I have notes about the history of wearable tech from readings in multiple notebooks which I’m in the process of compiling here.
Notes from Wissinger Wearable Tech, Bodies, and Gender:
1|Wearable Technology: Geek or Chic?
While 2014, 2015, and 2016 have been declared, separately, “the year of wearable technology”, wearable technology (WT) has been around since the 1960’s, “the idea of ever more intimate interfaces between humans and machines has long lurked in the metaphorical backstory of studies in communication, philosophy, science and technology studies, feminism, and sociology”(Wissinger, p. 1-2). Wearable technology has for decades brought into question a number of issues involving technology and bodies, technology and gender, and technology and identity to name a few. What happens to those relationships when wearable technology is interconnected to consumerism and data control?
From the beginning, wearable technology was bulky, awkward to wear, and at times detrimental to the wearer’s body. Wearable technology has come a long way from its bulky origins, devices today have increased wearability because of the dramatic reduction in size, and most have taken on sleek, clean designs. There have been several unsuccessful attempts by the fashion industry to combine fashion and technology (fashion and function). While the definition of ‘wearable technology’ is continuously changing, they generally fit into one of these categories: e-textiles and garments, connected biosensing devices, and wearable computers (Wissinger, p.2).
2| Fashion Studies: Computational Chic or Critique?
Beginning in the early 2000’s, fashion studies took wearable technology “beyond its long standing role as philosophical trope for the metaphysical analysis of the human machine interface into the lived world of fashion practice” (Wissinger, p.3). The classification of wearable technology as techno futurist and lack of critical research on wearable technology in fashion has lead to the idea and production of writing that “clothing becoming computerized, rather than computers becoming clothing” (Wissinger, p.3). A few designers have, more recently, been an exception and have built a framework of theoretical and critical reflections through “research through design”. While this is a positive direction, Susan Elizabeth Ryan is concerned with the tendency to consider technology as benign and apolitical as the use of active digital technologies in wearables on the body is on the rise. “The technoscientific dream of leaving the flesh behind, of turning the body into code, feeds all too easily into the idea of body as data, a slippery slope that leads to conceiving the body as pliable, manipulable, and fully controllable” (Wissinger, p. 4). Building on this idea, health, has been a major influence of new wearable technology as a way to reach optimal health through the use of technology. The study and use of self-tracking and the quantified self moves away from fashion studies, this ‘more scientific’ approach to wearable technology brings up issues of control, and power over the body.
3| Ubiquitous Computing and the Roots of Wearable Tech: Do Posthumans Dream of Cyborg Sheep?
Techno-utopian notions of technology enhancing humans through mental augmentation has been explored for some time. The jump from the idea of mental augmentation to physical enhancement of the human flesh through wearable technology is not a difficult one. The normality of fitness devices and apps today can be traced back to the developments from Steve Mann, along side MIT researchers, a pioneer in human-machine intermingling. “Mann and colleagues encapsulated their hope for human empowerment and protection in their conception of the oft cited notion of “souveillance” an inverse form of surveillance designed to counter organizational surveillance” (Wissinger, p.5). Using technology and data to control the body concerned feminist theorists while others, such as Judith Butler, Lisa Cartwright, and Donna Haraway, saw a possibility for the disruption in the traditional categorizations of gender, sex, body and mind. In 1984, author William Gibson coined the term ‘cyberspace’ to describe a virtual realm which was decidedly different from the ‘meatspace’ of the body. While Butler, Cartwright, and Haraway communicated optimistic notions of the biological body intermingling with technology, their literature spurred the debates of today about the ethical and social ramifications in communication and social science studies. “Claims that data gathering can offer empowerment are met with cautionary tales of wearable technologies that convert data into the new “oil,” a potentially endless renewable resource rooted in human biology and interaction (Palmer, 2006)” (Wissinger, p.5).
4| Social Science and Communication: My Data My Self-QSERS as Unwitting Cyborgs
The Quantified Self movement, knowing and improving yourself through personal data collection and monitoring, was made possible because of the promotion of neoliberal ideals and the fascination with data in the mid-2000s. Self-management in the name of health and wellness is not a new practice as it existed before technology, however, the debate about who owns the data and how it can be used is discussed in social science and communication realms. “Will technological entanglement with systems that quantify and render the body as data, empower or imprison humans?” (Wissinger, p. 6). Deborah Lupton’s work on the Quantified Self, although mostly discouraging, spans broad considerations including surveillance, biopolitics, biopower, and the negative implications on race, class, and gender. Lupton’s work on bringing in Michel Foucault’s ideas on panoptic surveillance is very interesting to me and I’ll be adding more of my research in this area soon. “Lupton also identifies culturally significant neoliberal forces rewarding self-mastery to produce an optimized, lean, and productive body as a key element in the moral imperative to self-track (Wissinger, p.7). Lupton and other authors write about concerns of free labour from unburdened users ie. no social ills such as poverty, living with a metal health condition, or residing in a remote community and under the presumption that the users also have smartphones or computers which usually leaves out a portions of the population such as the elderly, poor, and sick. These users are often viewed as “opting-in” to allow their data to be used and dispersed commercially, however, “opting-out” may not be an easy option, if an option at all. Having said this, there may be hope from those whose data is discounted, categorized as a ‘soft resistance’, through the practice of “ultraindividualized data practices” which interfere with “algorithmic logics” (Wissinger, p. 8). What should also be considered here is how this data effects the ways in which we look at ourselves and others. (Although I am included in the ‘unburdened user’ classification, the wearables I’m imagining and creating consciously opt-out of the larger data collection community and commercial structure in that they are being created as soft-solutions to my individual/personal wants and needs in response to COVID19/isolation/social distancing etc. I am negotiating my position as some where between part of the “Quantified Self movement” and a nonconformist whose data will not count in the big data corporate economy.)
