The Aestheticization of Unplugging

focus unplug fashion disconnect

A still from Focus: Life Gear’s promotional video

From Fitbit to Google Glass, we’ve all heard about the advent of wearable technology, even if we’ve never experienced it first-hand. While it hasn’t exploded in the way that some tech-hype-enthusiasts had predicted, it’s only in its genesis phase.  A recent study by the Pew Research Center has shown that 83% of industry experts believe that by 2025, wearable technology and the Internet of Things will dominate the mainstream. But, as Rob Walker pointed out in his piece for Yahoo! Tech last month, there’s a fascinating counterculture emerging: “some of the most interesting gadgetized accessories these days have an unusual twist: their real function is to thwart or disable technology. Call it the rise of wearable anti-tech.”

Instead of facilitating constant connectivity, information access, and digital consumption, these are fashion accessories designed with the primary aim of disrupting these processes. Take, for example, Focus: Life Gear, designed by Kunihiko Morinaga and sponsored by Trident. The concept behind Focus: Life Gear is that the technology we love can sometimes “take up too much of our time and attention. Often they distract us from the things we really want to focus on like pursuing our goals, enjoying a moment with friends, appreciating the world around us”. So, Morinaga and Trident designed a line of high-end clothing made from radio-frequency shielding material. When you’re walking around with your phone in your pocket, it won’t ring, receive texts, or use any data- helping you stay focused on the real interactions unfolding around you.

Focus unplug disconnect fashion

Two dresses in Focus: Life Gear’s line

Along a similar vein, the team at Coop Himmelb(l)au designed the CHBL Jammer Coat. It’s big, bizarre, and kind of beautiful. It claims to be “a piece of clothing that enables its user to disappear”, in a corporeal sense, but also digitally. With pockets that can house a variety of devices, the coat ensures total unplugging.

Jammer coat unplug disconnect fashionJammer Coat1Details of Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Jammer Coat. 

How do these innovative sartorial treats achieve such a feat? Well, the pockets of the garments form a Faraday cage. Faraday cages were invented by Michael Faraday in 1836, and are commonly used to protect electrical equipment from lightning, or, as in this case, to block radio waves from reaching communication technology. Essentially, it’s an enclosure sealed within a conductive material, keeping the contents of the enclosure free from charge by redirecting the charge around the enclosure. One example that we’ve all experienced is having no signal in an elevator.

These items certainly aren’t the only fashion-conscious Faraday cages out there at the moment. It seems to be a growing trend to disarm our mobile phones with different manifestations of this low-tech contraption. For example, check out the Phonekerchief by TWWSTW which aims to bring people closer together by ensuring social occasions remain uninterrupted by calls, texts, and other digital notifications . It’s more than just turning your phone off – it’s a gesture, with the stitching reading “My phone is off for you”.

faraday cage unplug

Phonekerchief by TWWSTW

Various other artists and designers have created wearable or usable Faraday cages. Sarah van Sonsbeeck, whose work revolves around silence, has created a Faraday bag that aims to provide people with ‘Portable data silence’. Aram Barthol has also launched KILLYOURPHONE.COM, an initiative that teaches people how to create their own home-made low-cost Faraday pouches. Check out the video of his workshop from re:publica 14. Adam Harvey is an artist, technologist, and designer who has really been at the forefront of creative privacy-enhancing technologies and counter-surveillance products. His past projects include CV Dazzle– camoflague from face detection; Stealth Wear – a collection of anti-drone garments; and OFF Pocket– a sleek portable Faraday cage for your phone.

Another superbly provoking piece of wearable technology is x.pose by Xuedi Chen and Pedro Oliveira. This 3-D printed, data-driven dress is synched via a bespoke app to the wearer’s phone. In turn, the dress reveals more and more of the wearer’s body as the wearer shares more and more personal data online. It does this by altering the opacity of the panels that comprise the dress. Xuedi writes, “In the physical realm we can deliberately control which portions our bodies are exposed to the world by covering it with clothing. In the digital realm, we have much less control of what personal aspects we share with the services that connect us. In the digital realm we are naked and vulnerable.”

fashion design unplug disconnect data app

                    3-D printed data-driven x.pose dress

Calling these pieces ‘anti-tech’ is somewhat reductive. While their purpose is to disrupt connectivity and discourage digital consumption, they’re not against technology as a whole, but aim to challenge our current technological practices. They’re not weapons for contemporary Luddites to destroy technology- rather, they are technology. They’re a blend of creative and practical statements that encourage and promote the discussion surrounding constant connectivity, information overload, and digital surveillance. Do we really need to be constantly connected? Should we be? More and more people are beginning to ask these kinds of questions, and these novel sartorial pieces represent a change in our collective perspective on technology use. We need to find a more balanced way of being connected, and the more we talk about it and engage with these issues, the more likely it’ll be for us to find sustainable solutions soon. These artists and designers have given the concepts of unplugging and surveillance a tangible ‘look’ and a physicality. While it might not become mainstream in the same sense that the experts expect standard wearables will- it’s got some momentum, and that’s important.

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