The 21st Century Monocle
Is it possible that Google Glass’ (or similar head mounted wearable computer) primary use case is as a fashion accoutrement for Digital Hipsters?
I was reading an article about how a New York restaurant was being punished in its online Google reviews (but not Yelp) because it refused service to someone wearing Google Glass for privacy reasons. The lady who had been refused service gave them a one star rating and wrote a note about her experience, which is fair enough. But one of the commenters on her post then suggested a bunch of people give the place a flood of one star reviews, which appears to have occurred.
That’s not fair play, but I was struck by a comment from one reviewer on the restaurant’s Google page: “It’s a real pity that such a great restaurant can have its online reputation ruined by a group of trolls sporting 21st Century monocles.” [Emphasis mine.]
I just Googled that phrase, and it seems to be the first time anyone has applied that term to Glass, or any head-mounted wearable. But as part of my search I came across this article: “One Part Mr. Peanut, One Part Hipster Chic: The Monocle Returns as a Fashion Accessory” from the NY Times of March 5, 2014.
There are so many relevant bits, that I ask forgiveness for quoting it so extensively:
“The one-lensed eyepiece, an item favored by 19th-century military men, robber barons and Mr. Peanut, is finding itself wedged anew into the ocular sockets of would-be gentlemen seeking to emulate the stern countenances of their stuffy forebears.
From the trendy enclaves of Berlin cafes and Manhattan restaurants to gin ads and fashion magazines, the monocle is taking its turn alongside key 21st-century accouterments like sharply tucked plaid shirts and certificates in swine butchering…
…Martin Raymond, a British trend forecaster, credits the rise to what he calls “the new gents,” a hipster subspecies who have been adding monocles to their bespoke tweed and distressed-boot outfits. On a recent trip to Cape Town, Mr. Raymond said, he saw such a group carrying monocles along with tiny brass telescopes kept in satchels.
“All of this is part of a sense of irony and a way of discovering and displaying old artisanal and craft-based technology,” Mr. Raymond said. “You see the monocle appearing in Berlin, parts of South Dublin.”
Toby Miller, a cultural historian, said: “Monocles have always marked people out as beyond the crowd, slightly different. On one hand you have the Prussian officer, on the other you have the effete English lord, and then you also have the New York and London lesbian in the 1920s.”
Aside from the Times publishing “accouterment” (what, they don’t have spell check over there?) the words that jumped out at me were trendy, hipster, irony and different. From the above mentioned swine butchering to the Edwardian beard, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Mason jars and Crosley USB turntables at Urban Outfitters, there is a whole thread of hipster behaviour that reaches back into an artisanal past (whatever the hell THAT’S supposed to mean) and embraces things that are deliberately, conspicuously and ostentatiously anachronistic.
And good for them…speaking as a guy who owns TWO Fatman valve amplifiers!
But it also occurs to me that hipsters can go back to the future, as it were. Can’t you consciously mark yourself out as being “slightly different” by going FORWARD too? Reject print media and traditional TV, pay for as much as possible with your smartphone, quantify yourself with a wrist-mounted wearable, and (as a final frontier, perhaps) slap on a head-mounted device that has been compared to both Geordi La Forge’s VISOR and to humans being assimilated into the Borg in the Star Trek universe?
I call it conspicuous digitalisation. Those are people buying and using technology, not as a utility, but as a fashion choice. There’s nothing wrong with that and tens of billions of dollars can and will be made.
But because Digital Hipsters are buying these things primarily to be ‘slightly different,’ it also means that they will never go mainstream. As I have said elsewhere, there are ubiquitous technologies. In the developed world, nearly 100% of the population has access to all of PCs, TVs, smart phones and tablets.
If Glass is indeed the 21st century monocle, it will never appeal to 100% of people, and will be limited to a mass-niche of 10-20%, at most.