A bleak visit to San Francisco’s ‘Google Glass bar’
Back in February, social media guru Sarah Slocum was allegedly attacked for wearing Google Glass in a bar in San Francisco. She called it a “hate crime.” After the story went viral, other people who were at the bar came forward offering conflicting accounts of what happened, saying that she instigated people by filming them without asking permission.
Then Slocum released a longer video, in which she called people at the bar white trash, and it became clear that the whole story was—at the very least—way more complicated than she originally let on.
After the incident, and to respond to the anti-tech backlash that’s swept the city, a few bars in San Francisco banned Google Glass. Taking the opposite approach, the Stanford Court Hotel—a former Marriott that remodeled itself in 2013 to coddle to the booming tech industry after almost going bankrupt a few years prior—started offering free drinks to anyone wearing the superfluous $1,500 face computer.
“The complimentary drink is geared toward the local tech crowd who own a pair, and might feel like an outcast or nuisance due to the recent string of negative press,” explained a hotel spokesperson to SF Gate. “[We] want them to feel at home.”
I figured this bar would offer a bleak glimpse of what the world might look like in 5-10 years, should “wearables” invade. I headed over at happy hour on a Thursday.
The Stanford Court Hotel sits castle-like on the apex of Nob Hill. The castle metaphor isn’t a hyperbolic stretch: On the high-walled south side of the place there’s actually a defensive tower. I wondered if those standing guard would dump boiling oil on any non-tech peasants, should they storm the fortress demanding breadcrumbs.
The entrance is concrete and cavernous, like a parking garage, or to extend the castle metaphor, it functions sort of like a barbican. At first I wasn’t sure if it was the correct entrance, but noticed a cement fountain in the center, and some bored valets, so I moseyed in. I was initially worried they’d stop me—I had biked there, uphill, from my apartment in the Mission, and had sweat through my shirt.
Walking in the door, there was a welcome mat with #GDBYE, which stands for either “goodbye” or “god boye.” If the former is true, then it was facing the wrong way, saying “goodbye” to everyone entering. There were iPads at the front desk, sitting vertically in stands, that read “#hello.” I thought these were odd design touches that fundamentally misunderstood the point of hashtags.
The lobby was crowded with pilots and flight attendants. Above, there was a faux-stained glass dome—the glass was painted different primary colors. Toto’s “Hold The Line” played over the lobby’s speakers. An electric motorcycle was parked next to a sign that read “take charge.” There were Macs lined up along a window that looked out into the entrance area, their screensavers flashing images of the hotel rooms, I suppose in case guests forgot what their rooms looked like.
I walked to the bar, passing a couch with pillows that read CTRL, ALT, DEL. I wondered what these pillows signify—perhaps the couch freezes often?—and snapped a photo. I briefly considered flipping the pillows out of order, to see if anyone noticed.
The bar was quiet. Nobody was wearing Google Glass. A Warriors game was ending on a flatscreen TV at the far end of the bar. In front of it sat a 50-something tourist couple. Three chairs up from them a 30-someting guy pecked at his laptop, and on the other end two women sat drinking white wine and talking loudly but incomprehensibly. The only thing I could make out was when one of them said, “Have you ever watched ‘Devil Wears Prada’?”
I sat down between the tourist couple and the guy on his laptop, who was apparently locked out. He kept trying different passwords, hitting enter, watching the screen shake to say “no,” and then letting out a long sigh.
I ordered a beer from a tired, middle-aged bartender, a Big Daddy, which cost $7.61. In my neighborhood you could get it for $5 outside of happy hour. As he filled the glass I noticed they had Vodka on tap.
The tourist couple next to me sat quietly, definitively not the kind of people the hotel was hoping to draw, digging through the dish of assorted nuts in front of them with their fingers, picking out the M&Ms. The wife—dressed like a mannequin from Chicos—sipped her red wine, as the husband—sneakers with high athletic socks, jeans and a windbreaker—waited for her to finish, empty beer glass in front of him.
He spoke to me after I ordered, in a Sam Elliott baritone. “Big Daddy, huh? Ever had that before?”
“Yeah,” I replied.
“Where’s it from?”
He thought about this for a moment, then looked as his wife, satisfied. “Must be a local or something.”
A long moment passed.
“Big Daddy,” he repeated to himself.
