Cracking the cultural code of wearables

This is a talk Simon gave to the Cambridge Wireless network on wearables. The event was a good opportunity to revisit our thinking on wearables.

The beginning of 2014 saw a frenzy of hype around wearables. Since then the market has not exactly conformed to the hockey stick projections that were being tossed around. And the first reports of wearables abandonment are emerging too. Time perhaps to think about how what we know about technology adoption works could be applied to this nascent market?





I had originally planned to talk about wearable technology through the lens of the watch. But recent events in Cupertino have made me reconsider this. Instead, I want to share some thoughts on what we have started to learn about the progression towards a future of wearable technology. The context, as I see it is one where the CES-fuelled hype that kicked 2014 off is waning and we’re now waiting for Apple to tell us what wearables are going to be about. But it turns out they are not quite sure either and are hoping developers will come up with something between now and the watch hitting the shops.

I think the fact that we don’t know what wearables are for points to a broader point about technology and everyday life. Knowing what role a technology will play in our lives and what’s impacts it might have is, I would argue, largely unknowable.


This ‘unknowability’ is a function of the recursive relationship between cultural and technological artefacts. This famous drawing by Escher sums up for me this mutually constitutive relationship between culture and technology. Culture invents technology and technology reinvents culture – they shape each other in an on-going fashion. This means that while a technology may have a particular use or affordance its effects (and affects) are likely to be non-linear and uncertain. Culture, in short, puts a spanner in the works of any straightforward prediction. Culture messes with the linearity of most ‘straight-line’ technology discourse.




For me this linearity is summed up by Moore’s Law, which is the observation made by Intel founder Gordon Moore that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. This observation has become a ‘law’ and as Maloney observes in his recent history, The Intel Trinity. It’s a law that sets the rhythm of the technology world.



But culture is very much a non-linear phenomenon. Much more uncertain and unknowable. So while we can say with a fair degree of certain that the number of transistors on a microprocessor will double every 18 months we cannot make such predictions for anything involving culture and social life.

It seems to me that right now the wearables future is one that is being assumed into existence along the lines of some predictable and unbending law. Yes, at many levels there’s nothing new about wearables (clothing, penis sheaves, wigs and pendant alarms are good examples of ‘old’ wearables). But there’s no iron law of nature that says the wearables revolution is inevitable.


Often a new technology is far from obvious. We need a lot of help making sense of what it is, why we need it and how to make it part of our lives.  This assistance might come in the form of instructions – literal or otherwise – or some mediating force or intervention. One way of thinking about new technologies is as wild animals that need domesticating – that is, making safe for habitation around humans.

We need to make sense, tame and train technologies so they work around the way we live our lives. This is not always easy.



So it’s a possibly an obvious point but a technology that fails is often one that doesn’t get domesticated or incorporated into our daily lives. Some technologies stick others die a quiet death. Some fail because they are too advanced or too clunky. Some don’t take off because they rub up against culture in the wrong way. Success depends on a technology finding a meaningful places in our social and cultural worlds. That process of incorporation can take time and yet we tend to repeatedly assert that adoption and change will happen quickly.


Incorporation, as its etymology suggests, is very much about the body and I want to suggest that this is much about social as it is individual bodies. Too much of the way we talk about consumers implies individuals not broader social entities. The ‘wearables world’ is following that tendency (fitness tracking is largely a self-centric not social centric concern). Technology needs to find a home within our personal lives and find a place within broader socio-cultural settings. The history of technology provides many examples of this. For example, my research on satellite TV in India during the 1990s discovered that finding a place for TV within the household required plenty of negotiation of norms around gender, relations between in-laws and across generations. People’s responses to TV at that point in time played into broader debates about Indian-ness and culture.


Google Glass has become the paradigmatic fail in this space. (Not that I’m forecasting this will remain the case – in fact I see a range of useful and profitable use cases for the technology, especially in industrial and occupational settings).

It’s clear from even a casual reading of Glass’ early adventures that it runs uncomfortably close to – and in some cases transgresses – a series of  normative ideas about social interaction. Glass asks forces us to rewrite some basic rules of social interaction. That may happen – again, I’m not a futurist – my point is that this process that takes time to work through.

Glass points out that what is possible technologically is not always desirable culturally, at least in the short term. Culture needs to play catch up with Moore’s law.


Please don’t think that I’m taking sides here- I’m not -what I am trying to illustrate is that the debates which surround their emergence create a line of sight into how we think about norms of social interaction and engagement, what privacy should mean, what sort of sharing is and isn’t ok.

We should take these debates then not as some commentary on whether a technology will or won’t succeed – but as important clues as to what’s at stake and what we need to consider as we design and roll out new technologies.


As I said out the outset, I don’t consider myself a futurologist and actually I think that forecasting the impact of a technology is not just hard, it’s probably stupid.

It is difficult to know how the technology will develop, it’s difficult to know to what uses it might be put and its even harder to imagine what changes in our behaviour it will occasion and how these will, in turn, impact the direction of technology development.

That said, here’s 5 ideas for thinking about wearables.


It’s often easy for people like to me to complain that many technologies are solutions looking for problems. That’s a cheap and easy criticism of much technology, and lots of wearables. Equally, it’s easy to say that things have to address a need – currently under- or un-met.

I just wonder whether addressing ‘needs’ or solving problems is the way to go here. What if we just instead looked to delight or amuse people, to offer them something playful, that supports self expression or the exploration or communication of emotion.

Wearables have got to get delight and emotions right. Right now they feel like things trying to solve rather specific and somewhat unimaginative  needs.


I use the word redundancy here in the way its used in technical domains to mean spare capacity. While many wearables seem focused on solving specific needs, real or otherwise, I wonder whether the answer isn’t to make them a little more open to inventive use?  Twitter’s success is, in large part, because it could be anything.

I think wearables need to be a little more like twitter and have the ability to be pointed by their users at yet to be understood needs, contexts or problems. Twitter is good at helping organise uprisings and making watching telly more fun. It’s open ended. Wearables maybe should be more open ended.


Wearables are intimate. They are on the body and they impact how the body interacts with others around it. Wearables can’t treat the grammars of social interaction as an after thought. These grammars are at the heart of the experience. The social proxemics of wearables cannot be an afterthought.


Privacy is a prime example of an issue – a set of idea and practices – that is evolving in a non-linear way. what privacy means is clearly a moving target – a set of ideas and practices that’s moving quickly. It’s hard to say with any degree of certainty that privacy will become more central to the way people thin about new technologies and platforms. But I think it’s worth assuming that privacy is not going away as an issue and the legibility of personal data from wearables is likely going to be an issue that matters to users. Again, thinking about privacy is a table stake not an optional extra.



As will have become apparent by now my view of this is that we ignore the cultural aspects of technology evolution and adoption at our peril. Vision videos are a simple illustration of how ahead of ourselves we can get both in predicting technology and it’s impacts. It feels to me that in the world of wearables patience is going to be crucial.