5| Media Studies: The Machines are Watching
The lens of viewing ourselves created by self-quantification and the data gathered is a significant aspect for media study scholars to consider. Jill Walker Rettberg, communication scholar, believes that visual culture such as self portraits to selfies is a data driven practice as well, and should be considered as part of the exploration of the feminized practices of self-knowledge. Rettberg asks “How can we create a balance between using our machines to see ourselves and being forced to be seen by machines” (Wissinger, p. 8). Isabel Pedersen’s 2013 book Ready to Wear (I have this on order), considers wearables somewhere in the middle of “media you carry”, and “media you become” (Wissinger p. 9 quoting Pedersen p. 4). Pedersen believes in critiquing technology before it becomes mainstream, in her book she considers Katherine Hayles, post humanist, description of “technogenesis”, an idea in which technology and humans coexist looking critically towards the future. This idea threads through her discussion of technology as currently existing between two logics, techno-utopia and techno-enslavement. For these reasons Pedersen pushes to assess prototypes and devices at their inception rather than waiting for mass adoption. (The idea of technology existing between the two logics of techno-utopia and techno-enslavement is the backbone of my work and what I’ve been referring to as negotiation. Quote from my Art Now Artist Talk “Im interested in the disruption, and the control wearable technology has over our bodies, and the negotiations we enter when using them.”)
“…self-trackers engage these tools with some ambivalence, admitting a wish both to take charge of themselves and to delegate that task, burdensome and confounding as it is, to data technology; they speak of feeling cared for by the automated interventions of their devices and released from hard-to-meet demands for self-regulation (Wissinger quoting Dow Schull, 2017).” Since Silicon Valley is dominated by men, wearable tech for women is often designed based on biases about what women want and what society wants them to be. Is “FemTech”, tracking apps created by women for women, an answer to these structural issues? More research is required in this field. “Coming innovations in wearables in particular, and body machine interfaces more generally, will enter the market amidst these existing contradictions and ambivalences” (Wissinger, p. 10).
What does the next iteration of human machine interface look like? Biological sensing, Biological technology, an unveiling of fabric laced with heat and humidity sensing bacteria reacting to the user’s sweat and body heat which in turn alerts a network or parent company gives a glimpse of the possibilities.
In 1966, Edward Thorp, a man so adept at card counting that he’d been barred from Las Vegas casinos, teamed up with Claude Shannon, an MIT professor who worked on cryptography and code-breaking during World War II, to create what is considered by many to be the first wearable computer. Thorpe and Shannon announced their invention; a small, four-button device strapped around the waist with toe and earpieces used to predict roulette wheels. This device gave Thorpe an edge in casinos, but there were drawbacks. Its visibility was difficult to hide as the earpiece, although painted flesh colour, was clearly noticeable and the fragile condition of the thin wires meant it needed to be soldered several times while at the casino. The progress of WT continued over the next decade, but no real significant developments took place until the 80s and 90s. (note to self: find notes on Stelarc)
Ideas from the 1980’s and 1990’s from techno-utopianists imagined wearable technology as a tool to enhance the body, used to overcome any shortcomings the human body may have. In 1984, William Gibson coined the term ‘Cyberspace’ to describe a virtual realm separate fro ‘meatspace’ of the body (note to self: source?). Another key contributor to WT is inventor Steve Mann, considered “the father of wearable computing.” Mann believed that technology was a tool for humans to use rather than a tool for using you.
In 1996 a workshop called “Wearables in 2005’ was sponsored by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency – they defined wearable computing as ‘data gathering and disseminating devices are carried or worn by the user during normal execution of his/her tasks”.
Hrga, Iztok. “Wearable Technologies: Between Fashion, Art, Performance, and Science (Fiction).” Tekstilec 62, no. 2 (2019).
Wissinger, Elizabeth. “Wearable Tech, Bodies, and Gender.” Sociology Compass 11, no. 11 (2017)