As you know Bob, it seems strange to us today, even somewhat disgusting, that we would wear dead, inert material. At least if we were to cover ourselves with mud, we would know that we were likely applying a rich, healing bacterial and mineral culture to our skins, but dead matter? Is that not disgusting? Thankfully we are so much more civilized now.
The change began with the wristwatch. Originally, a watch worn on a strap around the wrist was a feminine accessory, not something worn by a man. However, in the First World War, soldiers were issued with watches worn on the wrist. This was to allow the synchronization of the mass charges that were characteristic of the wars of that period; When the order was to go over the top at exactly twelve o’clock, it would not do to be caught digging about in one’s vest to see if it was a quarter to or a quarter past. A wristwatch and its second-by-second countdown was always visible while the hands were busy loading a rifle and fastening buckles.
After the war, unemployed and unable to afford a new pocket watch—which was often an expensive family heirloom in any case, the returning soldiers continued to wear their wristwatches and they became acceptable daily wear—even more so when precision timing was of the essence for the new workforce's commuting by bus and train, when it was necessary to know the exact second of a train’s departure rather than the general hour of sunrise. The town clock overlooking a town square and striking the hour with its bell became an anachronism in… well, the passing of one of its own.
The next leap took place with the Walkman, and its infiltration was far less accidental. It was intended from the beginning to provide its wearer with a customized personal space, apart from the surging synchronized masses that were governed by the watch. For a while, the loud “boom box” portable stereo could provide a little sonic plot and a statement of individuality, it was antagonizing and impractical. The Walkman on the other hand, a quintessentially Japanese invention, was subtle, compact, polite, and practical. While its allowance of individuality was its great advantage, it was not in conflict with the compression of the commuting masses pressed shoulder to shoulder. Indeed, the Walkman did not rival the watch; It complemented it and it was eminently sensible to wear both together. Subsequent inventions such as the smartphone, the iPod, and Google Glass turned this complementarity into hybridization.
Although, as you can see, “wearable technology” was already an accomplished fact, the term was only invented about this time. Please note again the premodifier, suggesting the fact that it was wearable was novel and unusual. Naturally, as motorcars became cars and wristwatches became watches, wearable tech became just more tech. Also, as the utility of watches did not conflict with their potential as fashion items, then they became fashion items, so too did the range of use and expression possible with these devices became socially normal and then necessary. In a time that described itself often as the age of communications, the fact that they were used now for communication made this inevitable and integral.
Even at this stage, though, one could pretend that a smartphone and a watch were simply objects, separate accessories and not necessities such as clothing—especially in a cold climate. However, let us consider this little deception and what it meant: We wore clothes because we lacked fur or feathers to keep us warm, and we created jewelry because we had never had extravagant feathers to attract mates. We wore these devices to give us abilities that we did not ever lack, but which we added to ourselves, and yet again, what becomes possible becomes normal and then necessary. As the watch and the walkman converged, so did the accessory and the garment.
The origins of that convergence can likewise be seen in utilitarian requirements seemingly far away from everyday life. The first astronauts were extensively wired with sensors monitoring their heart rate, blood pressure, and other signs, relaying their findings in real time back to mission control. For them, there was no distinction between passive garment and active device.
The concept of the sensitive garment rapidly found its application in sports, where athletes undergoing training were eager to know how their bodies performed under exertion and how they could be optimized, so monitors that followed heart rate, blood flow, temperature, and other signals were woven into their clothes, footwear, and helmets. An athlete could then see right away how well they were doing and what injury they were risking, and their trainer could advise them watching the data stream in real time or in playback. This became useful for coaches of sports as well as training of course—racing drivers were very much like astronauts and a coach always wanted to know how the great super-organism of their team was performing so that they could direct it as well as a conductor could direct their orchestra. It was, as Carl von Clausewitz wrote, the expansion of policy, and so it became the expansion of sports, with soldiers and aviators likewise equipped with smart garments whose channels enhanced their senses, fed information away… and relayed instructions to them.
Again,—and how often we hear that word in history!—military applications became civil applications. What was good for an athlete or a soldier was necessary for anyone who idolized them and wished to emulate them, so smartphone apps that took one’s pulse were rapidly followed by systems that could read every one of a person’s corporeal and mental performance.
To a person of this time, two obstacles on the road to our transformation might have been seen to arise, but they were already overcome. Can you guess what they were?
The first was fashion, of course. The virtue of a pocket-watch as an heirloom was its changelessness, but a wristwatch as a fashion statement must change. So, while the best Swiss watches maintained their pretense of endurance, in fact those who could afford the most expensive owned not one, but hundreds of watches precisely because they were expensive. Those who could not buy many simply had to buy cheaper copies and swallow their embarrassment.
What a computer was about of course is what was on its screen and so it was the program that was the desirable possession, not the platform. A program could be downloaded more quickly than one could visit a shop and it could have its settings altered more quickly than a tailor could cut cloth. Dead wool and silk could only be dead wool and silk and neither could be the other, but active fibers that could alter their tension and elasticity could be as much like wool or silk or something unheard-of as easily as the pixels on a screen could show seascapes or butterflies. Thus smart clothing was the screen of utility and fashion and one could call up any appearance and use. Obsolescence was not a problem, because certainly individual components might break or fall behind in capability, but they could all be replaced incrementally; It was the whole system of components that was the platform for the even more quickly changing fashion.
I think that you can see how odd an even distasteful static, dead clothing seems to us when you think how revolutionary active garments seemed to their first wearers!
The other obstacle—and I see you nodding already—was not an obstacle at all. How does one power active garments? In olden days, the answer was batteries and cables, but movement, heat, light, static electricity, ambient microwaves all provided energy to be harvested… and indeed, the fibers that could extend decorative quills and frills and iridescent scales could also give back to the muscles what they had subtly gathered, adding to strength, dexterity, and sensitivity. Of course the sum was not always in balance, but it was hardly any matter to plug in a jacket at night while asleep, feed it some protein and sugar, or even take a dietary supplement make the body secrete a few more nutrients to feed it through the skin.
The maintenance of smart clothes would have been impossible without nanotechnology of course, but what is biotechnology but nanotechnology that works? Once again, as always, a problem had been solved before it arose and all one had to do was look and find the answer in life itself, cultivating bacterial mats, stem cells, and isolated organs and then mixing blends of the results. We do not so much craft our garments so much as breed them.
As you know, Bob, now my clothes—just like yours—are literally a part of me. It does not matter that they do not share the same parentage as my skin, because someone who has had a transplant or transfusion or simply eaten a meal does not worry about where the original atoms came from or how they were assembled. My suit is my skin and my muscle, my immune system, and my face. I could not show the skin I was born with any more than I could cut out my liver, wrap it in a stained bandage and present it to you wet and dripping. Here I am as I really am, and what a piece of work I am! More versatile than any cuttlefish, how expressive I am, how admirable in my construction! Am I not the quintessence of art?