Yusaku Maezawa

Well that was quick. Around 18 months after launching their ambitious “ZOZOSUIT” product, the Japanese clothing company has shut down all international operations and is no longer offering the custom-fit service. Quartzy, which seems to have an unhealthy obsession with ZOZO and its founder and CEO, Yusaku Maezawa, has covered the rise and fall of ZOZOSUIT pretty well, so I’ll let you catch up over there. But I wanted to post something with a few quick reactions to the demise of “Custom-Fit Clothing for a Size-Free World”.

My first reaction when I received the email letting me know they were shutting the service down was, “are they going to keep my data?” The answer, of course, is yes. More specifically, “All body data will be anonymized and rendered unidentifiable by July 31, 2019.” It’s an old story that anonymized data is everything but, so color me unimpressed. One assumes they will be using the data for a future custom-sizing related project, or, given their recent financial troubles, selling to an interested acquisition or merger partner. Remember how their Privacy Policy claims to “not sell your data to third parties, ever”? Now that it’s considered “anonymized” is it still “my data”?

Then I put on my scholar hat (to be honest, it’s just a red beanie that I ironed a DSA patch onto) and had a few broader questions. Right now, I’m working on a dissertation that looks at the history of those designs which we use to self-report pain to our doctors. You know, like the smiley face chart on the wall at the doctor. I’m exploring questions of who designed them, when, how, etc. I want to contextualize their prominence in the experience of someone actually experiencing pain. And so of course, I am considering a chapter on new ways to facilitate pain self-reporting—mobile sites and apps with body diagrams and color codes or EEG-based offerings that promise “true” readings of someone’s pain.

The problem is, what happens when the latest and greatest goes defunct? I dropped 1,500 words on ZOZOSUIT back in October and, while it was a great excuse to put on a spandex onesie and teach readers about Henry Dreyfuss Associates, did I jump the gun? I suppose that’s the luxury of writing for a blog like Cyborgology—we’re focused on what’s being promised next, not what’s guaranteed to stay. Still, I don’t see that post aging very well. I worry about the same thing when picking which apps or services to include in my PhD research.

It’s a struggle any scholar working on tech and culture has. Even the most exciting books I’ve read that came out in the last year document and analyze websites that are not longer active. When our collective attention (and venture capitalist’s funding) jumps from latest app to newest device, it’s tough to predict what really has staying power. So I suppose the best alternative we can hope for is that something we’ve documented has some sort of influence as a precedent, a critical step in the genealogy of something big to come. Who knows, maybe in 2040, when Cyborgology turns 30, an emerging scholar will need some sort of reference to understand where that multi-billion dollar digitally-fit clothing industry came from and they’ll stumble upon my post. 

If so, I hope our image archive has degraded by then…

The author in his ZOZO suit

Gabi Schaffzin is a PhD candidate in Art History, Theory, and Criticism, with a concentration in Art Practice, at UC San Diego. He’s glad to know that those jeans really didn’t fit…it wasn’t just him being super un-hip.

Noah (aka Neyech) and Israel Oberman

Every year at our Passover seder, my father, the consummate emcee, tells us about his Uncle Neyech, a long lost Finnish relative. I have no idea why he would bring Uncle Neyech up, nor during what part of the seder he would do so. But every year, we would laugh at the idea that the Schaffzins of Ashkenazi descent had a relative in Scandinavia, not particularly known as the epicenter of European Jewery. I always figured this was a joke; his seder is filled with these sorts of bits—falsified anecdotes meant to keep us at attention during an otherwise rote evening. And then, one day earlier this year, he forwarded us—me, my three siblings, and my mother—an email he received from a woman in Baltimore claiming to be a distant relative from, wouldn’t you know, Finland.

I, for one, was in utter disbelief. Turns out my father was telling the truth all these years (it didn’t help that his default tone is “satire”). The story, as most in my family do, includes escaping from an oppressive regime (in this case, the Czar) and dispersing around the globe: Philadelphia, Palestine, and…Finland. For all intents and purposes, this story is, for me, nothing more than an anecdote with which I will annoy my seder guests one day. But what inspired my Finnish relative (turns out we’re second cousins once removed) to track down her father’s mother’s father’s brother’s grandfather’s grandson? And why should I care about her at all?

A couple of weeks ago, The Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang published a piece on Dr. Donald Cline who, throughout the first half of the 1980s, used his own sperm to inseminate at least 50 patients who were, most of the time, expecting anonymous donors, or, on occasion, their husband’s semen. Cline, Zhang points out, never envisioned a world where relatives could find each other via similarities in their DNA. Certainly, he never expected that DNA to be collected by major corporations who convert the code-carrying protein to human-readable data and connect it to a centrally accessible network called the Internet. 

When I first became interested in critiquing at-home genomics testing services like 23andMe, it was the “health reports” feature that was my primary focus—the dashboards of green and red arrows suggesting that you will or will not get a certain kind of cancer. I admit, I never considered that a website like Ancestry.com would buy whole hog into the technology in order to connect distant relatives. But here we are: children born out of extramarital affairs being revealed, long lost twins reuniting, and dozens of children who are the product of an unethical act on the part of a physician meeting in rural Indiana every summer to picnic together.

What is it about finding long lost relatives? I don’t think I need to outline for this audience the risks we’re taking by submitting our DNA to a company like Ancestry.com or 23andMe. And yet, as of 2017, over 12 million people did just that because they wanted to know who else might have similar genetic material. Meanwhile, billions of dollars are spent each year to upload, search, and track down documents that might point us to our Finnish second cousins once removed (to be clear, my long lost relative did not, as far as I know, pay any money to track us down—she simply googled the name she found on the back of a photograph).

Perhaps we go through all of this in the name of righting a wrong done to our ancestors—tracing the remnants of a family dispersed by genocide or slavery. Maybe it’s just proof that one’s lineage is more resilient than they first assumed. Or maybe it’s a sense of belonging—there are others out there “like me.” This last one might happen for better or worse. Consider white supremacists seeking to prove their pure heritage through online tests in order to justify their membership in dangerous terrorist organizations. Remember, too, that these connections—validation that we have Finnish or Irish or Moroccan ancestry—are all based on what a pre-populated database says we are. There is no marker for “Ghanaian,” only a similarity between one’s DNA and the DNA of whoever your database of choice (23andMe, Ancestry.com, etc.) has designated as originally from Ghana (though, to be fair, perhaps Ghana was a complicated choice here, given these services’ general lack of sample diversity). 

So is science redefining family and heritage? When we were discussing the Zhang piece as an editorial staff, I argued that all we’re doing with these tests is furthering a Westphalian fantasy about where we come from. One colleague pointed out that perhaps ignoring genetically marked borders risks erasing colonial violence and props up a myth of a singular white identity. I think that’s a great point. I also think we risk letting biggots like Richard Dawkins get away with wearing “We Are All Africans” t-shirts or otherwise seemingly well-informed public figures like Meryl Streep trying to explain away lack of diversity with similar sentiments.

