On this past Sunday’s episode of The Simpsons, “Specs and the City,” Mr. Burns gives every employee of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant a pair of “Oogle Goggles.” It seems like an unusually generous and savvy gift, but really Mr. Burns just wants to use the devices to watch his employees. You see where this is going.
When Mr. Burns asks Smithers how much his company lost on office supply theft last year, Smithers calculates that it was $7,043. “Yes well,” Mr. Burns replies, “no more of that, thanks to this $26 million surveillance system.”
Homer and all of the feeble-minded power plant employees unsurprisingly become addicted to wearing Oogle Goggles, because the devices give them effortless command of a huge amount of information. But the underlying commentary is about how wearable computers like Google Glass can erode human interactions, especially in person. The characters get so absorbed in information from their devices that they miss things about what’s happening in real life, right in front of them. And people’s vices aren’t cured by wearing Oogle Goggles. Homer, a longtime food addict, is initially grossed out when his Goggles tell him that Krusty Burgers are made of hamster bedding, newspaper inserts, and sand emptied out of bathing suits. But after a moment he shrugs off the factoid and eats his burger.
Throughout The Simpsons, Homer is often depicted as being clueless about using technology. But this innocence regularly allows him to transcend the uses creators have forseen for their technology and get at some new or extreme use. Homer is the everyman so maximally that he uses technology at its logical extreme.
In the December 2000 episode “The Computer Wore Menace Shoes,” for example, Homer gets a website (Homer’s Web Page), loads it with stolen GIFs, has to take it down because of copyright infringement, makes a new Mr. X website where he reveals peoples’ secrets, wins a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting, reveals his identity so he can claim the prize, ruins his ability to collect secrets, makes secrets up including one huge one that turns out to be true, and ends up being abducted and taken to an island for people who “know too much” (a parody of The Prisoner).
Homer is so perpetually innocent about the world that he approaches new technology with virtually no preconceptions. But he isn’t afraid of new devices or intimidated by them, so he ends up using them in reckless and uninhibited ways that allow viewers to explore the extremes of what is best and worst about their societal implications. When it comes to Oogle Goggles, Homer makes Marge angry because he is so obsessed with his new device. He forgets what life is like without them, and goes through withdrawal after she takes them away. Desperate, he goes to Mr. Burns’s office to ask for a new pair and discovers Mr. Burns’s surveillance scheme. But instead of being outraged, he is intrigued by the powerful, all-seeing system and begins spying on Marge as she herself is seduced by the Oogle Goggles.
The point seems to be that as the Internet of things grows, it will be harder and harder for privacy advocates to remain incorruptible. And furthermore, people are already so inured to sharing personal information that they might not even be horrified if they discovered that a person or entity had access to livestreams of everything they were seeing and doing all the time.
But Homer is never a completely tragic figure, and is redeemed in this episode when he realizes that he loves and respects Marge too much to permanently invade her privacy without her knowledge. It seems like a signal that the writers on The Simpsons are hopeful about society’s abilty to productively integrate devices like Google Glass. If someone as stupid as Homer can ultimately come down on the side of privacy, maybe anyone would.