Worn Out

Tech elites’ supposed indifference to fashion is a contempt for the commons

Full-text audio version of this essay.

Despite the tech industry’s growing dominance across many cultural domains, its relationship to fashion has remained awkward. Not that technology itself hasn’t had a huge impact: The rise of e-commerce has expanded consumer access to a kaleidoscopic variety of fashion products, enabling the proliferation of niche direct-to-consumer brands that could not have existed without the internet. Social media platforms like Instagram, meanwhile, have transformed the marketing of fashion, fostering an influencer ecosystem in which every customer is also a potential advertiser, whether compensated as such or not. More broadly still, the internet, by accelerating the flow of cultural information, has commensurately accelerated the evolution of fashion trends while democratizing awareness of them.

But the individuals who represent Silicon Valley to the world — the CEOs of the largest tech companies as well as the rank-and-file employees — often appear to be decidedly anti-fashion in their personal aesthetics, as though it were all a superficial nuisance they would rather ignore or abolish altogether. Silicon Valley’s best-known fashion statements are notable for combining perfunctory minimalism and heavy-handed self-branding in various proportions: Mark Zuckerberg’s insolent hoodies and flip-flops, Steve Jobs’s black turtlenecks, and the Patagonia vests that became the de facto venture-capitalist uniform, evolving from wilderness outerwear into “shorthand for a certain kind of unbridled corporate power,” as Vanessa Friedman wrote in the New York Times last year. Such rigid and spare approaches to style seem intended to brand these leaders as existing outside time, absorbed in only the loftiest endeavors, with little thought to spare on more trivial forms of innovation.

The tech industry’s attitude toward clothing illuminates its characteristic attitude toward public space, as well as its hopes to internalize any benefits it creates

More recently, the “tech worker” identity has coalesced into a marketing demographic, with products emerging to target its presumed quirks. Allbirds, a shoe brand that touts its prioritization of utilitarian comfort over appearance, has come to epitomize the tech wardrobe as well as the ethos that informs it: The shoes are presented as ideal footwear for long stints in plush offices bookended by Uber commutes, all wrapped in a greenwashing sheen of environmental sustainability. E-commerce site Stitch Fix assumes its tech-inclined customers are too busy to bother with clothes shopping: As Hannah Murphy writes in a 2020 Financial Times piece, its personalized algorithmic clothing recommendations “allow overworked geeks to subscribe to receive a curated package of clothing each month without having to leave their hot desks.”

The tech attitude toward fashion mirrors its underlying faith that individuals’ lifestyles can be optimized just like its products. In making aesthetic, emotional, and social considerations subservient to functionality, this is consistent with tech’s approach to diet (an efficient process of nutrient ingestion supported by “meal replacement” products like Soylent), sleep (an app-quantified segment of the day optimized to maximize waking output), and drug usage (nootropic “brain hacking” to enhance cognitive performance and productivity). One recent tweet from a venture capitalist even went as far as dismissing romantic relationships for being unproductive.

Tech’s conspicuous indifference to fashion has hardened into a familiar trope, if not a stereotype. A 2018 Vox interview with tech industry stylist Victoria Hitchcock refers to the “Silicon Valley uniform” of “a plain T-shirt, jeans, and austere sneakers,” while Murphy’s article offers a similar description, observing that “tech titans have … been assiduous about dressing to a kind of casual uniform.” In contrast with the industry’s laser focus on things it deems important, this relative disregard suggests that fashion is seen as yet another convention-bound domain to disrupt or discard. Why waste time deciding which shirt to wear when there are ads and landing pages to A/B test? Downplaying one’s interest in fashion may appeal to those who want to signal that they are occupied with higher pursuits than personal vanity, such as “changing the world.” Asked in 2014 why his outfits never changed, Zuckerberg answered, “I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.”

But this indifference to fashion, rather than testifying to a higher calling or a more refined sense of what “matters,” might also be understood as a telling blind spot, one that reveals a broader rejection of the purposes fashion serves beyond its supposed frivolity or ostentation. In his 1964 book Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan wrote that clothing “can be seen both as a heat-control mechanism and as a means of defining the self socially.” In practice, those two functions are intertwined. Even at its most utilitarian — when functioning as a pure “heat-control mechanism” — clothing is still a statement about the conditions we expect to encounter, natural and cultural. The way the tech industry dresses hints at the kinds of cultural conditions it expects to face or, more significantly, the conditions it hopes to create.

