of small, delicate finger caresses of a small screen, perhaps. There is perhaps something about stroking and pinching a little screen (that looks a bit like a mirror) that would seem dangerously feminine to Brin. No doubt Brin would consider Google Glass to be a particularly useful tool in the combatting of feminisation as it enables us to engage in all of the manly activities depicted in the Google Glass advert such as skydiving and skiing. While taking photos and talking to friends on Google Glass, of course.
This gendering of technology made me think of a a broader philosophical point related to the use of this device and suggesed to me that perhaps Brin is right; there is something masculine about Google Glass. It is a device fundamentally produced for looking and to enhance the experience of looking. It has long been suggested that there is a fundamental relationships between looking and masculinity. John Berger claimed that in the history of Western thought the act of being looked at is intimately tied up with femininity, Berger sums up this relationship as ‘Men act and women appear, Men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at’ (Berger, 1972: 247). Similarly for Sartre being looked at made one an object at the same time that “the looker” becomes subject:
“If the looker is a ‘subject’, the looked-at turns into an ‘object’. So my awareness of being looked at can never give me a sense of myself as a subject. What I am aware of through that experience is not myself as a subjective being, but rather an objectified self – the ‘self-for-others'” (Lloyd, 1993: 93).
So the objectified ‘self for others’ is always defined in relation to others. When a person is looked at and becomes percieved as fixed and immanent they fail to be transcendent and it becomes harder to associate themselves with the immaterial realm that has come to be almost synonymous with freedom. Beauvior built on Sartre’s conception of otherness to show:
“the peculiar way in whcih a supposedly free and autonomous being finds herself compelled to assume the status of the Other in relation to another ego which is ‘essential and sovereign’. Woman as ‘other’ in this sense is stabilized as an object, doomed to ‘immanence” her transcendence is overshadowed and itself transcendend by another consciousness” (Lloyd, 1993: 87).
Laura Mulvey (1975) also demonstrated the ways in which women are subject to the “male gaze” in cinema and Google Glass would seem to be potentially consistent with her analysis of this gaze as being voyeuristic and perhaps even fetishistic. Google glass, it would seem presents many possibilities for objectification of the “looked at” and for the masculine power of looking to be technologically stimulated and enhanced. Sartre, Beauvoir and Mulvey all showed the effect that being looked at has on an individual, it makes them feel like an object, something assessed, surveilled and fixed in time and space. For Sarte and Beauvoir this was largely only in the context of particular individuals in a physical environment, although with much broader philosophical implications. In Mulvey’s analysis this was expanded to the sphere of the media but at a time when relatively few people were subject to its gaze. What are the consequences of this gaze being expanded out potentially to us all? What will it feel like to be gazed upon in this fashion, not only the experience of an awareness of being watched but that it is also, perhaps being recorded or that your details are being searched simultaneously? Also, what will it be like to be the watcher?
In a forthcoming article in the journal Thesis Eleven I suggested that the extent of digital surveillance and data gathering coupled with the required use of personal details for many online services means that rather than being a space of anonymity the internet often ties us to our “real world” identities more closely than ever before. Google Glass could develop this even further opening up a whole new realm of digital tracking which takes place while people are going about their everyday lives assuming that they are offline when they are potentially being constantly observed and fixed as an object “doomed to ‘immanence'”.
Berger, J.S. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.
Lloyd, G. (1993) The Man of Reason: ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Western Philosophy. London: Routledge.
Mulvey, L. (1975) ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ Screen 16(3) pp. 6-18.