Reading the Zhang article closely, you quickly understand that Cline thought he was doing the work of God by spreading his seed in these innocent women (who, spoiler alert, have no recourse against the monster). Therein lies shades of the same sort of colonial violence we might uncover with databases filled with the results of at-home genetic testing. There is more work to be done here on these tests and I hope we get there quickly.

Gabi Schaffzin on tohtorikoulutettava taidehistoriassa, teoriassa ja kritiikissä UC San Diegossa. Hän toivoo jonakin päivänä käyvän Suomessa.

(Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

This past weekend I attended Crafting the Long Tomorrow, a conference ostensibly about climate change, though approached through the varied perspectives of scholars working in both the sciences and the humanities. The setting was Biosphere 2, the site of two 1990s experiments to recreate the Earth’s biosphere in a completely sealed environment, under the assumption that humanity would need to evacuate our current planet some time in the future. Throughout the densely packed three days of panels and keynotes, we heard about efforts to measure, curb, combat, and educate on the anthropocentric nature of our impending planetary disaster.

From the outset, there was a relatively awkward divide in the room, though not the disciplinary sort that I would have predicted. Rather, there seemed to be two parallel conferences going on in the same room at the same time: one was being attended and contributed to by individuals who wanted to center identity politics and socio-economic considerations and another by those who did not (or, to be fair, perhaps did not even consider it a possibility). What I found the most striking, however, was that when the former would call out the latter, the critique would be met with an absurd defensiveness. When a respondent to a talk about the first Biosphere 2 experiment pointed out that there was a complete lack of diversity in the all-White participants (the “Biospherians”), another audience member took it upon himself to explain that the experiment was not about diversity among humans, but diversity among plants within the structure. The next morning, when two presenters spoke out about the dearth of people of color within the room, one of the organizers declared that she was made sad by the call-out and didn’t find it fair.

This is not to say that the conference was, in itself, not fruitful. Those talks that did engage with questions of diversity and marginalized communities did so eloquently and with an openness that resulted in compelling discourse. Still, even throughout those talks, not one speaker engaged with questions of physical access, disability studies, or disability rights.

That climate change will affect the most marginalized first and with the most force has been well argued. It is important to recognize the at-risk nature of those for whom the deterioration of our natural world and the systems of infrastructure within means life-or-death situations on an order of magnitude greater than for an abled body. In 2017, for PS Mag, David M. Perry described four different types of ways that disabled individuals might be at-risk during a climate crisis:

health maintenance (medicine, electricity, medical care), ability to move in and through physical areas, effective communication access, and what the experts call “program access.” Some of these needs are obvious: People who depend on dialysis or oxygen need power. Diabetics need insulin. Chemotherapy patients need hospitals that work, and so forth. A wheelchair user might well not be able to cross flooded areas, climb stairs to escape rising water, or access a shelter. Shelter space might also be inaccessible because messages about locations aren’t communicated in sign language or Braille. Such spaces might be too loud or chaotic for people with sensory integration needs

Perry’s piece provides an excellent overview of the problem and I suggest you read it.

But I also suggest/implore scholars, artists, researchers, and scientists to start centering disability studies within their work on climate change. You might approach it from an infrastructural perspective, extending work of scholars like Cassandra Hartblay, who has argued that “When accessible design elements are installed to meet minimum standards, they are “just for the check mark” and often do not “work.”” This might relate well to research on, for instance, ADA standards and how well they would hold up to the various climate disaster scenarios. Or you might take a more theoretical approach and build on Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s work on fitting versus misfitting—something we’ve talk about a lot at Theorizing the Web. What happens when the environment shifts so drastically that the fits become the misfits—what do the misfits become?

There is a rich trove of research to be done here and it’s not being addressed on the necessary scale. Let’s do better.

Gabi Schaffzin is a PhD candidate in Art History, Theory, and Criticism, with a concentration in Art Practice, at UC San Diego. The headline of this piece is a shout-out to Annie Elainey’s awesome t-shirt project.

I’ve been unfortunate enough to be exposed to a great deal of live (read: non-streaming, non-DVR) television lately, a disappointing situation to occur right around the holidays, when every single advertisement is filled with smiling families, lavishing each other with piles of bow-covered gifts. From puppies to cars, headphones to televisions, the ads usually feature a young, suburbanite, heterosexual couple or family, where one member is smugly watching their spouse or children as the other(s) go into near epileptic shock on Christmas morning. Snow covers the ground outside, wrapping paper covers the floor inside, and credit card debt covers the rest of the year’s (years’?) budget.

This season, there’s one ad that dares buck the trend and, somehow, ends up being even worse. Titled “His & Hers”, this 30-second spot features a husband (presumably, our Him) waking up at the crack of dawn to sneak out into the snow-surrounded garage and ride a stationary bike. Not just any stationary bike, though: it’s Her bike. We know this, because Him has already placed a bow and a tag with her name on it. And that’s not all. This bike—Her bike—comes with a large touchscreen on which Him can watch a live studio feed of extremely fit trainers yelling encouraging platitudes at him. This, of course, is a Peloton bike.

Peloton have been selling their $2,000 stationary bicycle since 2014 and released a $4,000 treadmill, The Tread, back in January. As of July 2018, the New York City based company claims nearly 1 million subscribers to their $39/month personal training service, noting that the hardware is actually a loss-leader (something I find remarkable, given that you could buy 200 “Your Workout Is My Warmup” t-shirts instead of the treadmill). Wall Street doesn’t seem to mind: Peloton recently received a cash influx valuing it at over $4 billion and plans to go public soon. If you’d rather not pony up for the Tread, there are competitors: at $3,000, the Nordictrack X22i offers a partnership with iFit, an independent start-up whose subscription is between $8 and $15 per month (there is a Peloton Bike copycat, Flywheel, but it is priced identically to their competitor’s offering—Peloton is actually suing them for patent infringement).

Visiting the Peloton, iFit, and Nordictrack websites feels familiar if you’ve ever shopped for a quantified-self product. I don’t just mean in terms of the structure of the page or the design elements—these are pretty consistent, no matter the industry. The rhetoric, however, could probably be interchanged without anyone noticing: “Your fitness essentials, your personal coach”, “Transform your lifestyle into a fitness tool”, “Live total body fitness has a new home: yours”. Compare these with the heds, “Find Your Fit” and “Be Unique. Be Equal” from two previous subjects of my blogposts, FitBit and the ZOZO Measurement System, respectively. The fitness companies are selling convenience and performance, but also customization. When profitability, longevity, and investor cycles are of utmost concern, how do you customize for a million people?

First, eye contact. Watching examples of these videos (I did not sign up for the services, the reason for which I will partly explain below), the trainers are, for the most part, looking right at the camera. There are mainly two exceptions: when angles change to show you how the trainers’ or in-studio extras’ muscles flex and glisten and, in the case of iFit’s primary offering, when the trainer is looking out for tourists. Because while iFit does not feature Peloton-like live classes,  you can find over 1,400 training videos set in six continents in the site’s library. As one reviewer describes it:

These are often unintentionally hilarious. Many of the most scenic places in the world are not workout-friendly. A trainer gets death stares from tourists strolling along the Cinque Terre; another dodges backpackers hiking on narrow cliffside trails to Macchu Picchu. One trainer fell into an elephant wallow. On a causeway to Antelope Island, the trainer admitted that she was doing a series of fartleks in 90-degree heat, through bugs that were so dense that I could see them splattering on the camera lens.

Let’s add, then, a second method of making the customer feel, literally, one-in-a-million: an aspirational neocolonialism. Is there a better way to explore the world out there than by running on your treadmill in your basement?

And then there are the trainers themselves: fit, muscular, larger-than-life personalities, and all working for you. In one promo video for Nordictrack, multiple customers give a shout-out to Johnny Gel—“Johnny on the Spot!” Search Etsy for one of Peloton’s celeb trainers, “Cody Rigsby” and find more than a dozen items, many emblazoned with some of Cody’s trademark aphorisms: “Do whatever you need to do to get your life together!” and “When we’re uncomfortable, we change!” The New York Times published a piece on this cult of personality last year, noting that ”perhaps no brand is trying harder to make the connection between working out and glossy entertainment more explicit than Peloton.” And one skeptic-turned-fanatic blogger writes, “the screen on my bike turns [Cody] into this untouchable celebrity to me.” After her first 100-mile ride (out on the open road), she tweeted a  message of thanks to Cody. He responded, “congrats boo!”

Perusing TV spots and example classes on YouTube, one can find a range of sentiments expressed by the trainers. At the end of a run along the narrow paths of Santorini, iFit trainer John Peel lets you know that, “I’m very, very proud of you.” Peloton personality Ally Love, as she ramps up her class, reminds you to “Give yourself permission to show up for yourself” (whatever that means). On the other hand, Robin Arzon, who features prominently in the New York Times piece, tells you to “Put the babies away, put the headphones on, because I am not holding back today” while her in-studio DJ (also wearing biking gloves?) spins her class playlist. And Alex Toussaint, as the workout hits a peak moment declares, “One more to go, I ain’t done wit’ you yet!” (The previous three examples can be found in the following video)

Certainly, the cultish fitness personality is nothing new: from Jack LaLanne to Richard Simmons, Tony Little to Jillian Michaels. But the connected nature of these devices adds a new dimension. Both Peloton and iFit feature leaderboards—the former updates live during classes, while the latter lets you know how you performed relative to other users after you finish the workout. Instructors can make adjustments to your settings remotely. During live classes, Peloton trainers are known to call out participants by their username or leaderboard position.

We might, then, understand the bike, the screen, the statistics, and the trainer all together as a single interconnected system or machine with which the user “becomes one”. This is much in the same way that a gambler and a slot machine, per Natascha Schüll in her 2012 Addiction by Design, “are harmonically synchronized to a common beat.” She goes on:

Although the decisive act of a gambler starts the reels spinning or the cards flipping, the immediacy of the machine’s response joins human and machine in a hermetically closed circuit of action such that the locus of control—and thus, of agency—becomes indiscernible. What begins as an autonomous act thus “becomes part of the automatic actions and reaction of the doer,” as the game scholar Gordon Calleja writes in his study of online digital games, resulting in “a loss of the sense of self.”

Seeing the ads on TV, watching user videos on YouTube, and reading first-hand accounts of Peloton and iFit users, there is an uncanny-valley type meditation to the way that a user relates to the device.

I completely recognize that there are much worse addictions than exercise—gambling chiefly among them. But I want to use the rest of my space here to consider what’s at stake. As I briefly noted earlier, in August of this year, Peloton locked down over half a million dollars in venture funding, resulting in an overall valuation of $4 billion. At a million subscribers, that means that each customer is worth around $4,000. As they add more customers, the company’s valuation will go up, but there’s a point at which that caps out and the value of each user begins to decline with each new customer acquired. Peloton really needs, then, its current riders and runners to stay addicted and to feel like the service being provided is largely customized.

But as I already demonstrated, the effort here is not to customize perfectly, as doing so for 1 million people would be a futile endeavor. Instead, it’s to make the users feel like the system has been designed for them. The company can make customers feel as though it has each one of their best interests in mind because it can group those customers into generalized categories, while still espousing the “individualized” rhetoric. As Peloton personality Alex Toussaint instructs, “This is your dream, this is your ride…dictate your own success, baby!” In turn, users fall in line with what they are told is best for their category, not their selves. A rider might over-exert to meet the demands of the trainer or get to the top of the leaderboard. Without trained staff to oversee the rider’s condition in person, this could be extremely dangerous to one’s health. Further, companies can leech customers for more cash through absurd up-selling, like the iFit Nourish. This $80/mo subscription-based shake service (you read that right) promises 15 servings of a “unique formulation,” made just for the customer and delivered each billing cycle.

Enough, however, about the current subscribers. What about those who are left out? Usually, when I critique a system like the ones I am looking at here, I want to use it. I’ve sent my spit to 23andMe, worn a Fitbit for weeks at a time, and even put on that stupid spandex suit only to discover my legs are different lengths. But even if I had two grand to drop on a bike (which does not include the $125 shoes or $59 floor mat, lest I scuff my composite flooring), and the $39/mo to hear Cody encourage me on a daily basis, there’s simply no way I could use any of these products without serious damage to my body.

In 2009, I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a degenerative collagen disorder which is often accompanied by immunodeficiencies, gastro-intestinal conditions, and other debilitating ailments. I won’t get into the nitty gritty of what this all means, but if I were to do more than 15–20 minutes on the bike at an easy pace, I would be in a great deal of pain and discomfort for days after (I can’t even think about running anymore). I of course recognize that my inability to jump on a Peloton bike does not, by itself, mean that the entire company’s offering is inherently bad or dangerous. Instead, I want to pause and ask you to consider what happens when the fit body—the ones that look like the trainers or studio-riders on the Peloton screen—is valued over all else. Nordictrack rhetoric is, at times, dominated by declarations of how much weight can be lost when the iFit system is used. But by valuing the fit body, the body that is unable to become fit is devalued and jettisoned. The fit body, in Peloton’s case, is worth $4,000. The disabled one is worth nothing. And while I’m not asking Wall Street to start figuring out how to extract value from me because I am not worthy of being “fit”, there is an obvious bleeding over of what investment bankers see as valuable into what is considered socially advantageous in late capitalism.

At the end of “His & Hers,” Her finds the bike next to the tree on Christmas morning, bow and tag attached and intact. “How did you know!?” Her asks as His smiles proudly in the background. What drove the smug His to use this generous gift before handing it over? Was it the large, seductive touch screen and carbon steel construction? Did His find a trainer that he liked so much, he couldn’t resist sneaking around his partner to take commands from a stranger in a TV studio in New York? Or maybe His just wanted to rack up some high leaderboard points before Her could even place her backside on the seat. Whatever the reason, this beautiful, white, affluent couple with one daughter (she makes an appearance in the final shot), a large house in the suburbs, and detached garage is worth a lot of money to Peloton. So whatever it takes to keep that seat filled, they will do.


Gabi Schaffzin is a PhD candidate in Art History, Theory, and Criticism, with a concentration in Art Practice, at UC San Diego. For the holidays, he bought his wife a stuffed animal designed to look like their dog. It creeps him out every day.

