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Media Lab's 'Smart' Clothing Is a Dumb Idea

Column by Scott C. Deskin

Who's to say that MIT is fit to shape fashion statements for the next millennium? The departments here are more focused on churning out future Nobel laureates than Ralph Laurens. Yet a fashion revolution is exactly what the masterminds at the Media Lab have planned for us. It's true I took offense when I saw a recent issue of Cosmo (or Vogue, I'm not sure which) take a cheap shot at campus by taking photos of random students and comparing them to students at the Fashion Institute of Technology (ooh, does that hurt). But I think the current trend of mapping tomorrow's culture around "smart" fashions simply goes too far.

I first learned of the Media Lab's plans at a session of Introduction to Media Arts and Sciences (MAS100) at the beginning of the term. According to the course bulletin, the class "examines new technologies and applications in information and entertainment, perceptual computing, learning and common sense." Several guest lecturers came forward to preach their visions of the future, mostly from purely commercial or personal standpoints, although the technological element was always there. Thankfully, I had the sense not to buy into the hype and the false lure of no-show guest lecturers Penn & Teller and Michael Crichton.

Anyway, the one moderately interesting speaker, MAS Professor Neil A. Gershenfeld, addressed the concept of "smart" fashions. He argued that society currently demands nothing of its clothing other than that it look good and feel comfortable. He wanted to break down a barrier in the user-computer interface by imbedding circuitry in clothing, thus creating a so-called "Person-Wide Web." Think of it as a ubiquitous local area network. Conductive wire could be sewn into the fabric of clothing. People could exchange data with a handshake. The actual central processing unit would fit in a person's shoe and would be powered by the electricity generated by walking. One would just get dressed to log on.

Granted, the idea does sound cool, in a twisted sci-fi sort of way, but I wrote it off almost immediately as a computer scientist's half-baked fantasy. It's too expensive to implement on a large scale and too foreign for a global market that still values its primitive garb. Think of my surprise, then, when I browsed through a recent New York Times men's fashion supplement and happened on an article entitled "Digital Dressing, or Software to Wear," authored by Gershenfeld. The piece rehashed the ideas presented in MAS100. For me, the issue had officially become too big to ignore.

What need do we have for "exchanging digital business cards between shoe computers with a handshake?" Has the information/time relationship become so crunched that we need this extreme form of non-communicative communication? In Gershenfeld's projected future, businessmen may have nothing left to do but make faces at one another, their hands locked together in a transaction that is more automated than intuitive. The nuances of traditional business negotiation (not to mention human emotion) would soon fade into oblivion.

One of Gershenfeld's other ideas is to create alternate views of the real world via video cameras with different perspectives (e.g., a video output to one eye showing the view in back of one's head and the other eye seeing the world normally). This idea is intriguing, but there would be too many difficulties associated with conflicting visual inputs to the brain to implement it except on a very specialized basis. When you throw virtual reality inputs into the mix, the resulting blur between reality and unreality doesn't seem like a healthy road to explore on a mainstream social basis, unless people want to know what schizophrenia feels like.

Ultimately, though, my concern involves the partitioning of society with respect to the new technology. In this scenario, we have a technological lite for those who can afford the luxury of being wired. The most visible Media Lab cyborg, Steve Mann G, argues in one of his online papers that one day the technology may allow blind people to see. But who will pay for the cost of research and development of this technology? In Mann's prosthetics-enhanced future, who will be allowed to "both overcome disabilities and have improved abilities?"

I'm doubtful that Gershenfeld's vision can ever be achieved on a large scale; that he has the arrogance to suggest it as a next phase in human evolution is bothersome. It seems as though the driving force for this technology is marketability, not practical need. Maybe he should take a hint from Generra's failed Hypercolor line of clothing in the late 80s and face the hard statement he himself wrote in the Times: "Indeed, the enthusiasm of the people living with the current crude versions suggests there is something much deeper than novelty attracting them."