'This is gonna make you a cyborg': A conversation with Jathan Sadowski

Talking smart glasses, the metaverse and platform capitalism

My guest today is Jathan Sadowski, a research fellow at the Emerging Technologies Research Lab and the Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making in Society. His academic work and writing focuses on the political economy and social impacts of “digital systems that are data-driven, networked, and automated”.

I highly recommend his book Too Smart: How Digital Capitalism is Extracting Data, Controlling Our Lives, and Taking Over the World for a critical view on smart tech and big data. Jathan also co-hosts the This Machine Kills podcast. He’s a smart guy! (In the genuine sense, not the smart tech sense.)

Jathan and I spoke about Facebook’s smart glasses, the metaverse, and platform capitalism. This interview has been edited for length.

JH: Not long after I read your book, Facebook announced their new smart glasses. It comes in the context of this whole new push for smart tech and online communities run by the platforms under the banner of the metaverse.

Smart glasses particularly fascinate me, because it's one of those products that the tech industry has been wanting to make happen for a long time. But, at the same time, Google Glass was probably the last bit of tech that saw an absolute, widespread rejection from the general population on its release. Obviously you have various people and groups who reject new consumer technologies to varying degrees, but not an almost universal rejection like that.

JS: Virtual reality and augmented reality are deeply interconnected in Facebook’s strategy for being the premier intermediary in our interactions with reality.

The Facebook glasses are particularly interesting because the relationship with Google Glass is very obvious. And it’s interesting to see what Facebook has learned in the last eight years, and how the way Google was marketing Google Glass is echoed in the ways Facebook is marketing – what are they called? Ray-Ban Stories.

What I think is also really crucial here that these are not a Facebook product. The metaverse is a Facebook product. This is an Instagram product. We have to understand Ray-Ban Stories as an Instagram product — it’s all in the marketing of how they’re going to be used.

You look at all the people who are in the marketing for Ray-Ban Stories, and they’re people that identify as like three creative professions, right? Like, “I'm an artist, a graphic designer and an actor”, or “I'm a commercial and fine art photographer”, or “I'm a DJ, designer and a director”, right? And they’re like, “Yo, Ray-Ban Stories are great for me.” So I think there's a big aspect of [the marketing] where it's not nerds, it's cool Instagram hipsters who have three or four precarious jobs.

I also think it is really bizarre that Zuckerberg was the face of this and that they haven't used… I don’t know who the Instagram CEO is right now, but it should have been them and not Zuckerberg, who is this human wax figure who just reeks of not-coolness.

But on a superficial level, what Facebook is doing is learning from how Google really fucked up with their rollout of Glass. And you're right — I cannot think of an example since then of everybody just collectively standing up, grabbing their hammers, and smashing one piece of technology in its cradle and saying no.

JH: I wrote an op ed for The Guardian back in 2014 about it — back when people were getting smart glasses ripped off their faces in San Francisco bars — and what struck me back then was how they gave the beta devices to these socially gregarious nerds who were completely invested in that way of doing things, and who saw no problem with putting a computer between themselves and the people they were speaking to. I guess the social environment is now more prepared for the fact that you could be being recorded at any given moment. People are more accepting of that now.

JS: Yeah, I think that's crucial. The iPhone had only been around for like five years when Google Glass rolled out. It’s absolutely one aspect where I think Zuckerberg is really reading the tea leaves here and saying, okay, this level of surveillance has been more normalised now.

I also wrote an essay about Google Glass in 2013, for The New Inquiry. (Eight years ago, I was still learning how to write essays.) I just went back to it today. It was useful for giving me links to the media coverage at the time. And you’re right, the beta testers were a bunch of Silicon Valley nerds who were, you know, friends of friends of people at Google X. And they got these glasses at the very beginning of this anti-tech backlash in San Francisco. So you start seeing these nerds that are running around with these things on their faces that identify them as the people ruining the city. You're like, “Great, you just painted a target on your face. Thank you for that.”

I came across this statement from [Google co-founder] Sergey Brin in a TED talk that he gave in 2013 when he was promoting Google Glass, and he talks about how smartphones are emasculating because you're standing around and just rubbing this featureless piece of glass. My friend commented, “Fellas, is it gay to stand around rubbing a featureless piece of glass?” That’s part of it, right?