While the tech industry’s fashion sensibility (or lack thereof) is hardly its most glaring problem, its attitude toward clothing does illuminate its characteristic attitude toward public space, as well as its hopes to internalize any benefits it creates. Fashion is a mode of display that enriches public space and a culture’s shared meanings, but as it enters the culture, it ceases to strictly belong to anyone. It can be observed and often copied without having to pay anyone for the privilege. That is, it creates positive externalities — benefits for which people don’t have to explicitly pay, but can enjoy just by being present in shared space. This acts as a beneficent spiral, with personal style and the public sphere enhancing each other’s significance.

“To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it,” Hannah Arendt wrote in The Human Condition. Clothing is among those common things, having a shared visibility that Arendt considered essential: “Appearance — something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves — constitutes reality.” In other words, fashion conveys not just specific trends or an individual’s personal style but a sense of the public itself, of shared space. Fashion implies a desire to see and be seen while affirming the need for public spaces and occasions where that seeing can occur. The manner in which fashion circulates and evolves speaks to the kind of shared reality that we are constituting for one another.

To the tech world, however, those positive externalities look suspiciously inefficient. These unpaid-for pleasures are externalities that could, with the right technological fixes, be reinternalized and made into someone’s property again.

The desire to capture and monetize positive externalities is hardly confined to the tech industry. In a recent article about vaccine patents, public policy expert Gordon Hull describes how the pharmaceutical industry regards public health suspiciously because, as a classic public good, it “is non-rivalrous (we can all share it) and non-excludable (we can’t stop others from benefiting).” But that means companies have little incentive to create those benefits, which can’t be captured as private gain. “If my vaccination stops what otherwise would have been a chain of Covid transmission (because I didn’t get sick when exposed, and so didn’t transmit it to my family or friends), there is no way to monetize that benefit,” Hull points out, which means pharmaceutical companies lose interest in developing vaccines (which promote social health) in favor of producing individualized treatments for chronic conditions (such as obesity and erectile dysfunction).

Fashion implies a desire to see and be seen while affirming the need for public spaces and occasions. To the tech world, those positive externalities look suspiciously inefficient

The more that this logic of privatization pervades a society, the greater the likelihood that all the “free lunches” will be eliminated and any externalities encountered in the public realm will be negative, as when heavy industry collects profit and leaves pollution. But the tech sector too offers so many prominent examples of this approach that it can seem like its core strategy. The various incarnations of the “gig economy” — in which every individual worker, small business, or piece of property is a monetizable asset from which a much larger company can extract maximum value through a flexible contractor relationship — depend upon this arrangement: Ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft and food-delivery platforms like DoorDash externalize as much risk as possible by transferring it to the contractors who do the driving; those contractors, in turn, face an incentive structure that frequently pushes them to do that work recklessly (making public space itself more dangerous) to meet platform-mandated goals or secure the customer ratings necessary to keep working. The variable earnings as well as costs like vehicle maintenance are borne (or not) by the individual contractors, while the platforms themselves reap a portion of those workers’ aggregate revenue no matter what. In a similar way, social media externalizes the negative effects it creates: Facebook and other platforms cultivate content that maximizes user engagement while refusing to assume responsibility for its consequences, which have ranged from misinformation to reinforcing bias to violent social unrest.

At the same time that tech companies are generating negative externalities, they seek to reinternalize positive ones, such as fashion. They would love to devise a way to own the means by which we can appear to one another; that is, they want all of Arendt’s tables to be proprietary intellectual property. One way of doing that is to eliminate the concept of public space.

Shared space, of course, does not exist only as physical space. It can also be mediated and extended by screens. Visual social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, in this sense, can become tables around which their users sit. Though these platforms mimic the affordances of traditional public spaces, they are owned and administered by corporations and reflect how those companies understand the concept of “public” — as territories open to surveillance and value capture but rarely to democratic deliberation and control.

Media platforms have become crucial theaters for fashion, but without the virtuous spiral that fashion forms with public space. Instead, platforms are specifically designed to make any value generated by fashion (or anything else that garners attention and collective interest) into something measurable and exploitable. Fashion on platforms is simply an informational commodity that translates into algorithmic rankings, ad valuations, and cash transactions. Those platforms monetize what was previously more difficult to cash in on: the everyday value in looking and being looked at — the process that constitutes Arendt’s reality.

In digitally mediated or augmented spaces, the benefits created by fashion can be more readily captured by the wearer: The views, likes, and followers that accrue to an influencer or a brand equate to potential advertising revenue or direct merchandise sales, with less spillover. The value of that data also accrues to the platform itself, which can synthesize the behavior of its aggregate user base into far more valuable information products, such as ad targeting, trend identification, and other marketing efforts. Social media platforms thus structure a reality in which all “shared appearances” are also implicit transactions that can and should be priced. As long as fashion is happening in public, from this perspective, it is essentially a waste.

