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Bloody Visions: What Would the Boston Bombing Look Like in the Google Glass Era?

Some critics complain about graphic images while authorities plead to the public for more video, showing how the surveillance culture can be both scourge and savior.

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John Tlumacki / Boston Globe / Getty Images

A man comforts a woman on the sidewalk at the scene of the first explosion near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon, April 15, 2013.

Another tragedy, another media debate about whether the images of tragedy have gone too far. This time, the debate is not just about what TV networks, print outlets, or mainstream-media websites choose to show but what everybody else does: the ugly pictures, snapped by bystanders and spread instantly in social media, of victims with limbs blown off, bleeding into the street, possibly dying before our eyes.

But while media critics debate whether all the Vine’d and Instragrammed images of bloodshed are desensitizing and exploitative, a second, opposite story is unfolding: authorities investigating the bombing are pleading for members of the public to come forward with more photos and videos from the scene—anything that might offer a clue as who planted the bombs, when and how.

Any crowd like the one in Boston is now a massive surveillance organism. As I wrote after a controversy over a picture of a man about to die in a New York subway accident, we have become Homo documentis, Man the Recorder. It’s almost unimaginable that a spectacular public attack could take place and the perpetrator not be captured, somewhere in the gigabytes upon gigabytes of digital keepsakes.

And the twin reactions to the amateur images from Boston—whether there were too many after the bombing, whether there were enough from before—perfectly illustrates how our increasing cyborg ability to capture everything we see can be both scourge and savior. Pictures from amateur photojournalists in Boston may have invaded privacy, horrified us, and made accidental viewers feel violated. And other pictures from amateur photojournalists may, if we’re lucky enough, bring someone to justice.

It’s notable that all this is happening today, as Google has sent out the first, early-adopter models of Google Glass. The wearable computers raised privacy alarms before they even hit the streets, getting banned in advance from casinos, bars, and strip clubs. Google’s own promo video for the glasses imagines–albeit more positively–a wonderland of constant documentation: young, happy users (“The old won’t get it,” sings the soundtrack) recording a life of upscale pleasures like hot-air ballooning, piloting, and horse jumping.

It looks incredibly cool, even before whatever apps the app-magi dream up to take advantage of it. And yet you don’t have to be a complete cynic to wonder whether the first killer applications may be for, say, the myriad collectors of online upskirt shots.

Google isn’t blind to that, of course; it published a Glass FAQ, which cautions against driving or biking with Glass against local laws (though the promo video involves both biking and plane flying) and cautions, “Always consider your surroundings – just like you would with a cell phone.”

Well, yeah. And are we considerate with cell phones? I’m sure you are! But you can go to a movie opening weekend or restaurant anytime and see how social mores have revolved since the first jackass said “Guess where I’m calling from!” into a brick with an antenna in the 1980s.

Google Glass, or whatever follows it, may indeed rewrite the social contract, redefine privacy, or turn us all, as Gawker bluntly but fairly put it, into assholes. They may unlock potential that my puny imagination can’t even conceive of now. But in some form or another, the technology will come, and it will change, and we will change with it.

Right now, it sounds reasonably conspicuous to record with Google Glass–you have to issue a voice command or touch a button on the rim. Will it always be so with the eventual imitators–smarter, faster, with better storage–a few tech-generations from now? Will our smart-wearables, at some point, be constantly on, running on a buffer so that we can decide to record something minutes after we see it, like you can now with a DVR? At some point, will most of us be, basically, Tivo-ing reality?

It’s all a little exciting, and a little unsettling. But today of all days, you also have to wonder, as tech-pundits like Robert Scoble have: what’s going to happen when something terrible happens–a bomb, a hijacking, a mass shooting–a few years from now, in a world of people wearing computers? There might be an entire cloud-based data bank of recordings that investigators could search to hunt down the murderer.

But it’s probably too much to imagine that it, or any technology, would ever discourage mass murder. When someone kills again, it may be that there will be more eyes on them. That could be a good thing, but not a good without a price. The rest of us may find ourselves, whether we want to see the horrors or not, tied in the cloud to a network of eyes that never close.