From the 1967 edition of The Measure of Man & Woman by Henry Dreyfuss

Last week I put on a spandex suit and posed in front of my phone so that an app could capture photos of my body (and no, this post is not, I promise, an attempt to encroach on Jessie and PJ’s territory). The suit, which is made by the Japanese clothing company, ZOZO, is black with dozens of white circles on it. Each circle is covered in a unique pattern of dots which are used by ZOZO’s app to identify their position on the body and, consequently, map a set of measurements: arm length, waist size, inseam, etc. From there, the app makes recommendations based on what size clothing would fit you best. Per the company’s “About” page, they “create clothing patterns using real people in dozens of diverse shapes and sizes.” The founder, Yusaku Maezawa, explains further:

“ZOZO was created to be adaptable to each and every person. You don’t have to adapt to ZOZO. ZOZO adapts to you. People are unique, but they also want to be treated and accepted as equal. This concept is reflected in the ZOZO logo. The circle, square and triangles are all different colors and shapes, yet they have the same surface area. They are all unique but still equal.”

If you, like me, pay close attention to the quantified self movement, then you’ll find this rhetoric extremely familiar. 23andMe offers that their service will delve into the “One unique you”. FitBit promises that you will “Find your fit”. These are products that, as Whitney and I have argued over the course of the last few years, are not truly individualizing in nature, but are much more complicated than that—often, aggregation is more critical than individualization. In this post, I’d like to echo that sentiment, but also ground what ZOZO is doing here in the history of another anthropometric tool, one developed for the purposes of so-called “human-centered design” and which has seen a recent resurgence in popularity.

Soon after World War II, Henry Dreyfuss Associates was hired by the US Army to design the cockpit for a new tank. In order to best simulate the cockpit environment and contextualize what the designers were actually working on, employees at the firm—which had become famous creating industry standard designs for everything from a Bell Labs telephone handset to a New York Central Railroad locomotive engine—drew a life-size cross-section of the cockpit, complete with pilot. The pilot was annotated with measurements, culled from sets of previously recorded data about the sizes and ratios of various male bodies. “Without being aware of it,” writes Dreyfuss in 1967, “we had been putting together a dimensional chart of the average adult American male” (1967).

Eventually, HDA named the figure Joe and began building on the dataset. The firm’s Alvin Tilley drew the figure from different angles and added a female form, Josephine. Dreyfuss declares that, by 1959, they “were in sight of something we had dreamt of for years: a mini ‘encyclopedia’ of human factors data for the industrial designer, presented in graphic form.” (1967). HDA expanded each diagram to include three figures: one based on 2.5th percentile data, one based on 50th percentile (median) data, and one at the 97.5th percentile. The firm’s founder is quick to acknowledge that the diagrams “are intended as points of departure for your own thinking. Unless they are used with imagination, they are all but worthless.”

Humanscale Selector 2b. Seat/Table Guide, from Kickstarter page

The final edition of HDA’s The Measure of Man and Woman: Human Factors in Design was published in 2002, though a sort of spin-off was published by Tilley and Niels Diffrient in the 70s and 80s called Humanscale. This project incorporated Dreyfuss’s data, but also “the most up-to-date research of anthropologists, psychologists, scientists, human engineers, and medical experts” (2017). Dozens of “Pictorial selectors”—diagrams with windows through which data changes as a user turns a rotary selector—feature a plethora of body types including wheelchair users, children, and pregnant women. The original Humanscale can be purchased today, if you can find it, starting at a few hundred dollars, but in 2017, the design firm IA Collective launched a Kickstarter campaign to reissue the full manual with updated data and expanded figures. On their Kickstarter page, the publishers of this new edition write:

The Humanscale reissue will introduce a new generation of designers, engineers, architects, and up-and-coming inventors to human factors and ergonomics, which are key aspects of user-centered design. It will provide real utility to anyone getting started on their designs by providing simple access to a range of human factors data.

The project, which was launched with a $137,800 goal, raised $326,109 from 1,704 backers.

 *  *  *

The author in his ZOZO suit

After donning my ZOZO suit, I stood in front of my phone in a position not unlike that of Joe and Josephine from The Measure of Man and Woman and Humanscale: looking straight ahead, feet shoulder width apart, arms at my side. Every few seconds, the female voice coming from the app would instruct me to turn to face a number on the imaginary clock laying on the ground under me: “Turn to five o’clock…turn to six o’clock, you’re halfway there.” After 12 photographs, I was allowed to pick my phone back up and wait another few seconds for the data to be processed. The resulting information was presented as a sort of 3D bizarro-Joe, an uncanny valley version of the data’s subject: me.

ZOZO’s tagline reads, “Custom-Fit Clothing for a Size-Free World”. And yet I spent the next ten minutes obsessing over why one arm is longer than the other and how I could possibly have a “38.5 inch” waistline when I buy 32-inch jeans. Falling into ZOZO’s trap, I did what I promised myself (and my wife) I wouldn’t do and purchased a pair of the jeans recommended to me. They weren’t cheap, but at just under $60, they are well below many “fashion” jeans brands. Plus, according to ZOZO, these would be the most perfect fitting jeans of my entire life—tailored to me and only me. When they arrived two weeks later, I could not believe how poorly fitting they actually were (maybe I’m just not with the fashion these days, but to wear these properly, it would seem I have to button them above my navel…?). Upon reaching out for a return authorization, a company representative asked for more detail “to improve the app.” It seems I’m not only dressing up for them, I’m also beta testing.

 *  *  *

On the surface, ZOZO’s service is the anti-Humanscale: bodies are not categorized, they are “accurately” measured. If we consider that Dreyfuss’s project was predicated on categorizing the human body and jetisoning the non-normative (even by presenting 2.5th and 97.5th percentiles, they are still designating these bodies as outliers, not to mention how many bodies are still excluded), then does the ZOZO project mean that data will become more inclusive? Putting access to the tool aside (carefully), collecting more data does not mean a more just world. Instead, it means a more vulnerable population.

ZOZO claims to “not sell your data to third parties, ever”, but their Privacy Policy notes that the data can be transferred to “A prospective buyer in the event of a merger, acquisition, or sale of any part of our business or assets.” Also, height, weight, and body measurements may be used “To collect statistical information and use such statistical information for marketing and other research purposes.” And, frankly, in the age of the once-a-week data breach, we must come to terms with the fact that our data is never truly “safe” or “private”.

The author’s measurements, per the ZOZO app

Admittedly, ZOZO complicates where I might normally finish off this piece. Most quantified self tools can be pointed to as just another indication of our cultural obsession with measurement and tracking. But we’re talking about making sure your pants fit. For lots of bodies (myself included), most standard off-the-shelf sizes don’t work. So what’s so bad about throwing on a spandex suit and having your picture taken?