The guy to my left suddenly slammed his MacBook shut, and crossed the bar to the CTRL-ALT-DEL couch, where he was charging his phone at a nearby outlet.
I sat and drank.
The bartender replaced the peanut dish in front of the tourists with another full container.
“That’s just what we need,” the guy said sardonically.
It suddenly occurred to me that the bartender never offered me a dish of nuts. I thought about complaining—what, you think I’m too sweaty for some assorted nuts?
The laptop guy returned, opened his computer, furiously tried a few more passwords, and then angrily asked the bartender to change the TV channel. The game had ended, and players were being interviewed.
“What do you want to watch?”
“Anything, I don’t care, just a game. As much as I love watching interviews,” he said.
Only a few seconds after the channel was changed for him, he closed his laptop, and wandered off to one of the Macs in the lobby. He sat in one of the awkward spherical beanbag chairs, that were too low to the ground and made him look like a 6-year-old at the wheel of a large automobile. He immediately visited Espn.com and scrolled through, bored.
I texted my friend: “This bar is the opposite of fun.”
A fly circled and then landed in my beer.
The entire trip seemed like a bust. It was just a boring hotel bar. But right as I was about to leave, someone with Google Glass confidently walked by. I actually shook my head in disbelief.
The guy was dressed in the moneyed beatnik wardrobe of Steve Jobs, blue jeans and a black turtleneck. His hair was well-trimmed and gelled. He immediately asked the bartender for his free drink. He introduced himself to the bartender as “James.” He kept saying “very cool” to everything.
The bartender placed a dish of nuts in front of him. “Very cool.”
James asks if many people with Glass show up. “Not really, not since that meetup thing last month.”
“But that Google Glass woman, she was there.”
The bartender went on about the tech meetup, saying that one of the people there let him try on the glasses. “It was…”
The bartender explained that they briefly had a surge of people wearing Glass, before it slowly tapered out to just tourists and tired business travelers.
The bartender returned to work, leaving James alone.
I considered attempting to videotape James with my phone, to see if he’d complain. Instead, I creepily watched him. There sat our potential dystopic future.
He sipped his beer, then took his phone out. He looked at his phone through his Glass, then glanced up at the TV, then stared off into space, sort of nodding, scrolling through whatever was on his Glass. Then he emotionlessly looked at his phone again, then back to the TV, then back to the Glass.
A funk song called “Holidays” by Miami Horror played over the bar, the kind of song that would be used in a cliche tech commercial, featuring people skydiving or catching up with their kids while on a business trip or winning a hot air balloon race.
He continued: Phone, Glass, TV. Glass, TV, Phone. TV, Phone, Glass. Phone, TV, Glass.
People who wear Google Glass—”explorers” or “glassholes” depending on who you’re talking to—often can’t understand why most people seem to reject this new, amazing technology. That if only people understood how great it was, they wouldn’t stand in the way of progress.
Watching the guy at the bar keyed in to three screens simultaneously, and then looking at the man across the lobby on the Mac now scrolling through Facebook, and three other people looking down at their phones in the lobby, it occurred to me that this alleged lack of understanding is grossly incorrect. Our fears about wearables aren’t about a strange, unfamiliar technology encroaching on our simple, Luddite world. Unless you’re exceptionally wealthy, you no longer have the luxury of being a disconnected Luddite. We all understand new tech very well. We live amongst it.
Almost every moment of our lives is now connected, recorded, and commoditized. Our information is freely sold to third parties, essentially without our consent, to help build detailed profiles about us to more efficiently sell us products we don’t need. We wake up every morning with thousands of things yelling at us in all-caps, demanding our attention, our bodies exhausted from trying to keep up with the never-waning demands of our toys. Almost everything we read is aggressively maximal—it’s all amazing and hilarious and the best ever and we won’t believe what happened next and it’s served in bite-sized morsels so we can hurry on to the next thing. We’re cocaine-addicted to the little rushes we get when we pull our phones out of our pockets and see that someone’s liked or shared or starred or retweeted or regrammed or reblogged or revined or repinned or screenshot our snap or or or or or or
As I left the hotel, walking across the welcome mat that wished me #GDBYE, through a crowd of gawking tourists who were snapping selfies despite the fact that they weren’t alone, it was apparent that Google Glass isn’t some scary, new authoritarian technology nobody understands. It’s just another step slightly deeper into a world we’re very familiar with and repulsed by.
Image: SF Gate