Surveillance is a part of how we live now, and how we respond to that runs throughout the Blue Ant trilogy. The books are laced with true developments like widespread CCTV, drone surveillance, and computer spying. Like Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, Zero History traffics in crafty ways to dodge prying eyes. One of these techniques, at the time of the book’s publication, was entirely fictional, but perhaps less so today. And of course, since it’s on the surface a book about fashion and marketing, the secret weapon in question is a T-shirt.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“The ugliest T-shirt in the world,” he said… “So ugly that digital cameras forget they’ve seen it.”
The shirt in the book is not quite camouflaged, but it has a way of making itself disappear when digital cameras attempt to recall footage of it. It’s also described as being extremely dangerous to own or know about, such is its power of invisibility.
In an interview surrounding the release of Zero History, Gibson responded to whether there was such a thing. He said it was real “only insofar as that the description of it emerged instantly and effortlessly from my colleague Bruce Sterling.”
And yet, as these things often do, surveillance-proof fashion has sprung up in recent years, albeit mainly as artistic demonstration. There’s nothing quite as powerful as Gibson’s ugly T-shirt on the books, but there have, in fact, been several garments designed to obscure a wearer’s identity from digital detection.
Most recently we saw an Austrian architecture studio’s Jammer Coat, which is a piece of clothing that combines two previous blog topics—Dazzle camouflage and the Faraday pouch. Literally combines them, as the giant, hideous cloak is lined with metallic fiber to block radio waves and tracking devices, and its pattern is disruptive camo, a series of stitched curves and black and white spots that make it difficult to distinguish the human form within. Its goal is to allow the wearer to become invisible to digital recognition, although along the way it also makes him or her remarkably conspicuous in just about every other way.
New York designer Adam Harvey, who brought us facial dazzle camo we discussed in an earlier post, has a similar garment, cloaking users in metallic material to hide a heat signature from aerial drone recognition. He says:
“Conceptually, these garments align themselves with the rationale behind the traditional hijab and burqa: to act as ‘the veil which separates man or the world from God,’ replacing God with drone.”
There’s another more direct route, a “privacy visor,” developed by two Japanese professors in 2012. The apparatus emits near-infrared light from a series of LEDs, detectable by camera but not human eye, that will scramble the image and prevent facial recognition. It is also not something anyone would actually want to wear.
Finally, we get to a true ugly t-shirt. This one was directly inspired by the shirt in Zero History, developed by graphic design grad student Simone C. Niquille in Amsterdam. The REALFACE Glamoflage T-shirt is a jumble of digitally reproduced celebrity and non-celebrity faces, not designed to obscure the wearer’s face, but to confuse facial recognition, specifically a Facebook algorithm, trying to identify users.
As with many of these creations, the Glamoflage is half-farce, half-political statement. But also like many of these creations, you can really buy one. And they remind us that the issues they address are more real than we’d often like to acknowledge.
More than just spying, Zero History is about struggling to be seen or not seen, and what jockeying powers above do with the many images we present. Navigating the strange world we’ve come to inhabit is an entirely real struggle, and has become part daily life, if not daily wardrobe.