Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
This is not meant as an insult, really it isn’t (please do not be offended), but your pants are stupid. And your skirt, your jacket, your dress, your sweater, your hat…they are stupid too. You may pride yourself on a dressing in a “smart” fashion, but those pants are mindless. But do not worry, do not despair, for soon enough you will be able to purchase clothing bearing the prefix “smart” to denote that this apparel can be connected to wi-fi.
Evidently, Google really wants to get into your pants.
At a certain point technologies that were once new and exciting lose their sci-fi sheen and become sufficiently commonplace as to be seen as somewhat boring. This does not mean such devices cease being constantly used, but that they attain a level of cultural diffusion wherein their use is no longer exceptional but instead becomes the norm.
Smart phones are an excellent example of this shift; while these devices remain relatively young, these ubiquitous portals into today’s connected world are beginning to seem somewhat lackluster. True, the smart phone may be the passport and guide to the paradise of apps, but what now shimmers with sci-fi cool is less and less the phone itself. Of course new models of phones are constantly being unveiled but the differences increasingly induce shrugs: a slightly bigger screen, a moderately better camera, more memory, longer battery life. Indeed, one way to understand various tech companies’ searches for the next big device is as a result of their having reached the conclusion that the smart phone has hit a plateau. In other words, the big money to be made now is not so much in smart phones as it is in cornering the market with the next “killer” device.
Thus, while “the Internet of Things” and wearable technology may still rely on smart phones as controllers and interlocutors, they present a host of new things to buy and use. Though it has become rather commonplace to read articles touting that wearables and the Internet of Things (IoT) will be the next huge tech successes, these devices have not yet lived up to the hype. In fairness there have been some major stumbles – such as Google Glass – and some of the products that were expected to be transformative – such as the Apple Watch – have met with rather mixed responses. Likewise, on the IoT front, devices like thermostats, smoke detectors, and air conditioners are available but the fully transformed “house of the future” remains more of a futurist dream than a contemporary reality.
Indeed, one of the challenges that has been encountered thus far – particularly for wearables – is that these devices do not melt as seamlessly into the background as they aim to. Granted, part of this problem is simply a reflection of the fact that these devices are still rather novel, and thus a person wearing an Apple Watch may find themselves peppered with questions by curious onlookers (which is still preferable to being called a “glasshole”). Yet, perhaps the difficulty with many wearable devices is that many people do not think they need a smart watch as an addition to their wardrobe, especially when they realize that these devices will not actually replace the phone they are always carrying. The question with all wearables is: who really needs this? And the answer is almost always: the company making it needs you to buy it to increase their profits. Which, frankly, is not the most compelling answer.
Which brings us back to pants.
Google’s Project Jacquard is an attempt to make the things we are already accustomed to wearing into wearable technology (thought clothing is itself a form of technology) – it is a project that aims to, literally, weave new technology into the very fabric a person is wearing. Instead of having to swipe your fingers on the screen of a smart phone or issue verbal commands, Project Jacquard envisions people being able to simply swipe their fingers on their sleeve or pant leg. By sewing a small rectangular area of specially designed conductive wire into a garment, along with a small chip, the touch screen can leave the screen. The project is still in the prototype stage and as such it is premature to know exactly how the project will advance. Even the fact that Google is partnering with Levi’s should not be taken as a sign that this will inevitably be successful, after all, Google had racked up many impressive partners for Google Glass and that did not really work out well for them in the end.
Nevertheless, Project Jacquard says several very important things about the potential genesis of wearable technology. It’s difficult to consider Project Jacquard without thinking back to the negative reactions to Google Glass, and it seems that this new project may suggest that Google actually learned from the previous debacle. Google Glass mounted a bizarre camera on a users face that elicited harsh reactions from many, while also raising a range of privacy concerns. Beyond the legitimate privacy concerns surrounding the device, it was easy to mock Google Glass because it, frankly, looked rather ridiculous. A similar problem is confronting Apple at the moment wherein legions of people who had traded in their watches for cellular phones (which display the time) are now being urged to put a watch back on their wrist. Not everybody wants to wear a watch, not everybody wants to look like a background character from a cheap sci-fi film, but what Project Jacquard understands is that – with the exception of some seriously committed nudists – all people wear clothing.
