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Wearable computing pioneer Steve Mann: Who watches the watchmen?

Armando Rodriguez | June 7, 2013
It's Tuesday afternoon, and I've come to the Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara, California to speak to the University of Toronto professor about wearable technology and the ubiquity of surveillance. But now, instead of searching for answers, I'm searching for a key.

Thanks to a projector and camera inside the small black orb, the device's wearer can interact with augmented-reality projections using his or her hands. Mann says he plans to distribute the high-tech accessory to all 250 people who attend his conference--but he also jokes that half of them will just be empty shells, as many department-store cameras are.

I tell Mann about my experiences with Glass and how people keep thinking I'm using it to record their actions. I confide that Glass makes it easy to take pictures discretely without people being aware they're being photographed, and I question how the general public will react if suddenly multitudes of people have cameras strapped to their faces.

Mann tells me he quickly found out that people aren't happy when they think you're constantly pointing a camera at them. He then delves into his concept of "McVeillance," a state where people are under surveillance but aren't allowed to use their own cameras in return.

"People are afraid of change, so let me explain how this is a stasis," he says. "In the past 50 years, we've lived in a surveillance society--it's really the camera that freaks people out the most. Surveillance is a French word. Sur- means 'from above,' like surtax or surcharge, and veillance means watching. So surveillance means watching from above, like a prisoner being watched by a guard, or the police watching a suspect."

At this point, Mann gets into McVeillance, and how it relates to wearable computing.

"If we get rid of that 20th-century 'us versus them' paradigm, and just take the politics out, you're left with just veillance--which is just politically neutral watching," he says. "And I think that is very much like the old world. In the old days, the sheriff knew what everyone was doing, and everyone knew what the sheriff was doing. That's veillance. The police might say, 'Stop taking a picture of me,' but if you've got the [EyeTap] or Glass, they might not know whether you're taking a picture of them. It puts us on a level playing field because you don't know whether you're under surveillance."

The professor adjusts his digital eyeglasses while giving me a coy look, and, for a moment, I consider the possibility that he's been secretly photographing me. Now I know how Nick Bilton felt at Google I/O. Though to be fair, I was wearing Google Glass, and for all Mann knew I could have been photographing him. (I wasn't.)

Before I leave in search of food (and my train home), I ask Mann how he felt about being called a cyborg. He tells me he was annoyed that the media had been referring to him as the "world's first cyborg," as he finds the word to be rather vague. I ask him what word he would use to describe people equipped with wearable tech, and he replies, "augmediated."


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