Wearable Tech and the Woman QuestionCurator: Elizabeth Wissinger, City University of New York Graduate School, Masters of Arts and Liberal Studies, and BMCC, Social Sciences | May 2017
Collection Editors: Andrew Iliadis and Isabel Pedersen
Internet enabled and sensor equipped clothing, jewelry, and e-textiles are coming to a market slated to experience tremendous growth. Despite fierce hype, the “killer app” for fashionable wearables has been elusive. This failure to catch on is informative, arguably stemming from problematic cultural attitudes about women and technology revealed by device designs. Unlike clunky “geek” medical or fitness devices, “chic” tech aims at the fashion consumer, presumably female, healthy, and living within current feminine norms. The transition from “geek” to “chic” tech raises important questions regarding how the technologically enmeshed and gendered body is imagined.
To wit: What are the cultural assumptions inherent in the design of wearable tech for the ‘femme’ identified consumer in the fashion market? How do these assumptions play out in the devices and their purpose? Are there notable exceptions? What can be done to foster a more inclusive climate, less governed by knee jerk assumptions about what women want?
The call for papers for the inaugural issue of the communications journal Digital Culture and Society asked: “How do materialistic positions tacitly use metaphors of clinical or administrative control to assure the relevance and societal benefits of their devices?” [emphasis added]. This collection examines these tacit metaphors used for engaging with the gendered body, since, as soon as technology is put on a body, it gets gendered. Communication researchers Brittany Fiore-Silfvast and Gina Neff’s notion of “data valences” is useful here, as they contain an “anticipation of value or expectation of performance within particular ecology or system” (Fiore-Gartland & Neff, 2015). Arguably, these anticipations of value feed through the ecology or system of gendered notions of what a body is for, and what it can do. My research focuses on these kinds of notions and the “tacit assumptions” about women and their needs, as made by the design community, and as evidenced by the designs of the devices themselves (Wissinger, 2017). This collection is organized into the following assumptions about women illustrates by the devices collected here:
Women are victims
An apparent culture of fear permeates many devices, which feature body sensors and alarms for personal protection. The Siren ring offers help for the “independent woman.” Billed as a “new brand of jewelry that offers women immediate protection when their personal safety is at risk,” it emits a “shockingly loud alarm” that might “change the dynamic between attacker and target” (sirenring.com). Another boasts a button that, once pushed, sound alarms, flashes lights, and dials 911, all while texting the wearer’s friends to geo-locate her so that they might come to her rescue (roarforgood.com).
Women Must be Accessible
Regarding their design philosophy and intended customer, fashion tech entrepreneurs described the information overloaded, hyper-connected “busy mom,” or “millennial fashionista.” Viawear, a bracelet that filters incoming calls, speaks to the structural impossibilities these stereotypes gloss over, with ad copy explaining how to stay “connected and available when we need to be,” but also “fully present and in the moment” (viawear.com). Similarly, a ring helps networked fashionistas avoid “being rude” by letting them “keep the phone away without missing anything” (ringly.com). Presumably she can navigate the demands of a connected world, while satisfying cultural mandates to be polite, attentive, and available.
Women and Tech Don’t Mix
According to the female tech/fashion designers, the well-worn issue of the masculinity of technology seems alive and well. One young designer observed, “the tech field is dominated by "brogrammers," or, as another pointed out, “Silicon Valley is a ‘boy culture.’’’ One technologically accomplished jewelry designer noted, “People have ‘questioned my ability’ with regard to the "technological aspects of my smart jewelry." A young fashion designer who’d won a competition to be a fellow at Eyebeam, a foundation dedicated to fostering experimentation in wearable tech mused, “the programmers seemed to be wondering what this ‘pretty little fashion girl’ might want to do with these complex programming languages.” Many news articles have cited the problem of the male end user, where the “look, size, and choice of materials seem to first consider men, and then get cosmetically tweaked for the ladies” (Taraska: 2015). To counter these attitudes, a male tech designer said design teams need more women, because “sometimes they see things differently.”
Fiore-Gartland, B., & Neff, G. (2015). Communication, Mediation, and the Expectations of Data: Data Valences Across Health and Wellness Communities. International Journal of Communication, 9(0), 19.
Wissinger, E. (2017). From “Geek” to “Chic” Wearable Technology and the Woman Question. In J. Daniels, K. Gregory, & T. M. Cottom (Eds.), Digital Sociologies (pp. 369–386). Policy Press.
Note: The term “women” is used for stylistic purposes. Although I am discussing the marketing of “women’s” fashion, I seek to question the gender normative assumption affecting a variety of bodies, queer and heterosexual, trans and cis, which thus far have not fit into the established markets.