Zuckerberg is still saying the same things that Brin was saying about how the point of this is that phones get in the way of authenticity, phones get in the way of living your life. The Ray-Ban Stories are perfect because they are so frictionless – and they are so seamlessly integrated into your everyday existence – that it's no longer you interacting with a thing. It's you just living your life and the thing is there as quite literally a layer between your perception of reality. Your perception of reality is mediated through the Facebook platform in a much more intimate way that you can’t do with a phone that you have to take in and out of your pocket.

That is what this whole push towards augmented reality is meant to be. It’s meant to be a further integration in a very cyborgian way. I mean, that's how Google Glass was marketed: this is gonna make you a cyborg. That sounds like weird nerd shit, so they don't say that with the Instagram glasses.

JH: There’s this weird self-fulfilling prophecy to all of that, in the sense that Facebook became big through the mobile web, web 2.0 — whatever you want to call it — and now they’re looking forward defensively like, “Okay, what’s next? What comes after the mobile internet? And how can we own that?” I doubt many people actually particularly want to wear smart glasses and would tell Facebook as much in a focus group, but the company needs to make them want that because it’s the logical next step.

JS: Exactly. This is very much the Steve Jobs aphorism of “the public doesn't know what they want, we tell them what they want”.

You mentioned the mobile web and it reminds me of the acronym for that, which was SMAC: social, mobile, analytics and cloud. That was the business model for all these companies. That’s been left behind, and the business model is now platforms as ubiquitous and pervasive intermediaries of everything, inserting themselves into every social relation and economic transaction.

And a big part of that is AI. I think it is very interesting to see these glasses do have Facebook's assistant built into them in a limited way. Zuckerberg says in the video that the technology for what they want to do – and they don't quite tell you what they want to do – isn’t quite there yet, and that they’re still working on the miniaturisation.

So I think we really have to think about these glasses as the first-generation iPhone or first-generation iPod. This is just giving you a hint of what they want the thing to do.

JH: The impression I get as well is they're incredibly conscious of the fact their reputation for privacy and use of user data and stuff is pretty poor across the board. It's not Facebook branded, you don't see the Facebook logo on the glasses themselves. I don't even fully buy the claim they can’t miniaturise all this tech — I think they could do AR glasses, there’s just social technology that needs to be advanced and implemented before they can. They're obviously laying the groundwork in really careful ways. They’re working with privacy organisations, for example, which I saw you tweeting about the other day.

JS: Yeah, all five of the privacy organisations they’re working with are funded in some way by Facebook.

JH: Right. I was struck by the critiques from those groups — all of them mildly down on the new glasses to varying degrees — which all came down to the potential for abuse by individuals. You know, that they could be used and abused by stalkers and other bad actors. And it seems to me those complaints are easy for Facebook to hand-wave away. Stalking can be a law enforcement problem and not a technological one, for example.

JS: This is very much the point of the tech ethics industry as it exists, to act as a friendly red team – framing the issues in terms of problems that can be easily addressed, or where responsibility for those problems can be passed off to somebody else. Like bad actors and stalkers or whoever. Instead of the actual thorny social, political and economic issues that really matter. That is stuff that they have no interest or ability to address, because addressing it means Facebook stopping what it is doing altogether. They're like, “No, but that's not the point here – the point is to find and focus on problems that don't fundamentally challenge what we want to do.”

I think a great analogy here is with Amazon Ring, which is very much framed in terms of an individual consumer choice. Like, I'm making an individual consumer choice to put a smart doorbell camera on my door to keep my house safe.

In the abstract, that's fine. But, unfortunately, we live in a society. Ring becomes a problem when, because it's a network technology that is accessible not only by Amazon but also by police departments, it becomes this massive, seemingly decentralised (but actually highly centralised) network of surveillance cameras.

People would lose their minds if the police were like, “We're going to install CCTV cameras, not only on every street intersection in a residential neighbourhood, but on every other door in the neighbourhood.” It's ingenious for Amazon to instead make people pay for the privilege of doing that.

It’s like when we're talking about data. The problem with data collection is also not an individual problem. It’s faulty framing to think that the way to solve mass data collection is to give everybody ownership over their own personal data. That means nothing to me, right? Like, what would I do with that data? Nothing. Because it's only valuable in the aggregate, and only valuable in relational terms as a social technology.

