Facebook’s glasses: an unusually bad idea

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SvD Näringsliv

This column was first published in SvD Näringsliv, in Swedish, on September 11th, 2021.

A new book about Facebook describes a company that puts growth above everything else. When they now release a pair of sunglasses with a built-in camera, it enhances the image of a company that wants to be everything, for everyone, at almost any price.

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, sat in her conference room and received bad news. It did not rhyme very well with the name of this particular room – “Only Good News”.

Facebook’s head of security, Alex Stamos, had just informed their board that Russia’s influence on the US election in 2016 was much greater than they first thought. Sandberg was angry and shouted at Stamos that he threw her under the bus in front of the board. It seemed to be a bigger issue than the Russian disinformation itself.

This and much more can be read about in a new book about Facebook, which was published in Swedish this week. “An Ugly truth” is the result of hundreds of interviews conducted by New York Times journalists Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang. The book paints a picture of a company that, in its quest to grow and connect all the inhabitants of the world, has missed the mark on several occasions. And this without necessarily learning much from that process. The back cover of the book has a long list of public excuses that Sandberg and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have had to make in recent years.

The timing is therefore comical as Facebook on Thursday released its new hardware product – a pair of sunglasses with a built-in camera, made together with the Ray-Ban brand.

The idea may sound strange, but it’s not new to Silicon Valley. Snap released a pair of similar sunglasses, Spectacles, already in 2016. Several versions have come since then. A couple of years before that, Google came up with an early version, but which essentially had the same idea – Google Glass. It’s a kind of smart camera that you carry on your face. The difference now is that you probably won’t notice when someone is wearing the Facebook version. Discretion is the point. Bearers of Google Glass were laughed at because they looked so strange.

It’s hard not to make comparisons between Facebook’s history and this new product. As so often, there are two things happening in parallel.

First, there is a technical product that enables things that were previously difficult to accomplish. Like allowing all the people of the world to communicate with each other, pretty freely. Secondly, there are consequences of using this product, which Facebook has not always thought through before launching it.

This has been the case with everything from the selection of news that is displayed in the users’ news feed, to what is now in practice a hidden camera that people will carry on their noses. According to reviews, it works well. But one wonders if the consequences of the product are completely well thought out, and at least clear enough for their immediate physical surroundings?

This, combined with Facebook’s long history of data that has often been inadvertently shared, portrays a company that has a self-image that does not always match that of the world around it. Although the technology is impressive in itself – how many people want Facebook to be the ones providing it?

We already have a well-documented – and surveilled – society with mobile phones and security cameras in every corner. Getting tens of thousands of new Facebook cameras on people’s faces is probably not something that everyone is looking forward to.

This column was first published in SvD Näringsliv, in Swedish, on September 11th, 2021.

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