This is an obvious point, but it is still an important one. Namely, Google’s recognition that the way to accomplish technological shifts more quickly may not be to present something wholly new, but to instead give people a slightly tweaked version of something they were going to purchase anyways. The addition of a touch screen to a sleeve also seems as though it is the type of change that is unlikely to raise serious privacy concerns to the same extent that Glass did – for this type of wearable technology does not involve mounting a camera on a person’s face. What Project Jacquard seems to achieve is one of the loftier goals of wearable technology – it allows the high tech lifestyle to easily fade into the very fabric of our lives. Well…kind of.
One of the problems with high tech devices is that they remain functional for quite a while. A host of economic and cultural forces conspire to convince people to ditch their smart phones for new ones long before the “old” phone has actually stopped working, but the basic fact is that the “old” phone still works. And though contemporary consumer technologies are certainly buffeted by trends, the smart phone a person uses in one season is still going to be an acceptable device to use in the next season. While planned obsolescence might aim to make a person replace their smart phone every year, the problem is simply that not everybody is in total thrall to this market force. Furthermore, as many of these devices are rather expensive, people may be resistant to replace them until they feel that they have gotten their money’s worth. The particular cleverness of Project Jacquard is to infuse wearable technology into something that many people are routinely buying.
The technology industry may be good at planned obsolescence, but the fashion industry still does it best.
Sweaters go in and out of style, as do dresses, jeans, shorts, coats, blazers, skirts, and the list goes on and on – and this sequence plays out multiple times a year as each new season has its own “essential” items. What was fashionable today is old news tomorrow – and there is big money to be made for the tech company that can get into this market. While it is likely that – when and if – Project Jacquard products begin to truly hit the market, people will begin by experimenting with one or two items of such high-tech infused attire, it is not difficult to imagine people becoming similarly hooked on the functionality of swiping their sleeve that has led them to walk around always clutching a smart phone in their hands. And yet the marketing coup executed by Project Jacquard is that it is not so difficult to envision people buying a new wardrobe of clothing based upon its inclusion of Project Jacquard’s conductive wire. Wearable technology has always sought to thrust itself into society by winning the approval of the fashionable – and though such people may have passed on Google Glass (and may be passing on the Apple Watch) – they may be far more receptive to technology that is incorporated so subtly as to be hardly noticeable. And those committed to remaining fashionable are also those who can be relied upon to buy new clothes at a steady clip – and Google is hoping the new clothes they buy will somewhere feature its logo.
Here the partnership with Levi’s is worth returning to, as it points to a desire on Google’s part to produce Jacquard on a wide scale, while still picking a partner that is associated with a sort of timeless-rock-and-roll-cool fashion. It is still too soon to predict what the price point for Jacquard clothing will be; however, it seems reasonable to expect that it will be a good deal more affordable than Google Glass ever was. Especially seeing as that which makes clothing so susceptible to being replaced is that it tends to wear out more quickly than a device made of glass and metal – and the last thing that Google will want to be associated with is somebody who always wears the same shirt and the same pair of pants just because they feature a touch screen. At the same time, Google’s desire to make Project Jacquard scalable suggests that such clothing will be made in the same type of horrid labor conditions under which much clothing (and much consumer technology) is made today.
Though Project Jacquard may seem to be premised on making Internet connected technologies vanish into the fabric of daily life what it actually seeks to do is to transform the fabric of daily life in such a way that being always connected to the Internet becomes the new norm. While it may not seem that this is much of a shift to people who are constantly tethered to an always-on smart phone – it is worth remembering that most of human history has not consisted of being connected to the Internet (really). Making “always being connected to the Internet” the new default is a significant shift – and it is a change that companies like Google are wholly committed to seeing take place. After all, they stand to gain significantly by keeping people always under their aegis.
Yet the question still remains – does anybody really need a touch screen on their sleeve or on their leg? How much easier do people need to make it for Google to watch over every moment of their lives? While Project Jacquard may seem like an exciting advance in some respects, it is at the same time further proof that wearable technology is simply a more palatable way of saying that technology companies want to stalk your every move. This is not about making it easier for you to use technology, it is about making it easier for you to be used by technology companies.
Google wants to get into your pants.
Letting them in hardly makes your clothing smart.