“OK, Glass. Legislate.”
If only it were that simple here in gridlocked Washington. But while Google’s push to show off its technology on Capitol Hill has made some headway, not everyone is sold on the pricey eyewear.
I was lucky enough to be one of the 10,000 or so people to score this wearable computer contraption. (Full disclosure: these $1,500 specs actually belong to a colleague of mine). Google has been making the rounds with their new equipment on the Hill, in search of other congressional guinea pigs. Among those lawmakers who gave them a try: Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and 87-year-old John Dingell, D-Mich., who famously called them “Quite a machine!”
While some members of Congress were skeptical of the Glass, many were fascinated by the technology, including both the House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dave Camp, R-Mich., who posed for a picture wearing them.
I was the first Capitol Hill journalist to wear them for an extended period of time since they were released earlier this year. As a producer covering the House of Representatives, I found Google Glass provided me with a unique, first-person way of documenting our government. It wasn’t perfect, however. I’ll be the first to admit that it can be a little distracting.
For instance, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would not answer a question I posed to her about immigration reform at a recent press conference until I explained more about the Google Glass I was wearing. “I'll answer that if you tell us about your glasses,” Pelosi said to laughter from the press corps. I told her I was wearing Google Glass and that I was recording the press conference.
On the other side of the aisle, I had difficulty getting House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to call on me during another press conference. In fact, as I sat there with my hand raised in an effort to ask a question, Boehner called on two fellow journalists who were sitting next to me without their hands up.
Afterward, I asked the speaker if he would have called on me if I had not been wearing the Glass, and his answer was quick and to the point: “Probably.” “I just didn’t want to be part of the experiment,” Boehner told me later.
Google is hoping that this mentality changes, and that people see the Glass as less of an experiment, and more of a viable, everyday tool. The Glass are not designed to replace your current phone, but more to supplement the functionality of those devices.
Google Glass is not really ‘glasses’ at all; it’s simply a computer that you wear on your head, with a small monitor that illuminates only when you’re using it. By utilizing a touchpad on the side of the Glass, and voice gestures, you can take pictures, record videos or conduct web searches.
The wearable computer has also given birth the new term: “Glasshole,” which is defined as “a person who constantly talks to their Google Glass, ignoring the outside world,” according to Urban Dictionary. I’ve been called this several times.
But for every person who was interested in the electronic glasses, there was another person who asked not to be filmed. “Are you recording me right now?” was a common question I received, and was one that I began answering without being prompted.
While members of Congress and their aides understand that what they say in the halls of the Capitol is reported on, discretion is also highly valued, and when they want to speak ‘on background’ or ‘off the record,’ it’s hard to do so when a camera (which could or could not be recording them) is pointed directly at their face.
Recently, before attending a meeting with a committee chairman, one of his aides asked me to take the Glass off. “I don’t know if you’re recording or not,” the aide told me, even though I said that I wasn’t, and wouldn’t, record the meeting.
The Capitol has historically been slow to tolerate new technologies. Currently, you can’t shoot video in a majority of the rooms and hallways in the Capitol building. You also can’t have cell phones in the observation areas of the Senate chamber. Members of Congress are not allowed to make cell phone calls on the floors of the House and Senate chambers, and in many places you are not allowed to take pictures.
One of those places is the “Speaker’s Lobby,” which is a room just off the House chamber where journalists can speak to members of Congress. There you can check emails and browse Twitter on your phone, but can’t make calls or take pictures and videos. Interestingly, it’s an improvement from just a few years ago when you couldn’t have cell phones or voice recorders in the room at all.
When I wore Google Glass in the Speaker’s Lobby earlier this month, the Sergeant at Arms Office asked that I take the Glass off, or leave the room. “It’s giving me a red flag,” a staffer for the Sergeant at Arms office told me, “Until we figure out about those you can’t have them in here.” I unsuccessfully tried to argue that they were not recording, and that it’s no different than holding a cell phone (which is allowed).
Both Google Glass and Capitol Hill need some tweaking before they are ready for a proper marriage, so that journalists, or anyone for that matter, can roam freely through the halls of Congress wearing them.
If Google Glass had even the option to show a little light when you were recording, it would help allay the concerns of those who do not want to be recorded. Secondly, Capitol Hill needs to accept that technology is rapidly changing, and that the ability to take pictures and video will eventually need to be accepted throughout the Capitol.
But considering the snail’s pace at which Congress accepts new technology, it may be years, or even decades, before lawmakers are looking at the tiny screen in front of their eye and saying to themselves, “OK, Glass, vote ‘No.’”