Google Glass: how might it transform journalism and the balance of power between citizens and the state?

Google Glass is hitting the headlines, globally and locally, and many are exploring its potential for journalism, including citizen journalism (check #glassexplorer).

Billed as the first hands-free, cloud-based wearable technology, it shows wearers information through an optical head-mounted display that appears as though its screen is about two metres in front of you.

This photo is taken from the Google Glass website.

GoogleGlassphotoUS reporter Sarah Hill (@SarahMidMO) has written about her experiences using Google Glass for MediaShift and The Next Web.

She says it is already transforming newsgathering for  the Veterans United Network – a news hub sponsored by Veterans United Home Loans, where she is “a Hangout Host”.

She writes:

“Imagine being able to shoot, stream and share a live newscast (a Glasscast, if you will) onsite in real-time while also interacting with the world around you.

During breaking news, a professional journalist or citizen reporter can simply open a hands-free Hangout and show others what they’re seeing in real time. While broadcasting, a user could also simultaneously have a face-to-face group conversation with other stakeholders in that live event.”

Glass also allows the wearer to capture video and photos and instantly share to their social networks — further combining the digital and physical world, as well as the speed at which news reaches the public. An app allows the wearer to manually upload videos from Glass to YouTube.

Hill says:

“With wearable computers like Glass, journalism is changing into a place where news content is created and shared instantly, quite literally through the eyes of the reporter.

Expect a rise in “ireports” with the bevy of powerful tools and technologies at the disposal of the wearer, telling stories in a unique first person video point of view.”

She also expects the device will free up journalists, allowing them to convey more intimate stories as they can be less intrusive.

However, she says the device needs more work to make it more useful for journalists  (including a better microphone, longer-lasting batteries and more journalism-specific apps).

(Another journalism reviewer also recommends more work: “Though it has the potential to become an amazing, life-changing tool, right now the Glass is a very raw product.”)

While developments like Google Glass raise many questions for journalists about privacy and professional practice, some argue that such concerns must be balanced against its potential as a powerful tool for citizen journalists.

An article at MIT Media Lab describes the work of Dr Steve Mann in pioneering the design of wearable computer systems. Mann coined the term “sousveillance” – watching from below – as an alternative to “surveillance”, watching from above.

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, writes that when governments place citizens under surveillance, Mann suggests that we might invert the paradigm by pointing the camera at institutions and authorities, reminding them that citizens are watching as well.

Zuckerman expects widespread use of Google Glass will make it more likely that abuses of power, natural disasters and breaking news are documented.

However, he says we need to have “an extended conversation about the balance between the power we gain from sousveillance and the constraints that surveillance puts on our behaviour”.

Indeed! It seems likely to raise an ethical minefield….

Google Glass in action

This is the official promo video: “How it feels through Glass”.

And here, more awkwardly, is Jeff Jarvis demonstrating the device at the Guardian’s recent Activate conference in London.

As he wrote later at his blog:

Bottom line so far: Yes, it’s awkward. I’m not sure how useful it is today. But it’s a Newton. It’s the germ of something better that will come… I think.

 • The report above is by Melissa Sweet