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robertogreco : virginiapostrel   5

How textiles revolutionised technology – Virginia Postrel – Aeon
"Older than bronze and as new as nanowires, textiles are technology — and they have remade our world time and again"

"In February 1939, Vogue ran a major feature on the fashions of the future. Inspired by the soon-to-open New York World’s Fair, the magazine asked nine industrial designers to imagine what the people of ‘a far Tomorrow’ might wear and why. (The editors deemed fashion designers too of-the-moment for such speculations.) A mock‑up of each outfit was manufactured and photographed for a lavish nine-page colour spread.

You might have seen some of the results online: an evening dress with a see-through net top and strategically placed swirls of gold braid, for instance, or a baggy men’s jumpsuit with a utility belt and halo antenna. Bloggers periodically rediscover a British newsreel of models demonstrating the outfits while a campy narrator (‘Oh, swish!’) makes laboured jokes. The silly get‑ups are always good for self-satisfied smirks. What dopes those old-time prognosticators were!

The ridicule is unfair. Anticipating climate-controlled interiors, greater nudity, more athleticism, more travel and simpler wardrobes, the designers actually got a lot of trends right. Besides, the mock‑ups don’t reveal what really made the predicted fashions futuristic. Looking only at the pictures, you can’t detect the most prominent technological theme.

‘The important improvements and innovations in clothes for the World of Tomorrow will be in the fabrics themselves,’ declared Raymond Loewy, one of the Vogue contributors. His fellow visionaries agreed. Every single one talked about textile advances. Many of their designs specified yet-to-be-invented materials that could adjust to temperature, change colour or be crushed into suitcases without wrinkling. Without exception, everyone foretelling the ‘World of Tomorrow’ believed that an exciting future meant innovative new fabrics.

They all understood something we’ve largely forgotten: that textiles are technology, more ancient than bronze and as contemporary as nanowires. We hairless apes co-evolved with our apparel. But, to reverse Arthur C Clarke’s adage, any sufficiently familiar technology is indistinguishable from nature. It seems intuitive, obvious – so woven into the fabric of our lives that we take it for granted.

We drag out heirloom metaphors – ‘on tenterhooks’, ‘tow-headed’, ‘frazzled’ – with no idea that we’re talking about fabric and fibres. We repeat threadbare clichés: ‘whole cloth’, ‘hanging by a thread’, ‘dyed in the wool’. We catch airline shuttles, weave through traffic, follow comment threads. We talk of lifespans and spin‑offs and never wonder why drawing out fibres and twirling them into thread looms so large in our language."



"As late as the 1970s, textiles still enjoyed the aura of science. Since then, however, we’ve stopped thinking of them as a technical achievement. In today’s popular imagination, fabric entirely belongs to the frivolous world of fashion. Even in the pages of Vogue, ‘wearable technology’ means electronic gadgets awkwardly tricked out as accessories, not the soft stuff you wear against your skin – no matter how much brainpower went into producing it. When we imagine economic progress, we no longer think about cloth, or even the machines that make it.

This cultural amnesia has multiple causes. The rise of computers and software as the very definition of ‘high technology’ eclipsed other industries. Intense global competition drove down prices of fibres and fabric, making textiles and apparel a less noticeable part of household budgets, and turning textile makers into unglamorous, commodity businesses. Environmental campaigns made synthetic a synonym for toxic. And for the first time in human history, generations of women across the developed world grew up without learning the needle arts."



"Textiles illustrate a more general point about technology. The more advanced a field is, the more blasé we are about its latest upgrades. Success breeds indifference. We still expect Moore’s Law to hold, but we no longer get excited about the latest microprocessor. The public has largely forgotten the silicon in Silicon Valley.

New and improved fabric technologies haven’t attracted public enthusiasm since the backlash against leisure suits and disco shirts made synthetics declassé in the early 1980s. ‘Pity poor polyester. People pick on it,’ wrote The Wall Street Journal’s Ronald Alsop in 1982, describing DuPont’s efforts to rehabilitate the fibre’s image.