In their 1999 Sorting Things Out, Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star declare that “to classify is human” and go on to make an excellent argument about the power exercised through these classifying schemes. Playing out a plausible scenario where, for those with the physical, financial, and logistical capabilities, custom-tailored clothes will be available via app, what does that mean for those without the capabilities? How will it affect the individuals along each step of the supply chain? Who will gain and hold on to access to the data? Alternatively, will custom-fit clothing encourage less unhealthy dieting? Will anxiety over fit go away? What anxiety will take its place?

For now, I’ve got a $4 Halloween costume, some blackmail-worthy photos of me in a spandex suit with white dots, and a pair of jeans that need to be shipped back to Ohio.

Gabi Schaffzin is a PhD candidate in Art History, Theory, and Criticism, with a concentration in Art Practice, at UC San Diego. He is sure he will regret adding photos to this post.

About 60 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, there is a break in the already existing wall built on the border between the United States and Mexico. When you stand at the Shell Gas Station (the one with the Subway in it) off exit 73 on the I-8, near Jacumba, turn towards the southwest and look at the beginning of this fence opening. Paying attention to the terrain just east of where the last bar of steel juts out of the ground, it won’t take you long to figure out why the wall stops: anyone who attempts to travail the 10 miles of wilderness between the last road in Mexico and the Californian freeway must be well equipped physically and mentally.

This doesn’t mean that American border patrol agents don’t survey and patrol the space without a barrier. The militarization of the US-Mexico border started well before the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, President Clinton’s “war on crime”, or the “war on drugs”. In 1924, the US Border Patrol was created in an effort to keep immigrants from Asian countries from coming into the country. During that time, agents also sought to block illegal shipments of alcohol into the country during prohibition.

The 1996 “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act”, signed into law by Clinton, was responsible mainly for authorizing the mass deportation of undocumented migrants, as well as a major expansion of the barrier between the US and Mexico, as well as a secondary wall slightly north of the primary structure. After 9/11, billions more (one estimate has it at $286 billion since 1986) were poured into the border: Blackhawk helicopters, drones costing $18 million a piece, 20,000 border patrol agents in military grade Humvees, heat sensors, seismic sensors, motion sensors, and the willful disregard of vigilantes in border-adjacent towns all stand in the way of individuals looking to cross the border—and that’s once they get there.

A large number of the migrants come from Central America to escape political or gang violence. Once in Mexico, options to get to the US border are as dangerous as they are limited: one “popular” way to do it is by hitching a ride on top of a freight train known as La Beastia (The Beast), or El tren de la muerte (The Death Train). Riding this train means risking kidnapping, robbery, or serious injury (limbs are easily removed by obstacles along the train’s route). To reinforce a point made by immigrant and refugee rights activists the world wide, if someone is willing to risk absolutely everything for entry into this country, a place that, with all of its very real and very serious faults, is still safer than the place from where that individual is fleeing, what right do we have to deny them entry, treat them like an animal, arrest them, and/or deport them?

* * *

I’m writing this here because I’m not sure what else to write.

Cyborgology is a pretty laid back operation and I don’t necessarily feel pressure from my editors to post. But I’m listed as a contributor to this community and I’d like to live up to the title. Over the past few months, I’ve had some work and school obligations that have slowed me down, but what’s really kept me from posting since my last essay over six months ago is the absolute fear that (at the risk of being a digital dualist) what I’m going to write here does not have enough to do with what’s going on out there (I want to be very clear here that my colleagues at Cyborgology have written a good number of posts about the current administration and so my fear is not based on whether or not my fellow authors focus on the right issues—they do).

Reading about the immigrant detention centers inspired me to turn to a favorite of Cyborgology authors and prolific authority on discipline, Michel Foucault. I found plenty there to draw connections. Similarly, Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception would be extremely relevant here. And normally, that’s how I would start a post—think of a technology, say, seismic sensors embedded in the desert sand, and then turn to someone who has written abstractly about the sort of apparatus of control embedded within the sensor. Or I’d turn to the use of DNA testing for the reunification of families and consider what it means when an archive of marginalized bodies is being built anew, fortified with the very code of each individual’s physical manifestation.

I just don’t see where my analysis changes the fact that these abominations exist. Foucault was a brilliant historian—a self-proclaimed “archeologist” of power. He set up a multitude of signposts that we can read today to recognize how structures of society organize and control the individual. Has his work changed anything?

This is not an argument against online activism—we know how important and inclusive that element of resistance is. And it’s not a plea to ask you to get into the streets and start punching Nazis (for all I know, you’re already doing that). A few times during the last couple of years, I’ve gone out to the Jacumba wilderness and left water and supplies with an amazing organization called Border Angels. And I’ve attended a few protests. But, primarily, when I fret over what I’m doing to make change, I convince myself that being an artist, historian, and writer is what I do well and what I should keep doing. Is that going to be enough? I try hard to be an ally to the marginalized, but when does allyship fall too short?

* * *

My grandmother was lucky enough to escape Europe while the rest of her immediate family was sent to Auschwitz. Three of my great aunts, through a series of luck and generosity from otherwise barbaric Nazis, lived through the experience until the camp was liberated. They traveled on foot and by hitchhiking from one Red Cross shelter to another before finally getting back to their family’s house in Czechoslovakia. They discovered that their neighbors had taken over their home and the shop which their father ran from within. “You were dead,” their neighbors proclaimed, “we figured you weren’t coming back. This is ours now. Go back to being dead.”

Walking through the desert near the routes taken by migrants seeking a better life in the United States, you’ll see evidence of those people: empty cans of food, a body-sized imprint in the sand in a crawlspace. One time I saw a Little Mermaid backpack and another I saw two large dish sponges with shoelaces and foot imprints—most likely someone trying to walk without leaving footprints or disturbing a seismic sensor. How can I make sure that these people—if they make it through the mountains, and the desert, and past the helicopters and drones, and through the sensors, and to the highway, and out of detention centers—how can I make sure that they aren’t told, “go back to being dead”?

Warning: Mr. Robot spoilers abound (but, come on, what are you doing still not caught up with this show?). 

In my first post for Cyborgology last year, I suggested that perhaps Elliot Alderson, the paranoid and delusional protagonist of USA Network’s Mr. Robot, was the epitome of a Deleuzian Body Without Organs—an extreme state wherein rhythms and intensities not available in the anatomical body provide access to a plane of immanence (though I also incorrectly suggested that Elliot is schizophrenic). I used his own self-tracking technique—a journal—and how this journal led to advantage being taken of him. If you’ve read my other posts here, you won’t be surprised to hear that I then used all of that as a critique of the quantified self. What can I say? When all you read is QS critique, everything you read is QS critique. After making my way through season 3, however, I’d like to revisit Elliot and what other sorts of theoretical signposts I might use to understand his character.

I am particularly interested in a scene from s03e04, “eps3.3_metadata.par2”, in which Mr. Robot, after a particularly aggressive rant to Tyrell and Angela, turns back into Elliot. The audio pops and the video skips a bit—Mr. Robot is “glitching”. In most of season 2, viewers had been cued to Elliot’s transitions by light static in the audio track, but show creator Sam Esmail and crew have implemented this trope in progressively more encompassing ways over the course of the series. The use of a glitch in film or TV is nothing new—from art house film A Colour Box (1935) by Len Lye to The Matrix and Wreck it Ralph. But in using the glitch to indicate the transition from Elliot to Mr. Robot and back (we rarely see the latter, making the episode four scene even more notable), Esmail and team use the trope to delineate a liminal space, one that might best be characterized by Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism.

