Maggie Orth interview

Maggie Orth is an artist and technologist. She received her PhD in Media Arts and Sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Media Lab and a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. Speaking to Jessica Hemmings, she reflects on the lessons to be learnt from wearable computing, the power of the iPhone and questions just how much more stuff our planet really needs.

JH: It is more than a decade since you launched International Fashion Machines. What were your objectives when starting?

MO: I started the company, initially with Joey Berzowska, in 2002. We wanted to make small technology modules to put into fashion. The first thing we worked on together was an e-ink module. (E-ink is now used in the kindle.) We thought that each fashion company would have their own animated logo, [but] e-ink did not understand that all fashion companies would want a different logo. The mismatch between the fashion and technology industries was fundamental. This was a real wake up call for me.

JH: Was volume the challenge?

MO: Yes, then it was. Things have changed now because of the iPhone. If you are just making a sensor to go into a garment to control something, say a light, you can make 10,000 and sell them to different companies. But if you are making something with a specific aesthetic design, not everyone is going to want the same thing. I did a big project for North Face, the year before the iPhone came out [2007]. North Face had money to invest in technology and they wanted to standardise things.

JH: So parts could be interchangeable?

MO: Yes. Basically every coat needed a computer, which was very expensive. Before the iPhone people did not have access to computers in their pockets. Every coat, shoe, ski boot needed a computer to be able to do anything meaningful. So we designed a central brain that could move from product to product. But in the middle of the project the iPhone came out and I suggested North Face partner with the iPhone but North Face wanted a proprietary technology. It is really easy to say the iPhone isn't original, because it is not. That is what makes it good! It took ideas that people had for over 20 years and crammed it into one phone.

JH: Did your thinking change the day you had an iPhone in your hands or was the shift more gradual?

MO: I saw the iPhone could be the brain for all wearable computing. I don’t think people want ten thousand devices; people like that the iPhone can do it all and for environmental reasons it is great if one device can do it all. The reality is that putting electronics in every piece of clothing is not a boon for the environment. Computer chips have no recyclability.

JH: Do you feel our enthusiasm for being connected to the Internet twenty-four-seven is diminishing?

MO: I think that there are real questions about how connected we want to be.

Personally I don’t want to be that connected. I can't understand why people tweet. I can’t understand, even at a deeper level why people read other people’s tweets! But there are great benefits to being as connected as we are. Just to design something I use to have to go through the Thomas Register to find parts. Now I can look online and order them and they will be there the next day. But I do question how much information people can make meaningful from this constant data stream.

JH: Have you separated in your mind your artistic practice from the research and development work you undertake?

MO: I have always thought of everything as my artistic practice. I could not separate my artwork from my technical or business work. When I patented my Pompom Dimmer, I thought of it as an artistic act. In the male dominated technology world patenting a pompom – a fuzzy female decorative object – questioned what we value in the market and why.

JH: What are your thoughts about the challenges facing the next generation of design students?

MO: I think young designers today must ask how humans can continue to be the creative beings that we are - whether a designer or a scientist or an inventor - and not trash the planet. Certainly there is a place for making cool, fun, beautiful things, but we don’t need a world filled with mass produced light up gadgets. When I began my work in wearable computing there was a belief that putting electronics in things might create a new design vocabulary. But today I wonder how new it really was. And I wonder if the momentary thrill of novelty that Wearables promise is worth the long term consequences of a poisoned world.

Selvedge Magazine July 2015 page 46-47.