Today, "wearables" are all the rage. What is it that makes wearable technology suddenly so compelling? The proliferation of fashion shows depicting fanciful yet nonfunctional units suggest a purely aesthetic motive inspired by bogus pop culture portrayals of cyborg technology as disconnected from everyday life (the cyborg age is always coming, never here). Which is to say that cyborgs and their true implications for everyday life are being kept sagely in the realm of entertainment and fantasy.
Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility
in the Age of the Wearable Computer
(Randomhouse Doubleday, 2001)
by Steve Mann
30 years ago, Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto, invented wearable computing and has been described as the world's first cyborg with his "digital glass eye" or EyeTap - which looked pretty scary-Terminator at the time. Now it looks pretty tame, erring on the side of ugy and oh-so-commonplace if you happen to run in social circles populated Glassholes and their not-so-secret handshake: "OK, Glass."
But interestingly, with Mann's focus on pursuing technologies in synch with nature, while rejecting those that aren't, this far-forward thinker has been labelled the Cyborg Luddite. "Regardless of how far you want to take the "we are already cyborgs" maxim, clearly in parts of the world cyborg reality pervades," he explains. "When once - in the early 1980's for instance - I was regarded as freakish and bizarre, I am now understood by those who check their email in the back seat of a taxi, make a phone call on the subway, or spend time during their luxury cruise staring down at a laptop." Now, when he walks the streets, the stares he gets are less hostile or more curious. "I am no longer considered an unpredictable sci-fi apparition," he continues. "I am not just another cyborg in possession of advanced cyborg technologies. For better or worse, I have the latest gizmo in a society of people who worship their gizmos." (image)
And worship them we do to the point of obsession:
* 90% of us are never more than 3 feet away from our smartphone...24/7
* 70% of us would quit drinking for a week over giving up the phone for the same period
* 49% of married moms would rather give up their engagement ring than their phone
* 25% would give up sex for a year in order to keep our tablets
(above: a Mann creation from the mid 1980s via source)
Following an exhibition at MIT's List Visual Arts Center in late fall 1997 - The Art of Detection: Surveillance in Society - showcasing Mann's wearable computing inventions from the prior two decades, "there arose of surge of outlanding looking cyber-fashions," he notes. "Models with strange things sticking out of their heads. The rhetoric always going something like "The year is 2030..." with a brief description of what we will be wearing in the future." But what's so interesting about Mann's insight about the way cyberfashions seem to ditch function in order to focus solely on the weird and outlandish form part is that where Mann thinks fashion missed the mark, the fact is fashion probably got it. And Mann, underestimating fashion, missed the memo. For behold, down the most mainstream of mainstream fashion runways strolled the futuristic Frankenstein-looking progeny of Mann's EyeTap at Diane Von Furstenberg for Spring 2013!
As the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm observed in The Age of Extremes:
Why brilliant fashion designers, a notoriously nonanalytic breed, sometimes succeed in anticipating the shape of things to come better than professional predictors, remains one of the most obscure questions in history and, for the historian of culture, one of the most central.