Fashion in the Future

futurelab default header

In a post accompanying this composite picture from Burning Man (left), Kevin Kelly recently wrote “Someday we’ll all dress like this.”

His contention is that the sterile, streamlined and ‘uniform’ clothing depicted by sci-fi movies is just plain wrong. The future – in his vision – will be one continuous and unabashed festival of self-expression; a point he re-iterates in the comments  “… I look forward to a time when we do nothing but art. When getting dressed up is the whole point of life!”

On this occasion, I found myself disagreeing with Kevin. I have no doubt, in the future there will probably be many more people who’ll dress for self-expression, just as there will still be people who’ll prefer the utilitarian and simple in clothing. In many cases, both extremes may be preferred by the same people, but at different times – driven by fashion, season and personal situation.

My belief stemmed from what I know about myself (and others of my ilk) and what fashion choices I’d like to make in the future – accounting for the slender possibility that I may surprise myself with more metamorphosis than I’m used to.

But reading this Economist article about the futility of expecting to be anonymous in the future made me think twice.

The article in question reports not on fashion in the future but on the growing menace and sophistication of face recognition software. In one recent experiment, for eg., an off-the-shelf face-recognition program correctly identified as many as a third of participants simply by comparing their images with publicly available profiles on Facebook.

It seems unavoidable that in the future you could be identified by anyone who takes the trouble, simply based on info widely available on the net.

So how will dressing up outlandishly like you’re at Burning Man change that? By pushing the face-recognition algorithms to their limit, or even past it. If you can’t outlaw them, you might as well do all you can to throw them off-track.

The point is, dressing simply and predictably at all times only trains the software to zero in on you (especially if you can’t control who takes your pic when and tags it online) – and there’s only so many ways you can dress functionally. On the other hand, there are an unlimited number of looks – and ways to dress – if you opt for ‘self-expression’ instead.

My guess is that a lot of people bothered about the growing spread and reach of CCTV cameras will dress artistically and give full vent to their self-expression. And not just on occasions where they would like to avoid scrutiny – at protest rallies for eg – but even for occasions that don’t demand the veil of being unidentifiable. It’ll be hard to justify, or practice, as ‘self-expression’ if you only indulge in it at opportunistic moments.

The same holds for wearing just masks – which is really all you need for beating face recognition algorithms; but dressing ‘self-expressively’ overall gives you the freedom to cover your face creatively in public without seeming like a potential bank robber.

The goal will not be to beat face recognition one hundred per cent but to the raise its cost by adding the need for (expensive) human oversight or to introduce a reasonable cause for doubt.

There will, of course, continue to be people for whom self-expression for its own sake is worth the exorbitant cost. But for others, a little paranoia should offer a helping hand.

[Original “shot” by Kevin Kelly]

Original Post: