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Onlife Citizenship

This critical accompaniment of ICTs can only take shape in concrete practices of design, use, and implementation, in which human beings can get critically involved in how technologies mediate their existence. A critical use of information technology then becomes an 'ascetic practice', in which human beings explicitly anticipate technological mediations, and develop creative appropriations of technologies in order to give a desirable shape to these mediations. At the same time, the design of information technology becomes an inherently moral activity, in which designers do not only develop technological artifacts, but also the social impacts that come with it. And policy-making activities regarding the implementation of new technologies then become ways of governing our technologically mediated world.

Let me return to one of the examples I gave at the beginning of this contribution in order to elaborate how this critical accompaniment of technologies could be a fruitful form of ethical and political reflection on technology. As indicated above, one of the most salient aspects of Google Glass is its impact on interpersonal relations. The 'doubling' of the relations between humans and world that it brings about adds a second layer to the communication between people, which remains invisible to the other person. When two people meet, they cannot see which information the other has available about them. Google's search engine might reveal private information on the basis of face recognition software, or it might confuse the person with somebody else. Because this parallel information is only available for the person wearing the device, an asymmetry comes about that makes open communication impossible and that radically transforms the character of public space and public life.

Dealing with this new technology, then, requires more than asking oneself the question if we should allow it to be applied in society, and if so, under which conditions. Rather than aiming for a 'yes' or 'no', ethical reflection should ask itself how this technology could get a desirable place in society. And for answering this question, we need to think through the ethical dimension of the design, implementation, and use of this technology.

First of all, in the context of use, people will have to develop ways to appropriate this technology, and to integrate it in their daily lives. Typically, people develop codes of use for dealing with technologies that have an impact on social life—just like it has gradually become normal that people do not answer incoming calls on their cell phones when they are in a conversation, for instance. An obvious code that could develop would be that people put off their Google Glass when they are in a conversation, to prevent that your conversation partner is searching information about you on the Internet, or is checking his or her email simultaneously. Still, the meaning of a quick glimpse at each other's face in public space will change forever, because everybody knows that the Google Glass enables people to look right through each other. Dealing with implications like this is not only a challenge for users, but also requires the attention of designers and policy makers.

Designers should be more aware of the mediations that can occur when people use the glasses, in order to make a responsible design. This requires experimentation, and creative redesign. When, for instance, one of the main problems appears to be the possibility that somebody secretly checks someone's face on the Internet, it could be important to introduce a little warning light that gives a signal when the face recognition system is on. This would remove an essential element of the hidden character of what the glasses can do, and therefore restore part of the symmetry that this technology takes away. Another option could be to redesign the software in such a way that it can only activate face recognition when looking each other explicitly in the eyes for more than five seconds. When people engage in this form of contact, they have reached a level of intimacy that is far beyond the regular quick exchange of looks in public spaces. Designs like this can make it possible to remain relatively anonymous in public spaces, while making contact with each other might also become more easy when both parties are open to that and allow more substantial eye contact.

Also the character of the information that is revealed, should be part of the design of the technology. Google could give (or be obliged to give) people an active role in determining their profile that becomes visible when their face is recognized and looked up—just like the profile people are now making of themselves on social media like Facebook or LinkedIn. In this way, people would have more control over the ways in which they are present and visible in public spaces, comparable to the impression people make on others in real life, on the basis of their behavior, the way they dress, and the reputation they have.

Beside this, users should learn to deal with the effects Google Glass will have on their relations with other people—both when they wear the glasses and when they are being watched with it. It will not be very difficult to realize that other people might have all kinds of information available about you when they look at you. But that awareness should also grow regarding all activities people have on the Internet. Google Glass integrates the public space of the Internet with the public spaces 'in real life'. This implies a rearrangement of the boundaries between the public and the private, and the coming about of a new public space—as it happened before because of other media like the newspaper, the radio, and the television. Rather than merely resisting and opposing the negative aspects of this development, we will also need to develop new forms of citizenship and citizenship education. Codes of conduct and etiquette will have to develop, just like they exist already now in current public spaces.

This requires, thirdly, new policy-making activities. If the main question remains if we should or should not allow technologies like Google Glass to be introduced in our society, we lose the possibility to address the quality of its social implications. At the same time, a blind and unregulated introduction of this technology in society would throw away the possibility of critical reflection and governance. The central question for policy-making activities is how Google Glass can be embedded in society in good ways. Governance and regulation should focus on the quality of this embedding, rather than on the permission for it. This, inevitably, requires experimentation that makes it possible to find the right balance between openness for change and preservation of what we find valuable. We will need to ask questions like: which information should be disclosed and which not? Which aspects of ourselves belong to the private realm and which do not? And who determines that? Should people have the right to adapt the profile that is connected to their visual appearance? How can the design of Google Glass embody the central values in our society? And how can users be equipped optimally to integrate Google Glass in their daily lives in responsible ways?

The real information revolution has yet to begin. The boundaries between human beings and information technologies are blurring ever more rapidly. This requires a normative framework that gives up the idea that we need to control technologies from outside, on the basis of a set of pre-given criteria. Rather, we need to develop ever better ways to understand how information technologies affect us, and to get explicitly get involved in that process, by critically designing, embedding and using information technologies from the perspective of their mediating powers in human existence and our technological society.

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