text {isle}

one small islet in the sea of digital text
April 29th, 2013

Digital Humanity…?!

{ Robot Grandmother }
Tony Stark

{ Tony Stark }

From The Twilight Zone to Ironman, we are no strangers to the concept of integrating humans and machines.  The links I chose for each of those illustrate the range of human-machine integration, from the soft, warm grandmother in The Twilight Zone episode who is visibly human and whose robotic components are effectively concealed, to the mechanized and weaponized robotic suit that conceals and enhances Tony Stark’s human identity.  For fifty years our culture has been fascinated by the human/machine duality, and each iteration reveals something about our fears and desires – highlighting such themes as artificial intelligence that shows agency and attempts to dominate humanity, attempting to make “regular” humans obsolete (the Terminator films), or attempting to convert humans into a cybernetic collective (the Borg from various Star Trek series and films, and the cybermen in Doctor Who, for example).  There are many examples of upgraded humanity (Chuck) and engineered evolution (Bean from Ender’s Game).

One fascinating aspect of this integration is the divide between applied upgrades and integrated ones.  Tony Stark, for example, has an integrated life support system in the form of an electromagnet that prevents shrapnel from circulating through his heart, and also powers his suit.  But what makes him extraordinary is the iron man suit that integrates man and machine, giving him superhero capabilities.  The Borg, a cybernetic collective that aggressively assimilates those it encounters into the hive mind.  Resistance is futile. . . the borg identity is (usually) a permanent change, involving a networking of mind and cybernetic transformation of the body.  Rather than merely peripheral or external modifications that can be removed at will, integrated or implanted technology changes the constitution and configuration of the human body.  Keira, the Protector on Continuum mentioned in my last post, has more than just her fancy uniform – she is an enhanced human with specialized abilities that assist her vocationally.  She has implanted nanotechnology that gives her enhanced sensory perception, facial recognition, weapons detection, night vision, enhanced strength and speed, continuous visual and auditory recording, and access to a VPN (Virtual Private Network) via an integrated communication system that allows her to communicate with anyone on the network without the use of a phone or other device.

keira sees

{ What Keira sees. }

Keira is a good example of a person not just using the Web, but becoming a part of it.  Previously, I talked about the web as something fabricated from organic materials – but “web” and “network” can also refer to living tissue, like the neural network that controls our body’s sensory and motor functions, or the matrix of living tissue that forms our physical bodies.  In this sense, then Keira’s implants are integrated into her body’s living tissues, and these enhancements to her physical matrix allow her to tap into computer networks.  She is both human and machine, but neither solely human nor merely machine.  She is a digital human.

April 28th, 2013



Smart fabrics.  High-tech interactive clothing.  It sounds like something out of Back to the Future 2, right?  Remember power laces?  What about the self-drying jacket?  It seems that the movie creators’ ideas about what might be possible in 2015 were not quite as far-fetched as they seemed in 1989.  Sure, they got the fashion predictions wrong (although I have heard rumors that some 80’s styles are returning…), but some of their technological fantasies were not altogether unrealistic.  Powered clothing and smart fabrics are now possible, and even old-school pixellated video games have been given a modern textile twist.


Playing a sweater or knitting a game?  In a story reported by touch arcade a couple of months ago, Eli Hodapp reviewed an iOS game called Knitted Deer.  A standard 2D linear format game, it features nordic-style knitted sweater graphics reminiscent of vintage 1980s Christmas sweaters in place of old school pixel graphics.

Ok, so maybe the idea of a knitting-inspired video game puts you to sleep.  Would you appreciate smart pajamas that are patterned with QR codes that can be scanned with a smart phone or tablet that, along with the accompanying app, will provide bedtime stories and lullabies, complete with cuddly images and read-along text.

Too juvenile for your taste?  Maybe this risque 3d-printed dress modeled by Dita Von Teese is more to your taste.  Made of nylon, this black-lacquered crystal-studded gown’s design is based on the Fibonacci sequence, designed on an iPad, printed out in 17 pieces, and assembled. Will the future bring clothing that we can design and print for special occasions, or even every day wear?  (Although the thought of wearing synthetic fabric every day makes me shudder, even if a whole synthetic lifestyle was predicted for us by New York Times Science Editor Waldemar Kaempffert in 1950.  Really.  And underwear that would be recycled into candy.  Read his article from the February 1950 issue of Popular Mechanics speculating about life in 2000; it will entertain you.  It was wrong about many things, but it did seem to grasp that we were heading toward a more disposable mindset in relation to our belongings.)

Aside from the fanciful and the novel, it is amazing what is currently possible to do with fabric and clothing.  Take thermochromic fabric, for instance.  Like a mood ring, it changes color in response to temperature changes.  These jeans change from blue when the wearer is cold to white when warmer, but the reaction is localized, so warmer areas appear white, while cooler areas are blue.  If you are more interested in smart clothing than clever fabrics, the Department of Design and Computation Arts at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada is currently working on a conceptual project that weaves electronic fabric into clothing.  In the future, this could serve functions like charging a cell phone, eliminating the need for extra batteries and cables, or augmenting the temperature of the wearer.  That would be cool.  Or hot.


So we saw what Back to the Future predicted clothing would be like in 30 years, and we know what Concordia University in Montreal is working on for the future, but how high tech will our clothing be…say 65 years from now?  The new SyFy show Continuum takes a guess at an answer.  Set in 2077, the show focuses on a terrorist group who go back in time to 2012, accidentally taking a Protector (police officer) named Kiera with them.  I have to admit that I am completely fascinated with Kiera’s protector uniform.  Her computerized suit is a completely integrated toolkit that is bulletproof, invisibility cloak, and telecommunications unit that allows her to access data or hack computers from digital screens that appear almost magically from the fabric of her uniform, capabilities that are demonstrated in this short video and this clip.

We have come a long way:  from a weaving loom as the first programmable machine and precursor to the modern computer, to sci-fi shows that turn smart clothing into programmable machines.  What is the future for this integration of tech and textile?  What kind of techstyles will we be utilizing and dreaming about in 30 years?