A hirsute Sergey Brin made waves earlier this month when he catwalked through New York Fashion Week with a Google Glass wrapped around his bean. It was something of a coming out party for Google’s reality-augmentation device, which promises to democratize the heads-up display, giving us all a fighter pilot’s view of the world. Diane von Furstenberg got Glassed. So did Sarah Jessica Parker. Wendi Murdock seemed impressed by the cyborgian accessory, as did her husband, Rupert, who promptly tweeted, “Genius!” Google Glass is shaping up to be the biggest thing to hit the human brow since Olivia Newton-John’s headband. Let’s get post-physical.
[Augmented Reality device, circa 2012]
It’s appropriate that models, designers, and other fashionistas would be among the first to embrace Glass. The fashion industry has always been at the forefront of reality augmentation. But Google’s eye extension is not the first Glassware to come into vogue. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the gadget of choice for trendsetters was the Claude Glass. Named after the popular French landscape painter Claude Lorraine, a Claude Glass was a tinted, convex mirror that ladies and gentlemen would carry around on outings and whip out whenever they wanted to amp up the beauty of a natural scene. As Leo Marx explained in his classic The Machine in the Garden, “When a viewer used the Claude Glass the landscape was transformed into a provisional work of art, framed and suffused by a golden tone like that of the master’s paintings.” The glass “helped create a pastoral illusion.” According to a University of Windsor site dedicated to this early mobile technology, a Claude Glass “essentially edited a natural scene, making its scale and diversity manageable, throwing its picturesque qualities into relief and — crucially — making it much easier to draw and record.”
[Augmented Reality device, circa 1780]
Where a Claude Glass suffused the landscape with a soft painterly light, a Google Glass saturates the landscape with hard data. It gives its owner the eyes not of an artist but of an analyst. Instead of a pastoral illusion, you get a digital illusion. But if the perspectives the two gadgets provide are radically different, the Claude Glass and the Google Glass share some important qualities. Both tell us that our senses are insufficient, that manufactured vision is superior to what our own meager eyes can show us. And both turn the world into a packaged good — a product to be consumed. The Google Glass is superior to the Claude Glass in this regard. Not only does it package an enhanced version of reality, but it annotates it with a profusion of descriptive text and other explanatory symbols — and then, with its camera and its uplinks to social networks, it allows us to share the product. With a Google Glass on our forehead, we’re not just a consumer of augmented reality; we’re a value-added reseller.
Like the Claude Glass before it, the Google Glass reverses the biblical prophecy: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.” Technology reveals the paradise beyond the real — or at least it reveals how we imagine that paradise to be.
[Images: Google Glass: Google promotional photo; Claude Glass: detail from Sophia Delaval, Mrs Jardis, attributed to Edward Alcock, from National Trust]