September 07, 2004

Slow Pirates #2

[for the previous Slow Pirates entry, click here]

What will lead us, then, from the Walkman to cargo pants, which have survived not just one but a handful of fashion cycles, in such a way that they are on the verge of leaping from a style to an is-ness, like jeans? The cassingle will not lead us there; the cassingle was an intermediate phase.

But everything is an intermediate phase: the cassingle, the Walkman, Napster, cargo pants, the iPod, the ruby laser, nanotech. This summer I had an answering machine with a microcassette. What’s interesting is the particular way each thing is intermediate; every object is on the way to a later object, every object mediates a certain past and some inevitable future.

Here I could make a simple argument. “Portability” as a concept had always been desirable; America’s 20th century, with national rail lines and cars, opened new horizons of, and interests in, portability. The Walkman in particular introduced portability of the media environment. This is the story of the last two decades of the 20th Century, as the Walkman is followed by the pager, mobile phone, laptop computer, PDA and BlackBerry, by which point it’s obvious that what’s really being mobilized is the work environment, for which Gameboys and portable DVD players serve only as the pauses that refresh, or perhaps as training for carrying very small machines-for-working around.

That’s the simple story: that it was all just happening, and the Walkman was a gateway device. There’s a more nuanced way to tell the story, though not especially elusive: anyone who’s ever seen some person apartment-hunting from the back table of a café, with his laptop and cell phone and PalmPilot, knows perfectly well that all this portability isn’t some kind of unspecified historical imperative; it’s about something.

It’s about housing costs. Go to where rents are very low and you will see a lot fewer of every portable device. This is in part because people in these places have less disposable income, by definition; moreover, such places often have an acculturated uninterest in technological cutting edges. But mostly, people in these places have more square feet in which to live, and this tells a huge tale. Lifestyles unknown in Redding, California, are iconic in Manhattan, in London and Tokyo, where one rents a bed-sized apartment, and sleeps in it. You are never lying on your couch listening to Johnny Cash, because you have no couch. You leave the house in the morning and you do not come home til after the bars; there’s no room for a desk, much less an office. Maybe you have a laptop, depending on your work or hobby; of course you have a mobile phone, surely an iPod. And because you do not want to be rooting around endlessly in your backpack, you have cargo pants.

Cargo pants, like many fashions, started as the clothes of laborers. And travellers, who had tiny hotel rooms and were wandering around Paris with their guidebooks, maps, passport, and so on. These are the forms: tool-carriers and tourists. It turns out that more jobs than anyone imagined twenty years ago have tools that can be carried in your pocket. It also turns out that the material facts of cultural tourism -- tiny expensive rooms and the need for a lot of info ready to hand -- apply to a lot of locals. Cargo pants are an expression of two things: digital portability and soaring property values.

What, you may be wondering, has this to do with slow pirates, the slow pirates about whom one has of late heard so much and so often?

Posted by jane at September 7, 2004 09:32 PM | TrackBack

...yeah, well, *once again,* you are leaving me out: i have a superslinky pair of black silk cargo pants, and not only do i put nothing in the pockets (ruins the lines) but they are so flimsy, i don't think they could hold anything if i did want to load the pockets even with a cell...

...wait-- i know--i bet this makes me myself an objet materiel, my very uselessness qua cargo pants a status signifier for my patriarchal possessors...

Posted by: gidget at September 8, 2004 08:47 AM

Well, there certainly is a gender story in fashion; I can't suppose anyone disputes that. As a story, it overlaps with another tradition, one that you get at here: many, many styles start in utility and either evolve into or throw off a parallel line of objects that recapitulate the form without the utility. This has been true for centuries; it's a given of fashion *in general* that has little to do with the particulars of any given style. About those, an anthropology of utility remains possible and necessary.

Posted by: Wallace at September 8, 2004 09:58 AM

Yeah! can I start it here? part two of millions: the impost of an arch or vault (the cornice which ostensibly receives the load) is a complete imposture (bad…) in any stud framed neoclassical construction-- who reflects on the origins of its extrusion as support for the wooden framework on top of which the stones were laid.
Utilitarian origins can be traced in many styles yes, but more specifically in that criminally associated term: ornament. Such as unusable pockets…

Posted by: ClaP at September 8, 2004 03:45 PM

In socio-economically equivalent areas where rent differs, I believe that the portable devices don’t' disappear, they just mutate based on commuting. One could argue that in affluent suburbs, the portable devices are in-dash XM Radios, in dash mp3 players, integrated speakerphones, etc.

Is there a corollary between the extra pockets and extra drink holder / power sockets / cubbyholes in the family truckster?

Posted by: Wolf Larsen at September 9, 2004 09:51 AM

but cargo pants are slipping out the back door of the fashion this because technological devices are being compressed and one gadget can do the job of three or four, consequently taking up less room and pockets? is this a fashion/function coincidence or conpsiracy?

Posted by: mary at September 9, 2004 02:19 PM

Is this headed towards a smart clothing manifesto? I hope not.

The vehicle is difficult to take out of the vehicle/transmission/emission combination which brought us the first RT eye in the sky (airplane/radar/camera) in the 30’s, or the RT street level voice (bike/wifi/printer) more recently.
The dematerialization of the command center might be a prerequisite to Sugarhigh!‘s desire for songs to be beamed directly into her head by satellite at all times, but can we lose the pocket that holds the remote? Attempts to camouflage GUI’s involve shifting their scale: either de-multiplying them into ubiquitous miniaturized ‘badges’ or (no longer) seeing them take over building facades. Camouflage is not enough in this scenario, the interface needs to disappear altogether.
It could, of course, go something like this: complete removal of the screen, at least for non graphic transmissions. the mouse/touchpad/click-wheel could be replaced by a voice activated bug, or better, a motion detector chip in our tissue similar to wiring in a bldg: a service to be activated. centralized emitters, commands being sent through body language, new public dances revealing used software, choreographers being the new designers, no more cargo pants, no more cluttered dashboards, no more collections of single-function devices nor extreme portability guarantees, expanded semiology studies, etc… anyone who’s played videogames blindfolded knows that our body memory can take it. But of course, system failures would be difficult to troubleshoot without an interface, and we wouldn’t want the wrong finger gesture to trigger a decapitation.

Posted by: qt at September 10, 2004 05:48 AM

that there is a place for a hammer even by the hip:

- of course as yet that place is filled with tiny pleasant guff, for the miniaturisation of the phallus, its shedding of all the trappings of coal and steam and rising soaring bricktowers - all ready to topple we thought; all galleries and lofts now - and the easy terrible laws of thermodynamics, so that for now it seems easier to steal or swap or even juggle with, hasn't helped, not yet, to shuffle things along -

but a place is held, even by the hip, for a hammer

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Posted by: Ralph at November 19, 2004 09:21 AM

send me good cargo's images with lot of detailing.

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