I recently found myself (re)reading Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash for the one billionth time. In it, there is a great passage about “gargoyles”:

“Gargoyles represent the embarrassing side of the Central Intelligence Corporation. Instead of using laptops, they wear their computers on their bodies, broken up into separate modules that hang on the waist, on the back, on the headset. They serve as human surveillance devices, recording everything that happens around them. Nothing looks stupider; these getups are the modern-day equivalent of the slide-rule scabbard or the calculator pouch on the belt, marking the user as belonging to a class that is at once above and far below human society. They are a boon to Hiro because they embody the worst stereotype of the CIC stringer. They draw all the attention. The payoff for this self-imposed ostracism is that you can be in the Metaverse all the time… Gargoyles are rude by definition.”

What’s great about this bit of the book is how concisely Stephenson captures the anxiety about wearables and surveillance. The simultaneously positive and negative societal response to things like Google Glass and even BlueTooth headsets. At once, we are fascinated by the affordances of these technologies for personal use – while at the same time we are repulsed by the lack of agency and sense of disempowerment that comes from people using them around us – and so “marking the user as belonging to a class above and far below human society”.

In public spaces, we’ve come to naturalize that corporations and the government constantly survey us through, for example, ceiling mounted cameras (to the degree that we believe that such actions keep us safe or protect property) – but the thought that a fellow citizen would partake in such dehumanizing activities tends to put those people in a class far below human society. I say these are dehumanizing activities because the can so easily be used to violate our right to privacy – even in public spaces: this can be at work, at a bar, of just out on the street. It’s not possible to know if we are either being recorded by the user or if we are being watched remotely by a nefarious third-party (without the consent or knowledge of the wearer). And the fact that the wearer cannot provide any guarantees about what the device is doing marks them as suspicious at best, and arrogant or even naive at worst (a class far below human society).

At the same time, our fascination with the new affordances of these devices draws us to the wearers of such devices – putting them in a class above. The chosen ones. The explorers. “What’s it like?”, we either ask directly or just wonder.

*In Snow Crash, the CIA has been privatized – hence Central Intelligence Corporation.