Google Glass, SciFi, Robert Heinlein & the Fair Witness Effect

| John Martellaro's Blog

Robert Heinlein

The science fiction writer Robert Heinlein (1907-1988), in his legendary novel, "Stranger in a Strange Land," introduced the concept of the "Fair Witness." A Fair Witness was an expert observer with a perfect memory whose testimony in court was unimpeachable. When you think about it, that's what Google Glass offers.

Recently, I wrote about how new technologies, especially one like Google Glass, often generate cultural pushback before they're finally adopted. It takes time, but a cultural shift finally occurs. Google Glass is one of those disruptive technologies because, as it becomes more widely adopted, the comfortable anonymity of people in public is slowly eroded.

On the other hand, the technology also has benefits that come to be appreciated in time. Imagine this citizen dialog with the police after a convenience store robbery.

"Did you get the license plate?"

"Sorry no."

"What kind of car did he drive away in?"

"Sorry, I don't remember." "

What did the guy look like?"

"I don't remember. Kinda big."

"Did he have a gun?"

"Dunno. I was running away."

If the observer had been one of Robert Heinlein's Fair Witnesses, lots of detailed information would have been provided, perhaps enough to quickly identify and track down the robber. The court testimony by the witness would be unassailable.

Another advantage is that passers by, who really don't want to talk about what they saw, become superfluous.  As in the purse snatching scene below.

Later, she'll play back the video of the incident in court for all to see.

An unimpeachable witness, a "Fair Witness," is what anyone with Google Glass becomes. A human being can proclaim, "I saw such and such happen. GPS records prove I was there. Here's the video recording of what I saw."

That kind of testimony could be a game changer in our society. The convenient anonymity of criminals or people manifesting dicey behavior is no longer possible, indeed tolerated. Instead, it's replaced by the public record of the facts, observed by all -- or many. Many people will resist that cultural change, but the benefits may well hold sway in the long run.

We've already seen the effects when, in some cases, citizen with smartphone video cameras record an encounter between policemen and a suspect. Sometimes, self-conscious police have sought to confiscate the smartphone, even with the photographer was standing on her own private property. That practice is coming under more and more public scrutiny.

You Lookin' at me?

New and disruptive technology can have far reaching social effects. Robert Heinlein thought it was a good idea to have unimpeachable witnesses in society to counterbalance the effects of government tyranny or the spread of hysterical, false claims or accusations. It's a concept worth pondering in our current times.

And those alien spacecraft? They'll have to be a lot more careful now.


Credits: R. Heinlein via Unmuseum. Purse snatch via Shutterstock. Google Glass in mirror via Joshua Topolsky.

Popular TMO Stories



I have long been a fan of Heinlein’s writing. He was born in Butler, MO not far from Kansas City, where I am now, and his classic Stranger In A Strange Land was published in 1961, the same year I was born. I have read just about all his books, and especially like his later stuff when he began to reflect the change in mores during the 60’s. His Fair Witnesses always reminded me of Notary Publics, just for life events, not documents. But I think even he would have a problem with Google Glass.

1984 posited a world where our every move was seen and noticed by Big Brother. What Google Glass suggests is a world where WE are Big Brother, using the content of our personal video recording to bear witness against each other. A decentralized Big Brother that, because it is all of us, is incorruptible and unswayable. I’ve often foreseen a world where crime no longer makes sense, because there would be too many ways of finding the truth. It seems we’re almost there, with DNA evidence freeing some prisoners and damning others, dash-cam video protecting some citizens from the police, and personal cell phone and surveillance video leading to the arrest of bombers. Our car GPS units are now able to bear silent witness to our whereabouts.

I have to confess, I’m an honest man and this still bothers me. Am I alone?


You are not alone because the potential is great for abuse. Any technology can be used to evil purposes. Anyone who thinks that local or federal law enforcement or government doesn’t do this sort of thing needs to tune into the news.

Now, consider someone who is determined to do you harm. Aren’t there potential ways to use Google Glass for someone in or out of civil authority to accomplish an “unimpeachable” false witness against you?

Someone needs to develop personal video jammers to scramble the Glass wearer’s image.


I think John is trying really, really hard to like Google Glass.  Quite frankly, I find this level of social scrutiny somewhat disturbing.  If it becomes publicly ubiquitous, then we will have no ground to stand on when the “authorities” watch our every move.

