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

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.