As defined by Russell on this blog in 2012, Glitch Feminism

embraces the causality of “error”, and turns the gloomy implication of glitch on its ear by acknowledging that an error in a social system that has already been disturbed by economic, racial, social, sexual, and cultural stratification and the imperialist wrecking-ball of globalization—processes that continue to enact violence on all bodies—may not, in fact, be an error at all, but rather a much-needed erratum.

Russell’s work on the topic focuses on the body as a limit to be overcome through slippage—“glitch” comes from the Yiddish for “slippery area” and the German for “to slip”. She came to the concept through Nathan’s digital dualism, wherein the fallacy of IRL as distinct from online, distracts from the goings on both online and AFK. Reading Elliot’s glitches through Russell’s Glitch Feminism Manifesto, then, we see his slips between psyches as corrections—a fix for what he needs in the moment. In episode 6, “eps3.5_kill-process.inc”, static, color bars, video artifacts, frame skipping, and abrasive audio cues are all utilized in progressively more jarring ways as Elliot and Mr. Robot fight for control of their shared body, the former seeking to block the destruction put in motion by the latter (Elliot wins the battle, but not, of course, that day’s war). The glitch is there for the viewer to understand that a transition is happening, certainly, but also for Elliot’s body that, using Russell’s words, “exist[s] somewhere before arrival upon a final concretized identity.”

I am particularly taken by both Glitch Feminism and Elliot’s character because of the way they each resist a synthetic delineation between the technological and biological. Not because new computing systems are being developed with biological materials, but because old computing systems were built by human emotion. This is the general argument made by Elizabeth Wilson in her 2011 Affect and Artificial Intelligence—that “alliances between human and machine were calibrated through the affects of curiosity, surprise, contempt, interest, fear, and shame.” Throughout the work, she argues for a reconceptualization of AI away from the stereotypical “cool”, emotionless field for mathematicians and computer scientists and into a significantly warmer, more emotional place, eventually suggesting that the proliferation and improvement of AI technologies will increase when all parties involved agree on the aforementioned reframing.

Glitch Feminism embodies this reconceptualization by turning the metaphor of a cold, computationally-focused self on its head—the brain as affectless computer is gone. The body as vessel for emotional processing is brought to the fore. The glitch gives that body a chance against the white patriarchy that has marginalized it to this point. Russell is sure to point out that “Glitch Feminism is not gender-specific.” Elliot’s body, however, as it glitches between his outer persona and Mr. Robot, is being controlled by the women in his life—Darlene spies on him for the FBI, Angela uses him to resurrect her mother, White Rose has co-opted his skills for her dreams of global domination. Whether they understand it (White Rose) or not (Darlene), he is an empty vessel until they act. He is the [unoccupied] embodiment of Melvin Kranzberg’s first law of technology: that it is neither good, nor bad, nor is it neutral.

Today, AI systems are programmed from the bottom up. Siri is not pre-loaded with every possible question. Instead, when one Siri instance learns how to answer a question properly, it passes that information on to every other Siri (so to speak—most of this is happening in centralized, remote applications). The self-correction happening within these systems is a product of the programmers and participants (I’ll let you guess who actually gets compensated for their work…but we’ll leave Marx out of this for now). How, then, might we as participants cause these systems to glitch, correcting them, making way for the underrepresented bodies left behind?

Gabi Schaffzin is pursuing his PhD in Art History, Theory, and Criticism, with a concentration in art practice, at UC San Diego. He will never—NEVER!—shut up about this show.

When the team here at Cyborgology first started working on The Quantified Mind, a collaboratively authored post about the increasing metrification of academic life, production, and “success”, I immediately reached out to Zach Kaiser, a close friend and collaborator. Last year, Zach produced Our Program, a short film narrated by a professor from a large research institution at which a newly implemented set of performance indicators has the full attention of the faculty.

For my post this week, then, I’d like to consider Zach an Artist in Residence at Cyborgology—someone using the production and dissemination of works that embody the types of cultural phenomena or theories covered on the blog (as it turns out, this is not Zach’s first film featured on Cyborgology). I suppose it’s up to him if he’d like to include the position on his CV. In the following, I would like to present some of my reactions to the film and let Zach respond, hopefully raising questions that can be asked in dialogue with the ones presented at the end of The Quantified Mind. In full disclosure, I am very familiar with Zach’s scholarship and art (I’m listed as a co-author or co-artist on much of it, though not Our Program in particular), so I hope I don’t lead the witness too much here.

But first, the film:

As a classically trained designer teaching in the art department of a Research I school, Zach’s perspective is valuable here for a number of reasons: obviously his day-to-day is highly influenced by the metrification trend in academia (especially considering his pre-tenure status), but he has worked in the commercial realm with companies and organizations enamored with the exact sort of technologically enabled quantification tools and systems (read: big data, et al.) driving the platforms through which academics’ metrics are being tallied. My first reaction to the film, then, is about the use of an object as the main visual here. After all, the film is not about a device—it’s not called Our Ticker or Our Shiny White Box With Seductive Red LEDs, it’s called Our Program; it’s about a cultural phenomenon with, for all intents and purposes, no real consumer-facing physical manifestation (beyond, perhaps, online dashboards or the like).

I’m reminded, however, of a book I recently read, Elizabeth Wilson’s Affect and Artificial Intelligence, a brief but fascinating argument for a reconceptualization of AI away from the stereotypical “cool”, emotionless field for mathematicians and computer scientists and into a significantly warmer, more emotional place. Alongside this main pitch, she also suggests that the proliferation and improvement of AI technologies will increase when all parties involved agree on the aforementioned reframing—that is, when AI is understood to be less Skynet, more PARO. One striking piece of research that stands out to me now in the context of Our Program comes in the chapter discussing ELIZA and PARRY, two AI psychoanalysts from the 1960s. Wilson references Sherry Turkle (frequently written about on this blog) and her work on humans’ relationships to technology, but ultimately dismisses this research in favor of Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass, who argue that we as a species are drawn to befriend our technological devices, summed up by Wilson as our “direct affiliative inclinations for artificial objects” (95).

ZK: Considering the metrification of academia in the context of affect is something I didn’t originally conceive as part of the work, but I’m reminded here of various efforts (within the humanities) to produce better metrics that are specific to humanities disciplines as opposed to inheriting metrics systems from the “hard” sciences. This strikes me as curious when situated in relationship to PARO or Siri. Ironically, through producing more “humane” metrics, we may end up furthering the idea that humans are fundamentally computational in nature.

A drive to produce more nuanced or, in the case of the humanities, humane metrics, or to make AI more relatable is not about the metrics or the AI themselves but is, I would suggest, about what we think about ourselves as people—whether we are, or are not, at some basic level, computational. The apotheosis of such a belief is a kind of pan-computationalism, where microbes and microchips operate in glorious harmony, not unlike the proclamations made in the poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” by Richard Brautigan. Such a belief also caters to a neoliberalization of all life underpinned by models of self-interested human behavior that reach back to the early days of game theory.

