The Austin Chronicle

Do Cyborgs Dream of Uninterrupted Sleep?

The Bionic Woman: We have the technology

By Melanie Haupt, March 13, 2015, Screens

Back in the early Nineties, feminist theorist Donna Haraway argued in her "Cyborg Manifesto" that in this point in human history, "We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs, ... condensed image[s] of both imagination and material reality." For Haraway, the cyborg is a useful metaphorical construct for thinking of feminism in terms beyond the usual "antagonistic dualisms" of Western taxonomies of identification (in other words, the way we determine that people are "other" from us). That said, we live in a moment in which wearables and other forms of technology in their various iterations make it possible to move from the cyborg as metaphor to reality, one that is particularly immediate for women. From fashion to weight loss to beauty rituals, technology has inscribed itself on the female body, a relationship writ large at this year's Interactive Conference. The question is: Is this relationship improving women's lives?

These days, cutting-edge fashion design has nothing to do with impractical, theatrical pieces that get tongues wagging après New York and Paris fashion weeks. The real innovation is taking place in design houses-cum-labs churning out 3-D-printed garments and smart textiles designed to move and work with our bodies rather than just constrain and cover them. These developments have taken the form of a light-emitting jacket designed by Pauline van Dongen (who'll speak at Friday's Ready to Wear? Body Informed 3D Printed Fashion panel) and Billie Whitehouse's touch-sensitive undergarments activated by an app that allow partners to stimulate one another from a distance (see Sunday's Beyond Wearables: Future Fabrics and Fashion Design). As evidenced by these panels and the folks populating them, there is a lot of energy around developing clothing meant to enhance our quality of life, make us safer, and help us test the outer limits of performance.

Beyond clothing, wearables help women track their bodily performance in service to physical goals. I asked for and received a Fitbit for Christmas and it has changed my life. Because I can now keep track of daily activity and calorie goals, I've lost about 10 pounds, with the added bonus of being able to track my sleep cycles (I now know exactly when during the night I'm the most restless; what up, 2:37am?). Sometimes, as I dutifully tap my device to let it know that I'm no longer in sleep mode, I can't help but feel a little bit like a cyborg: a lumpy, imperfect fusion of flesh and machine. However, Joy Banner, who will share her experience of losing 75 pounds with the help of wearables and dieting apps with her talk iDiet, iDid-it! Losing Weight With Wearables, isn't totally sure that wearables are the future of the perfect body. "While these are all great tools, I think the underlying motivation and controlling the emotional aspects of eating are key to a sustained weight loss," she says.

Half a dozen years ago, wearable technology was in its nascent stages, limited primarily to sewing LED light packs into the plackets of vintage dresses. (Which is totally cute and everyone should do that.) But the field has expanded far beyond high-tech bedazzling of basic prêt-à-porter fashion; today, women can quantify and streamline their lives via digital documentations of daily caloric intake and expenditures while virtually trying on Warby Parker glasses and L'Oréal cosmetics and tracking their menstrual cycles. These are all exciting and empowering to a degree, but it's tempting to think that once there's an app for undoing a lifetime's worth of messages designed to make women hate their bodies, plus one for equal pay, world domination will finally be within our grasp. Nota bene to app developers: Get on that.

Related Events

Ready to Wear? Body Informed 3D Printed Fashion
Friday, March 13, 3:30pm
JW Marriott, Room 206

iDiet, iDid-it! Losing Weight With Wearables
Saturday, March 14, 11am
JW Marriott, Room 201-202

Beyond Wearables: Future Fabrics and Fashion Design
Sunday, March 15, 9:30am
JW Marriott, Room 206

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