If Facebook gets their way, that's exactly what will be the case here as well, where people will pay a princely sum for the privilege of helping create a vast network of surveillance. It’s not Big Brother, it’s a bunch of Little Brothers. That is the kind of model of this surveillance society which I think we are not fully equipped to think through, because our metaphors for it are so wrong. Our metaphors are of Big Brother, they are Orwell or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, where it’s a big centralised stand-in for the Soviet Union (or whoever it may be) that's watching everybody.

That's not how this stuff is actually unfurling. It's unfurling in a much more networked, seemingly decentralised way; outwardly based on individual rights, individual preferences and consumer choices. But all of it is a way of inserting an intermediary into everybody's lives. It’s a very Baudrillard, very nineties cyberpunk kind of thing, actually — you know, social theory, simulation and simulacrum. It's no coincidence that the term metaverse comes from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, which is also a very nineties cyberpunk kind of vision.

JH: Yeah, I was thinking about that with the metaverse. A lot of the tech VC and startup guys are really, really into it from that sci-fi/cyberpunk perspective. They're thrilled about the idea of the metaverse as being this seamless integration of human life and cyberspace via this persistent world that you can dip in and out of.

And there’s an element of that which is intuitively cool. But when you read what they write, they seem most excited about the interoperability of brand IP, like being able to run around in a virtual world and interact with Marvel characters. I’m thinking… is this the pitch? Is the best you have, that we’ll be able to run around with Iron Man in a virtual world wearing NFL jerseys that we bought as NFTs? I wrote about this, and there’s a Gawker article titled ‘The Metaverse is for Babies’ which makes this same sort of argument too.

And then on the other side you have Zuckerberg’s pitch of a virtual office that looks and acts exactly the same as your real office.

JS: Yeah, but crucially it's only from the waist up so nobody can do a Toobin. But I think you're totally right here. The whole aesthetic of this is very infantilised in a lot of ways. It’s very Marvel.

But it's because that's the dominant aesthetic that has been sold to us. I think there's also a story here of monopoly and media monopolisation. This is all Disney, right? When does the Disney metaverse partnership arrive in the same way that the Facebook Ray-Ban partnership has arrived? Each of these different aspects of mediation of reality have the partnership between the tech company who's going to provide the smarts and the legacy company that's going to provide the cool factor. Whether it's Ray-Bans or whether it's Marvel or Disney, that's how the medicine goes down.

I think that is is really interesting to think about – how a lot of these companies are aping very self-consciously the terminology and the visions of cyberpunk, but the aesthetic has changed so much in order to not make it seem so gritty.

The one company I think that bucks this and does it unabashedly is Amazon. Amazon is like, “No, fuck this, these are the satanic mills of the 21st century. We're not trying to sell you a cool product, we're trying to sell you an ideology of convenience built on the back of indentured labour.”

But companies that have to sell you a lifestyle product have to sell it to you with kid gloves. You can't make it look threatening in the way that like Google Glass looked – very raw, very consciously nerds replicating the cyberpunk they love. You have to make it like a soft play area. The metaverse looks very cartoony, like Minecraft or something like that. You round off all the edges; it's all pastel colours. And none of that looks threatening.

I think that we really have to be careful here, in terms of not letting the dangling keys distract us from who's dangling those keys. It's still the same company that has an interest in making money in any amoral way that they possibly can.

JH: It comes back to the line from your book of technology industry being an extractive enterprise. The metaverse is about the vast troves of data that they can absorb as a consequence of you living more and more of your life through online platforms.

I think the model here for the way that they want you to live is like the hardcore gamers in South Korea who spend twenty hours out of a day at gaming cafes playing Starcraft. That is your life, the avatar that you play is for all intents and purposes your authentic true self.

But you know, only a fraction of people are ever going to get that heavily into Starcraft or World of Warcraft. So for everybody else, you have to make technology that instead meets them where they are. So that's where the metaverse comes in.

And that's where Ray-Ban Stories comes in too, right? That's where you live, and Zuckerberg’s virtual reality metaverse office is where you work. So you log out of the metaverse, you take your VR goggles off, you put your glasses on, and then you go about living your life. But now you're living in augmented reality instead of virtual reality. I think that's the the dual connection here between those two products, and they're launched so close together, is that they form a holistic idea of intermediation.

It's fundamentally based on not only a kind of bloodless way of living, but one that is so thoroughly intermediated with that layer, that data layer, that platform layer.

You can follow Jathan on Twitter.