FUTURE OF FASHION: Technology Drives Cultural Change. Just Ask William Gibson.

Fashion robot steven kelin(image)

I find myself distracted outside Harajuku Station by a bevy of teenage manga nurses, rocker girls kitted out in knee-high black platform boots, black jodhpurs, black Lara Croft tops, and open, carefully starched lab coats, stethoscopes around their necks. The look clearly isn’t happening without a stethoscope. They’re doing the Harajuku hang – smoking cigarettes, talking on their little phones, and being seen.

– author William Gibson in Wired (2001)

Now, much as I adore Neuromancer (1984), Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), Idoru (1999) and even Pattern Recognition (2003), I’ve never read Gibson for prose, per se. Nabokov, no doubt. Dickins, definitely. Naguib Mahfouz, most definitely. But Gibson…not so much.

Fashion robot ex machinaI certainly loved the way Neuromancer opened with “the sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” And Idoru deliciously depicted “a gray shudder beyond the windows of the silent train. Not as of surfaces rushing past, but as if particulate matter were being vibrated there at some crucial rate, just prior to the emergence of a new order of being.” These melodramatic touches, rooted in the legacy of pulp merchants like William S. Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon and Dashiell Hammett, have always given Gibson’s work a certain infectious energy born of “pulp velocity and an odd techno-mysticism.” And it’s, without question, tasty…but more in that guilty-pleasure-Pringles way… you hate yourself, but can’t stop at just one. (Ex Machina image via source)

So when Gabriel Winslow-Yost recently bemoaned in The New Yorker about how threadbare, flat and attenuated Gibson’s prose has become, my only quibble would be with become

But Gibson’s writerly superpowers have never really had anything to do with his “increasingly irrelevant” characters and plotlines. Rather, the real star of the Gibson show is his take on the things we create. The technology. Take 2014’s The Peripheral. Tasty tech touches include:

  • an old parka with “evil hydrophobic nanopaint on it…. The rain made a little sizzling sound, as it tried its fastest to get off the coated cotton.”
  • military “haptics” implanted into vets which cause a form of futuristic PTSD – “like phantom limbs, ghosts of the tattoos he’d worn in the war, put there to tell him when to run, when to be still, when to do the bad-ass dance”
  • animated, autonomous tattoos of wildlife all over a woman’s body that are “a terrified tangle of extinct species, their black ink milling against her luminous pallor”

Japan harajuku anime fashion styleAnd teenage girls getting their bondage-nurse on in the streets of Tokyo. In musing about the way the private and the consensual interface in the hyper-trendy Harajuku nabe, Gibson – in his awesome piece in Wired – homes in on why this city represents the most compelling crystal ball we have for understand the shape “the future” will take, culturally. (image)

Gibson traces the origins back to 1854, when Commodore Perry of the US Navy landed in Shogun-ruled Japan, ending 200 years of self-imposed isolation with yankee swagger backed up by gunboat diplomacy. “The Japanese,” writes Gibson, “knew that America, not to be denied, had come knocking with the future in its hip pocket…The Industrial Revolution came whole, in kit form: steamships, railroads, telegraphy, factories, Western medicine, the division of labor – not to mention a mechanized military and the political will to use it.”

He then, deliciously, describes this showstopping entrance of “alien tech” to “the Roswell Incident as a trade mission.” The American aliens, armed with their briefcases and plans, proceed to enact “a cultural retrofit from the scorched earth up.” The graft of brazen American’ness onto the local feudal-industrial substrate essentially drop-kicked the Japanese into the future. Where they’ve since had more than 100 years to look around, get acquainted and settle on in.

And learned how to live with it.

Fashion robotWhich is where the bondage-nurses or [insert “outrageous” fashion-pose-du-jour] come in: they represent a way of dreaming in public. Without danger. For in Harajuku, they have a safe-zone set aside for them. “In the face of drugs and slackers and a notable local increase in globalization,” writes Gibson, “the Japanese, in the course of being booted down the timeline, have learned to keep it together in ways that we’re only just starting to imagine. They don’t really worry, not the way we do. The manga nurses don’t threaten anything; there’s a place for them, and for whatever replaces them.” (image)

For it is amidst the delirious electronic chaos of neon, gadgetry and e-hoopla that the future lurks. “I wish I had a thousand-yen note for every journalist who, over the past decade, has asked me whether Japan is still as futurologically sexy as it seemed to be in the ’80s,” says Gibson. “Watching the Japanese do what they do here, amid all this electric kitsch, all this randomly overlapped media, this chaotically stable neon storm of marketing hoopla, I’ve got my answer: Japan is still the future, and if the vertigo is gone, it really only means that they’ve made it out the far end of that tunnel of prematurely accelerated change. Here, in the first city to have this firmly and this comfortably arrived in this new century – the most truly contemporary city on earth – the center is holding.” And more than just holding. Pointing…the way to the future. “Cultural change,” he adds, is essentially technology-driven.”

– Lesley Scott

Traditional and modern in japanActively embracing the future – from technology to traditional gender roles – with a desire to make it fashionable and timely is a signature of the Futurenetic Fashion Tribe. For more of my posts about this tribe, CLICK HERE. To learn more about each of fashion’s four mega-tribes that I track, START HERE.

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