I find this to be similar to the TV show, ‘Person of Interest.’  It’s a good show, but the ideas behind it are being promoted as ‘a good thing,’ and ‘in our own best interests.’  It’s never in anyone’s best interest to be constantly watched.


Then why not put a lot of cameras on every street corner? Inside every bar, restaurant, office and, why not, every home?
So we’ll be sure to capture every evil deed ever to be committed by anyone and to prevent other deeds by inspiring fear to be always observed by someone.

Wait… wasn’t there a novel some time ago with a similar premise? What was it called? I think it was kind of a number.. maybe a date? wink



To suggest that better witnessing reduces crime is to misunderstand the impact of technology.  Heinlein wrote a story where he could make a point, he did not try to suggest that he was proposing a Universal Truth.  New technology may reduce current types of crime, but it also opens up new sorts of crime, such as deliberate false witnessing by hacking a video file, or bribing a court to ignore new information.  Crime will move forward in parallel with technology.  We end up with an “arms race” where at some points in time the criminals are ahead and other moments where they are behind as far as technology goes.  Major reductions in crime are more about society than technology, and how we interpret rights and freedoms and tolerate or punish behaviour.  There are plenty of examples where an action can be a crime in one place and completely legal in another.  Suggesting that the internet, google glass or any other technology is somehow going to ensure “freedom” or “reduce crime” is a view that fails to take in the larger context and shows that our view is very time and location limited.  We simply don’t know enough to make these statements until it is too late.  The internet has brought a lot of benefits and made campaigns for justice and environmental issues possible, but it has also been a major tool for organised crime and for oppression of dissent in some places.  Google glass may well follow the same route.  Which is not a reason to dismiss or criticise, just a contextual issue.  Trying to categorise a technology as good or bad must take into account a lot more factors than initially meets the eye.


“What was it called? I think it was kind of a number.. maybe a date?”[/quote}
The same year the very first Mac came on the market. I still have one.



Lancashire Witch

I’m with Russell, who is more eloquent than I am.

I am not convinced that video recording is a major contribution to law and order.  Video cameras first appeared in my home town in the late 1970s .. 20 years later my wife would not venture into town alone at night.

As my English teacher used to say - in the library you will find Science Fiction filed under “Fiction” not “Science”.


John Martellaro needs a reality injection. One every decade.

1963 Dallas, Fair Witness was there—the Feds lost the shirt and dumped the car in the Atlantic.
The CIA officer who jumped on the car said last year Mrs K was saving bone parts four feet from JFK head—perfect for a frontal shot but difficult to explain from a top back shot!

1972 White House,  Fair Witness was there except for the 15 minutes lost!

1980’s California, Fair Witness was there the cops had the trial in KKK land and got off scot free.

2013 One extra: The State of Disunion, Fair Witness bound, gagged, blindfolded and water boardered. Oh that’s what happened to the Stranger in a strange land!!    See –

Enough but you may know of more Fair Witness discarded evidence.

Google has stolen everything in Android and you want them to be custodians of Fair Witness.
In Germany Google said low grade technicians unauthorised to modify Wi-Fi addresses collected data for Google’s computers to digest! There was no motive for the techies but tons for Google and you want a criminal corporation to be the guardian of Fair Witness—YOUR INSANE!!

Google Glass is a spying device and humans are the pawns.  The story you should be referencing is the British TV show of the 1960’s ‘The Prisoner’!

Brooks Rowlett

Doesn’t do any good if the crook also steals the glasses….


The Fair Witness in Stranger in a Strange Land was called in on occasion robe a mute witness to an event.  A Fair Witness would provide a wide range of details from height and weight to scent and sound. The Witness did not draw conclusions, just provided impartial, highly trained observation. Google glass is no more than a surveillance camera really.

Suhail Rafidi

Big Brother does not become a good thing just because you’re doing it yourself.


what if your pda or pc hacked u cant trust it as an evidence
So if your pc-glasses been hacked u cant say i saw a ghost or daemon

Suhail Rafidi 1

GG is nothing like the Fair Witness. In a world as technological as Heinlein’s, it was a very important distinction that the Fair Witness was an impartial, sober, real life, human being. Consulting a Fair Witness is not playing back a recording, which, as soon as it becomes a recording, is up for grabs to be doctored by anyone with access to the network in which it is housed.

Log in to comment (TMO, Twitter or Facebook) or Register for a TMO account