It’s therefore natural that the tech vanguard — who understand this arrangement best — have the least interest in dressing up. One might as well wear a uniform that signals an intention to opt out of both fashion and the idea of public space that supports it. But when fashion occurs on a controlled platform, that same logic dictates that it’s worth customizing and optimizing to the hilt, as one can expect to directly capture more of the value created.

This is the same dynamic that AirPods create (as I described in 2019): AirPods aim to reshape the behavior not just of their wearers but of everyone around them, undermining the vitality of physical public space in favor of networked media, where interaction is “supposed” to happen. The tech attitude toward fashion implies a similar attitude — yet another instance of tech’s logic being mapped back onto the physical world. It encourages us to see space as contested rather than shared, and to believe, even if just subconsciously, that our own appearance should benefit us at the expense of others and should efficiently integrate our identities into a range of more or less exclusive brand universes.

The dominant digital platforms comprise a fragmentary array of individualized spaces rather than a true commons, a zone in which the benefits of fashion are quantified via engagement metrics and monetized for capture by creators and consumers. Today, we typically experience this zone in the form of feed-based social media, a crude substitute for physical reality that is correspondingly limited in its ability to function as ersatz public space. Those constraints are particularly pertinent to the tactile, embodied nature of fashion. In this sense, traditional forms of physical public space still function better than Instagram as places for people to see one another and be seen.

Platforms are specifically designed to make any value generated by fashion (or anything that garners collective interest) into something measurable and exploitable

But the ongoing aspiration to make a proprietary alternative to public space more viable and transcend the limitations of social media’s linear feeds might explain the recent appeal of the metaverse, a concept that companies like Facebook and Microsoft have recently invoked. The original metaverse idea, as Brian Merchant detailed in this article for Vice, appeared in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash as an “immersive, shared 3-D digital environment where anything goes.” In the dystopian world of the novel, it “offers most people’s only opportunity to escape from an intolerable reality.” As Merchant points out, this makes the “metaverse” a peculiar — and revealing — catchphrase for the tech industry to attach to its vision of the future. Like its disdain for fashion, tech’s myopically optimistic take on the metaverse exposes its contempt for public space. What companies have touted so far is an effort at, in Merchant’s words, “creating and uniting more immersive digital environments in which entertainment might be consumed and work carried out — and advertising displayed, workers surveilled, and branded NFTs and loot boxes sold.” That is, the “metaverse” serves as would-be branding for this more robust facsimile of public space where a broader range of social expression can be more readily captured and monetized. Instead of a departure from atomized, feed-based social media, this version of the metaverse aspires to be its apotheosis, an environment where “presence” itself is proprietary.

The idea of a “metaverse” suggests how tech companies may intend to disrupt fashion and optimize it, turning it into Fortnite skins, customized avatars, status signifiers like blue verified checkmarks, and NFTs — anything whose digital rights are fully managed. This would seem to resolve the contradictions that the tech industry’s lackadaisical Allbirds and hoodies point to: a version of fashion whose value is fully internalized and therefore finally worthwhile.

Fashion and the public space upon which it depends are both participatory zones in which culture is created, and neither is meant to be consumed individualistically. Fashion can be understood as a collective experience of the zeitgeist in which everyone can participate, which is open to innovations from outsiders. The tech industry would like to reimagine it as a series of fully instrumentalized status signifiers that attest to our social rank and are always already integrated into branded “universes” of intellectual property. Social media have already trained us to think this way: Now that platforms like Instagram and TikTok have become fundamental to fashion discourse as well as public discourse in general, their affordances are more likely than ever to shape our understanding of how culture works. The influencer ecosystem and the artificial scarcity of streetwear “drops” are unsurprising outcomes.

In the newsletter Blackbird Spyplane, Jonah Weiner recently described “a sick mentality in which someone regards the … garment as a pure status symbol, disconnected from fellowship with others and, perversely, disconnected from the natural world itself.” This is a familiar critique of fashion in general: a purely vain or consumerist pursuit in which the benefits of one’s attire do in fact accrue to the individual and are zero-sum. Fashion’s detractors tend to believe this is all fashion ever is. The tech industry, in all its lofty indifference to fashion, wants to make this cynical assessment the unavoidable truth.

Drew Austin writes about technology and urbanism on the blog Kneeling Bus.