To me, it’s not necessarily about asking whether we want to have affinities with artificial intelligence or computational objects in general but to what degree our affinities with those things become absorbed into our own ontological space, rendering us equally as computational as those objects. In this way, I see a strong connection between efforts to make scholarly metrics more nuanced, sophisticated, contextual, etc., and an affinity towards a PARO over a Skynet.

GS: If you’ve read my recent posts on the value of using obvious fiction in art and design versus trying to seem “real”, then you won’t be surprised that I hope Zach will discuss how he frames his narrative. This is not a piece of marketing. He does not leave his name off of the film. Nor does he call the piece a “product tour” or “brand video” on his website. That said, it is obviously influenced by his real life experiences in academia, experiences that we recognize as very much not unique in The Quantified Mind. Why fiction then?

ZK: I was recently asked if the “parody” can keep up with “reality.” Career benchmarking in higher education in Europe (like Reappointment, Promotion, and Tenure here in the States) is increasingly metrics-focused. A european colleague once told me about his dissertation committee, which required him to prove his impact via citations before he could graduate. Universities in the UK are using platforms like Simitive Academic Solutions to address “goal setting and alignment” to produce stronger accountability and incentive systems for faculty members.

I feel as though the fiction is a way of grappling with reality. The object, this “ticker” on which the film centers, is somewhat absurd in both its form and purpose. The intent was to make more explicit the link between the kind of (dare I say) neoliberal, market-based nature of faculty metrics and the physical faculty and university themselves: a “stock-ticker” that illustrates whether or not we as faculty members should continue to receive investment from our institutions. This kind of marketization of faculty data is already happening, and is not necessarily “new,” but the kind of control it wields is shifting. The more sophisticated, contextual, and nuanced the metrics become—not just about citations or number of publications, but about everything related to faculty output (e.g., fitness data via partnerships with FitBit and smart furniture manufacturers to determine whether more fit faculty produce more “impact”, other biometric and psychometric indications to help faculty identify causes of stress that decrease productivity, weighting of metrics based on location, discipline, type of institution)—the more administrators will rely on metrics to shape decision-making processes. As long as we develop ways to demonstrate our fundamentally computational nature, the influence of metrics on academia will be a positive feedback loop, with new metrics being developed, new decisions being based on those metrics, and new metrics being developed in response to the consequences of those decisions.

Gabi Schaffzin is pursuing his PhD in Art History, Theory, and Criticism, with a concentration in art practice, at UC San Diego.

Zach Kaiser is Assistant Professor of Graphic Design and Experience Architecture in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design at Michigan State University.

The two, along with other collaborators, have been working on the Culture Industry [dot] Club, a dynamic assemblage of artist-researchers engaged with emergent media practices and deep historical and theoretical research.

When I started this series three weeks ago, my goal was to provide a review/recap of Orphan Black’s final season, tying it to issues of the body, history and philosophy of science, and the value of fiction. Turns out that last element drew me in and I was most curious about the way that Orphan Black’s creators, Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, employed their science consultant, Cosima Herter, in order to make the science in the show as “real” as possible, while still developing and producing a piece of work that was very clearly fiction. Along the way, I’ve found myself wanting to bring in other works of narrative-based fiction. I wrote about Mr. Robot, but I have drafts that include Minority Report, Black Mirror, Nathaniel Rich’s 2013 novel, Odds Against Tomorrow, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, The Blair Witch Project, and Orson Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Reflecting back on those drafts, I came just short of plotting these works along a matrix consisting of two axes: plausibility and believability. That is, could this not only actually happen, but would a public believe it had? In effect, I began to work out how hyperstitious to consider each of these culture artifacts.

Deciding that in earnest would take quite a bit of effort on my part, plus some training in sociological methods, not to mention IRB approval. I am willing to argue, however, that medium and channel have a significant effect on the believability of a piece. Not terribly controversial, I know. But when Margaret Atwood writes a novel, it goes into the fiction section and we need not worry that a madman acclerationist capable of doing so has decided to play god. Why, then, does she need to begin the acknowledgements for Year of the Flood, Oryx & Crake’s follow up, by stating that the novel “is fiction, but the general tendencies and many of the details in it are alarmingly close to fact”?

Hyperstition is a valuable concept because it helps us see that a story like Atwood’s might move out of the fiction section, coming to fruition in another form. This shift is not only promulgated by artists or authors, of course. Advertisers ask you to imagine yourself in a car that will park itself a year before the product is available on the market. Realtors on HGTV or its equivalents are thrilled to hear visitors to an open house begin to “see” their own furniture in the living room of a listed property. My concern as an artist, however, is how to utilize hyperstition in the service of affect, change, and revolution.

Earlier this year, I argued that a popular “sciency-art” is increasingly being produced for the sake of science and not so much for art. But maybe this trend is something that we can appropriate for our own motives. As I noted in my previous post, when Dunne and Raby show Faraday Chair, it’s very clearly a piece of art meant to provoke. But what if they showed it at a furniture show? What if Wodiczko brought his Homeless Vehicle to a TED talk? Would they be selling out? Would they be perpetrating hoaxes? If they were found out to be a performance piece, would their adoring public feel devastated (as one tech scholar did after Horse e-books was revealed to not be as algorithmically curated as once thought)?

The reason these methods of presentation would not work is clearer when we return, once again, to Delphi Carstens’s explanation that hyperstitions “fan the flames” of cultural anxiety. When Wodiczko complains that viewers of his work want projects like Homeless Vehicle mass produced, he is responding to the fact that they are not made anxious by it—they feel hopeful. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episodes garner affect through shock value. His challenge is to not go too far before swaying into campy horror or implausible absurdity. Galleries and festivals like Transmediale, SLSA, and Science Gallery have made room for this absurdity, now it’s up to us to embrace the “neatness” factor, but certainly not at the expense of affect.

Of course, in the case of Orson Welles’s radio show, the reports of the panic that resulted from the broadcast were widely exaggerated. Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow write that a wire report was picked up by daily newspapers, hungry for something to boost readership and build doubt in the reliability of radio as a whole, leading to the promulgation of the myth of the program’s panic-inspiring believability. On the complete flip-side, 61 years later, when Artisan Entertainment released Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project, the studio made it very clear in promotional material that the film was completely fictional. Still, the town of Burkittsville, where the story was purported to have taken place, was inundated with witch hunters for a significant time after a successful theatrical release. The hyperstitious outcomes of a work are, perhaps, out of the hands of the artist.

But we can still give it a shot.

Gabi Schaffzin is a PhD student at UC San Diego. He has lost track of whether his work is considered real, fiction, or fake. 


Last week, I introduced some characters to my argument: Orphan Black and its writing and consulting staff, Mr. Robot and its creators, the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit and Nick Land, accelerationism, and hyperstition. Need a refresher? Find it here. Now, I’d like to take a brief detour in order to introduce another important character here: speculative design.

