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When Tinfoil Hats Become Fashionable…

Have you yet had the odd, if rather disconcerting, pleasure of walking by somebody wearing Google Glass? It can take a moment to recognize what has just occurred, after all, Glass is not the most obvious accessory, it is more subtle than a pair of sunglasses, and one could easily be forgiven for not noticing them at all.

Though the “Explorer” phase of Glass is currently taking place, that only puts the devices into the hands (or onto the faces of) several thousand people, add to this a certain number of Google employees who have also been given the eyewear and the total number of pairs of Glass actually being worn remains relatively low. While it may be enjoyable to dream up a scenario of what we might do should we see somebody in Glass, for many of us the opportunity has not presented itself.

What to do when that moment comes? Hide your face in your hands to ensure it isn’t photographed? Tell them that Geordi La Forge wore it better? Thank them for violating your privacy? Or feel the spirit of General Ludd course through you and grab the Glass from their faces to demonstrate that the frame breakers of today will be breaking a different kind of frames? Or do you just say to yourself: “what the heck was that person wearing? They looked like an idiot!”

Despite widespread privacy concerns – which are even held by some elected officials – the big question for Glass may have less to do with privacy or functionality and more to do with that last reaction. In other words, will people really want to wear (and be seen wearing) Glass? Will Glass (which was once put on models during fashion week) be perceived as fashionable? A question made only more problematic as – in light of ongoing NSA revelations – privacy may actually become fashionable.

There have been many who have derided the device as “dorky” or “silly looking,” though a cursory look at contemporary fashion may reveal that just because something seems odd looking does not necessarily mean that it will fail to catch on. It seems that many in the tech field are increasingly certain that “wearable tech” represents the future, and this raises a new question: as technology becomes increasingly about fashion will stances such as a concern about privacy also emerge as fashion concerns?

Such is one of the potential takeaways from Jenna Wortham’s recent New York Times article “Stealth Wear Aims to Make a Tech Statement,” which clearly links fashion and panic about privacy, describing how recent events are:

“enough to make countersurveillance fashion as timely and pertinent as any seasonal trend, like midriff tops or wedge sneakers.“

While the article tends to discuss the work of artist/designer Adam Harvey instead of an upcoming line of clothes to be sold at the local mall, it nevertheless has a fascinating if worrisome aspect to it (“seasonal trend” as applied to privacy). Some of the designs discussed in the article (which can also be viewed on Harvey’s website) are meant to make one less visible to aerial surveillance (and potentially to cameras) by cloaking the wearer in reflective metallic cloth, whilst other designs include purses covered in LED lights that could be held up to use the flash of a camera against itself (creating a blinding lens flair). What the article seems to sense is that a tinfoil hat can be made fashionable as long as it’s sold at the right boutique or has the right designer’s logo affixed to it.

Indeed the design statement on Havey’s website is a very amusing read, it at once seems utterly sincere and yet there almost seems to be a certain dastardly Dada aspect to it. The project Stealth Wear, according to the statement is intended:

“to explore the aesthetics of privacy and the potential for fashion to challenge authoritarian surveillance.”

and the collection

“is a vision for fashion that addresses the rise of surveillance, the power of those who surveil, and the growing need to exert control over what we are slowly losing, our privacy.”

The fashionable items on view include silvery get-ups from the “Anti-Drone” collection that look as if they could have been inspired by the characters in the background of a post-apocalyptic film, and the sleek silver “OFF Pocket” which apparently: “blocks any and all incoming and outgoing phone signals.” While the “anti-drone” wear may at current be more of a flight of fancy the OFF Pocket may be available soon (it has a website touting an upcoming Kickstarter campaign [with a predicted cost in the range of $100]).

In the aftermath of the recent revelations about the NSA (which in turn may have caused more introspection about the amount of data being harvested by the likes of Google and Facebook), privacy is enjoying a certain vogue that it had largely missed out on before. Yet it is precisely in the possibility of privacy moving from an important social and ethical right (as engrained in the fourth amendment for example) to a fashion statement or consumption choice that privacy may wind up being dealt a far mightier blow than that bestowed by governmental or corporate snooping. For turning privacy solely into a consumer choice (“I keep my phone in an OFFpocket”) or a fashion option (“This shirt? Why yes, it is Stealth Wear!”) dramatically shifts the very grounds on which the debate is taking place. When we find ourselves in a moment where we have to “choose” privacy we are thus in a world in which privacy has been lost, in which the default is “low privacy” (if any).

