They kind of look like something out of one of those Japanese invention books, but despite blogger snickering and criticism that the cyborg glasses developed by a professor at the University of Tsukuba are creepy as all hell, they could become frighteningly useful in the future.
“Rather than focus on what the owner sees, Professor Hirotaka Osawa’s [prototype] shows computer-generated eye animations in place of the wearer’s real ones,” Leo Kelion explained in a story for the BBC . “Special lenses let the user see out or take a secret nap if they prefer. The professor said the glasses could be used to simulate emotional reactions when users are distracted or busy.”
They look almost as ridiculous as the toilet-paper-roll hat. But although Osawa acknowledges that they look silly, others, such as University College London professor Nadia Berthouze, have suggested that the glasses could be used to help people from Western and Eastern cultures better understand each other’s emotional states, Kelion wrote.
Osawa says that his creation might help lighten the load of “emotional labor,” a term coined by University of California, Berkeley, sociologist A.R. Hochschild, in her 1983 book The Managed Heart: the Commercialization of Human Feeling. Emotional labor, according to Hochschild, is “a veneer of politeness that is necessary for a job, but can be stressful and detrimental to the worker’s mental health.”
University of Illinois at Chicago professor Sharon H. Mastracci, Ph.D., further explains the concept:
“You must swallow your irritation—separate yourself emotionally from the situation—in other to do your job. Similarly, without the emotional labor, the intimidated prison guard, the judgmental social worker, the panicky 911 operator and the empathetic bill collector fail to do their jobs.”
Osawa’s glasses can “express emotions at times when the user is too busy or tired to do so,” he says, for such professions that require a lot of interaction with the public.
These days, it’s not only flight attendants and social workers who are expected to expend a great deal of emotional energy on the job; it’s waiters, waitresses and coffee shop “baristas” who despite their modest pay are expected to behave as though public service is the thrill of their lives.
“The term can apply to work in a variety of professions, from escorts to doctors, but it is most often used in reference to the sort of attitude management which occurs in low-wage service sector jobs,” Ned Resnikoff wrote for MSNBC. “Josh Eidelson and Timothy Noah recently discussed two prominent examples in articles for The Nation and The New Republic. ….
In The Nation, Eidelson highlights Starbucks’ famous ‘come together’ cups as a perfect example of emotional labor. When the CEO of Starbucks required that DC area employees write ‘come together’ on every paper Starbucks cup served until the fiscal cliff negotiations were over, writes Eidelson, he was forcing those workers to ‘act out a part—from speaking from a company script, to smiling despite verbal abuse or physical pain, to urging that Congress embrace a deal that could imperil their retirement.”
Writing for The New Republic, Noah described the tyranny of chumminess at London-based restaurant chain Pret a Manger:
“Pret doesn’t merely want its employees to lend their minds and bodies; it wants their souls, too. It will not employ anyone who is ‘here just for the money.’”
Noting the company’s requirements of so-called “Pret behaviors” — that employees have “presence,” “create a sense of fun,” and are “happy with themselves,” Noah points out that the level of compassionate engagement required of nurses and undertakers “served (legitimately or not) identifiable emotional needs. That’s not true at Pret. Fast-food service is not one of the caring professions. The only imperatives typically addressed in a Pret shop are hunger and thirst. Why must the person who sells me a cheddar and tomato sandwich have ‘presence’ and ‘create a sense of fun’?”
Certainly, management forcing employees to feign joy while performing minimum (or nearly) wage service is nothing new.
When I was a waitress in the 1990s, I was ordered to greet every nonemployee I passed at the San Francisco restaurant I worked in with eye contact and a dementedly cheerful, “Hi! How are you?”At another waitressing job (coincidentally, another brew pub), my manager decided it would be a fun perk for our “guests” if the servers gave free tours of the brewery during our shifts and explained to them how beer is made.
It wasn’t easy to get a good job back then, which is why I complied with those requests for cheerful dementia, but it’s surely more difficult now. My fear is that the waitrons of today and tomorrow will suffer far more insulting fates than I did. How difficult is it now to get and keep a service job? How many beer-brewing seminars are college kids expected to provide while running out hundreds of plates of potato skins and pitchers to keep their minimum-wage gigs?
I’m not the only one with this ominous view of present and future service:
“The more the rich get used to fawning service, the more the rest of us—or rather, the rest of us who can afford to buy a sandwich rather than brown-bag it from home—find we rather like it, too,” Noah wrote. “Eventually everybody will have to act like a goddamned concierge. I don’t want to believe this, but I fear it may be true.”
A pair of glasses that would’ve enabled me to feign a sense of fun as I picked up people’s dirty plates and soiled napkins admittedly might have been pretty useful in my waitron days. But the easier it becomes for service employees — or anyone — to opt for fake over real emotion, the less in touch with emotion we will be. Technology such as this therefore has just as much potential to increase social retardation as it does to decrease it.
One scenario in Osawa’s video has him pretending to be engaged with a passerby despite actually staring down at his phone. As far into the future as a usable version of this kit might be, the possibility of decreasing social engagement even further is, frankly, terrifying. We see people all around us staring at their phones every day. The less need for engagement, the less there will be. The last thing we need is another layer in our social masks.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.