If you’ve been in or around the design academy in the past decade, you will no doubt have heard the word “speculative” thrown around quite a bit. Colloquially, speculative design (or design fiction, or critical design) uses methodology and mediums traditional to the design studio (that is, the division of labor, tools, prototyping, and manufacturing processes common to industrial and graphic design shops) in order to produce visual artifacts from the future. One oft-cited project is the Faraday Chair (1995) designed by Anthony Dunne, erroneously but popularly labeled as the field’s progenitor. Dunne suggested that radio waves carrying wireless communication would eventually crowd our airspace to the point that we would need a physical respite from their electromagnetic effect. As part of his PhD at the Royal College of Art he, with the help of his collaborator Fiona Raby, installed in a gallery a large plexiglass box with an air tube and a pillow and had a model lay inside, supposedly “protected” from the invisible radiation of wifi and bluetooth messages.

Speculative design, however, is not as new as some will have you think. One of its earlier figures, Krzysztof Wodiczko, grew up in a post war autocratic Poland—an experience that significantly shapes his work. Trained as an industrial designer, Wodiczko began his career working for a small Polish electronics manufacturer, but quickly turned to his design education as a means to develop pieces which “could interrogate ethical and political voicelessness” (102). It was in this vein that he designed and fabricated the Personal Instrument (1969), featuring a mic’d up helmet, sound-canceling headphones, and two gloves with light sensors. As the wearer reduces how much light hits the sensors on their hands, sounds from their immediate environment are blocked out and vice versa. About the piece, Wodiczko writes:

I was in a strange position: a designer employed by the state industrial corporation while trying to establish a critical and ironic dialogue with a real and monstrous designer—the communist state itself—who was in total control of the entire society and treated it as a single work of art or design…In the Personal Instrument, I somehow represented myself, my colleagues, and possibly many others, swimming “freely” in a world of sounds and speech, yet remaining silent. (102)

Eventually, Wodiczko labeled his flavor of design “interrogative” and in 1994 he penned a manifesto of sorts. In it, he declares that interrogative design “takes a risk, explores, articulates, and [responds] to the questionable conditions of life in today’s world, and does so in a questioning manner” (16). One of Wodiczko’s more well-known pieces, Homeless Vehicle Project (1988–89), was designed in consultation with homeless individuals in and around Philadelphia and New York City. The piece features a rolling cart, complete with aluminum can storage, sleeping cubby, and safety flag to make sure its presence is known from afar. The artist created the Homeless Vehicle

in the context of jungle capitalism, along streets and parks of New York City…[where] the petrified homeless, dying of their wounds or of malnutrition were advocating the benefits of American freedom in front of monuments of Washington and Lafayette, thus revivifying and reanimating these former dead. (xiv)

When asked about its viability as a mass-produced vehicle, Wodiczko leans on the value of a prototype:

“The minute you present a proposal, people think you must be offering a grand vision for a better future.” They can’t see a thing like the Homeless Vehicle…as the “concretisation” of a present problem, a makeshift transitional device, or an aesthetic experiment. Instead, “they think it must be designed for mass production…taking over the cities.” (Wright 1992, 272-273)

In effect, the “people” want to know if it’s real. Wodiczko argues it need not be.

I return, then, to last week’s post and Delphi Carstens on hyperstitions: “the trauma and fear engendered by their cultural ‘makeovers’…merely serve to further empower [their] basic premises and fan the flames.” Surely, seeing Faraday Chair in a gallery in 1995, complete with model and pillow and breathing tube, a viewer understands it is a piece of critical design (or is it art at this point?). Having read the plaque, our gallery visitor walks away considering the health risks of an inevitable flood of electromagnetic waves into their apartment (remember, this is well before “wifi” or “AirPort” or “Bluetooth” became household names). Walking out of the gallery and into the street, however, does a passing Homeless Vehicle engender in our viewer a sense of anxiety for the homeless it proposes to serve? Or, seeing a working prototype in use, do they feel a sense of relief that a “solution” to the homeless “problem” is available, relinquishing them of any obligation to do their part?

Writing this now, I feel a sense of crisis. Dunne and Raby, having popularized the field of speculative/critical design by making it a central focus of the now defunct Design Interaction program at RCA, have been busy preparing visions of future western cultures, visions bereft of refugees but complete with “Anarcho-evolutionists” and “Communo-nuclearists”. Wodiczko has been using high-powered projectors to cover monuments and buildings around the world with the recorded stories of members of marginalized communities such as women factory workers in Mexico or US war veterans. Certainly, I don’t wish to suggest that the Polish artist is any sort of martyr—he develops his work while on the Harvard Graduate School of Design faculty payroll. But I do very much want to love his methodology—one that he argues “attempts to heal the numbness that threatens the health of democratic process by pinching and disrupting it, waking it up, and inserting the voice, experiences, and presence of those others who have been silenced, alienated, and marginalized” (xiii).

Are Dunne and Raby trying to “heal” anything? They suggest that by identifying a current sociotechnical trajectory and trying to plot its future through the creation of material artifacts that present the audience with that future, they can provoke discourse on the desirability of that future. You can see, then, why our old friends, the accelerationists would prefer this methodology—especially those on the left, who see projects such as Occupy and the Arab Spring as having failed in their very un-futuristic shortsightedness. So instead of trying to figure out who gets to sleep in the warm tents once the snow comes, I guess it’s better to forget about sleeping altogether and just leaning into our four hour work week to build systems of automation that will most certainly save us from late capital’s technocratic grip?

Where are we left then? If we envision projects to address homelessness today, we are absolved of needing to worry about it tomorrow. If, instead, we envision what homelessness looks like tomorrow, then we need not worry about today—our hyperstitious ways will materialize the answers. Our real projects are fake, so we must rely on our fictions? 

If you’ll allow me to return to television (warning: spoilers ahead, tread lightly), consider that all of the accelerationist projects and hyperstitious speculative design pieces being extruded slowly through the 3D printers and from the laser cutters of the shiny new “makerspaces” of  otherwise underfunded art and design departments are not in the service of dismantling heavily capitalized corporate cloning projects or bringing down the E-Corps of meat space. At first blush, this makes perfect sense. Firstly, we mustn’t upset the backers of said spaces. Secondly, and perhaps more obviously (absurdly?), there isn’t a heavily capitalized corporate cloning project, nor is there a Sino-American conspiracy involving multinational corporations, cryptocurrency, and a Swedish executive-cum-hacker (and if you believe there is, you must obviously sleep with a tinfoil hat on your head).

At this point, I’ve brought you with me down a big of a rabbit hole. There are questions of scale (are we fixing capitalism or cloning?) and medium (metal, Photoshop, or television? Maybe all three?) and channel (gallery, street, or BBC America?) and more. So in my next post, let’s see if I can’t wrap this up and finally start to answer the questions I posed at the beginning of last week’s piece: when is fiction too fake, reality too real?

Gabi Schaffzin is a PhD student at UC San Diego. Anthony Dunne thought his work was all a big hoax. Krzysztof Wodiczko thought his work was too ironic. He was rejected from a PhD with the former (fortunately) and a job with the latter (disappointingly).