Thus real discussion and debate about the way that technologies may alter our interaction with public (and private) spaces is redefined to fit narrow personal choices. Do you feel uncomfortable when walking by somebody wearing Google Glass? Well then why not buy a visor that bombards your face with (albeit invisible to you) infrared light that will make your face unrecognizable? What has happened is that this has become purely a tale of individuals: the person choosing to wear Glass, and the person choosing to react with privacy wear, while it fails to put onus on Google for introducing Glass in the first place. We are encouraged to ignore the authoritarian impulses of tech companies so that we can pay greater attention to the authoritarian beauty standards of the fashion industry.

As technology (specifically digital, Internet connected technology) plays an ever more important and larger role in society it is to be expected that various firms would act to fill ethical and security created voids, but in attempting to fill this niche such groups do less to challenge the system than they do to channel discontent and anger into new opportunities for consumption. Thus, the Fairphone (only available in Europe so far) presents consumers with a less morally problematic phone, but does little to challenge larger economic systems. Likewise should privacy become a fashion choice, or something that can be worked around by purchasing a few nifty gadgets, than the larger debate around the value of privacy is rerouted into a sense of: “well, if you’re really so concerned, just buy this.” Or, the value of privacy is transmuted into a price tag, which conveniently confuses “societal values” with “monetary values.”

What also potentially emerges here is the degree to which privacy may emerge as a privilege tied to class, something to be enjoyed only by those who can afford it. Though the clothing found in the “Stealth Wear” collection is not available in any major (or minor) retailers, it seems that high fashion “privacy” gear is almost bound to come with a price tag that shall place it squarely in the region of the privileged pocketbook (even as an argument could certainly be made that in current times possession of some means of Internet access is becoming increasingly an essential). Thus having a phone that is not constantly tracking you (safely ensconced in an “OFFpocket”) and requisite gear become status symbols of a moneyed set, and as such privacy becomes the province of those who can afford it.

Perhaps even more worrisome than the class distinction (one can imagine some concerned tech activist groups disseminating ways to make such items cheaper than a high fashion firm), is the chance that privacy will become just another fashion or lifestyle decision. Like other acts of “ethical consumption” these would once more take the responsibility off of the society and make it all about personal choice – even as the omnipresence of technology in society has greatly limited many of our choices (insofar as “choosing to not use technology” is becoming nearly synonymous with “choosing to drop out of society”).

Privacy as fashion becomes just another trend or subculture, a safe and society sanctioned space for dissent that is tolerated specifically because it does not challenge the larger system. It sets up the Glass wearer and the privacy clothes wearer as both being further evidence of the panoply of consumer identities, even as both continue to fall for the ongoing panoptic con. And like so many other fashionable subcultures it makes valuing privacy just another transient ideology that somebody can dabble in briefly before going back to shrugging at the mention of privacy.

Due to recent events it is increasingly clear that people need to have a more active and attentive engagement with privacy and the idea of what we wear may be an interesting and useful way to get this conversation started. Privacy, which many had taken as an assumption, turns out to be backwards; and the structure appears to be one in which we should assume that we have no privacy. Indeed, a simple fact that has been dramatically forced into our lives of late is that we can no longer take privacy as a given. Yet a solution borne of fashion is one that serves those who benefit from violating privacy better than it serves those who want to defend privacy. Indeed groups with a commitment to defending privacy have an obligation to educate others, not to simply don reflective cloaks. Lest privacy become as effective as bringing your own bags to the grocery store: it may make you feel good, but there are still plenty of plastic bags…for, personal change is not a suitable reaction to systemic problems.

The fight for privacy is not about what we wear, it’s about being aware, no matter where.

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

4 comments on “When Tinfoil Hats Become Fashionable…

  1. T E Stazyk
    July 7, 2013

    Nice discussion of the real issues. Forgive me for sharing, but this was my more sarcastic take a few weeks ago: http://testazyk.com/2013/03/17/how-have-we-survived-without-this-stuff/

    • TheLuddbrarian
      July 12, 2013

      Thanks for your comment (and your continued support)! I enjoyed your post, although now whenever I see somebody wearing Google Glass I’ll think of Mad Max. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Does Your Phone Care About Privacy? Behold: The Blackphone | LibrarianShipwreck

  3. Pingback: ¿A Tu Teléfono Celular le importa la Privacidad? Examina a : Blackphone | blognooficial

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