What ended the consumer hatred of polyester wasn’t a marketing campaign. It was a quiet series of technical innovations: the development of microfibres. These are synthetics, most often polyester or nylon, that are thinner than silk and incredibly soft, as well as lightweight, strong, washable and quick-drying. Their shapes can be engineered to control how water vapour and heat pass through the fabric or to create microcapsules to add sunscreen, antimicrobial agents or insect repellent. Over the past decade, microfibres have become ubiquitous; they’re found in everything from wickable workout wear to supersoft plush toys.

Microfibres are one reason the ‘air-conditioned’ fabrics Loewy and his fellow designers foresaw in 1939 have finally come to pass. These fabrics just aren’t promoted in the pages of Vogue or highlighted on the racks at Banana Republic. They don’t attract attention during New York Fashion Week. Their tribe gathers instead at the big Outdoor Retailer trade shows held twice a year in Salt Lake City. There, outdoor-apparel makers and their suppliers tout textiles that keep wearers warm in the cold and cool in the heat; that block raindrops but allow sweat to escape; that repel insects, screen out UV rays and control odour. By establishing that truly weather-resistant fabrics were possible, Gore-Tex (first sold in 1976) and Polartec synthetic fleece (1979) created an industry where engineers now vie to find ever-better ways to conquer the elements. For instance, ‘smart textiles’ originally developed for spacesuits use microencapsulated materials that melt when they get hot, keeping wearers comfortable by absorbing body heat; when temperatures fall, the materials solidify and warm the body."



"Reducing textiles to their functional properties misses much of their appeal, however. They’ve always been decorative as well, a source of sensory pleasure going all the way back to the sexy string skirts worn by Stone Age women. That’s why dyes have been so important in the history of chemistry and trade.

In our computer-centric era, the pursuit of beautiful textiles has naturally turned to information technology. Over the past decade, inkjet printing on fabric has taken off. Instead of requiring a separate plate for each colour, digital printing registers the entire design at once. So for the first time, designers can use as many colours, and as varied patterns, as they choose. Although it currently accounts for less than 5 per cent of printed fabrics, digital printing has already changed the way clothes look. It’s the technology driving the colourful prints so prominent in recent women’s fashion, as well as the crowdsourced design sites Threadless and Spoonflower.

The customers who’ve embraced those designs don’t think much about what makes them possible. But the very invisibility of textiles testifies to their power. We think of them as natural. The instinct behind ‘wearable technology’ is sound, even if the products so far are awkward. ‘Imagine a textile structured from a blend of different fibres which each function as component within a circuit, for example, battery fibres, solar fibres and antenna fibres,’ writes the US fashion technologist Amanda Parkes in an op-ed for the website Business of Fashion. ‘The material itself becomes a self-sustaining “textile circuit” that has its own power and interactive capabilities, but the embedded technology is essentially invisible.’

If the goal is to shrink the distance between nature and artifice, us and it, no technology is as powerful as fabric. Intimate and essential, it touches every moment of our lives. It is among the greatest products of human artifice. Yet it is also an extension of our skin."
textiles  glvo  virginiapostrel  history  clothing  crafts  culture  technology  2015  wearables  materials  industrialrevolution  fashion  craft  dyes  machines  printing  science  adamsmith  raymondloewy  arthurcclarke  dupont  synthetics  fabrics  fabric  elizabethbarber  williampetty  davidorban  josephmariejacquard  weaving  looms  knitting  spinning  craigmuldrew  jameshargreaves  richardarkwright  beverlylemire  samuelcrompton  1939  vogue  microfibres  gore-tex  polartec  ministryofsupply  mizzenandmain  yicui  materialsscience  threadless  spoonflower  amandaparkes  future  making  cv 
june 2015 by robertogreco
In Praise of Chain Stores - Virginia Postrel - The Atlantic
"Contrary to the rhetoric of bored cosmopolites, most cities don’t exist primarily to please tourists. The children toddling through the Chandler mall hugging their soft Build-A-Bear animals are no less delighted because kids can also build a bear in Memphis or St. Louis. For them, this isn’t tourism; it’s life—the experiences that create the memories from which the meaning of a place arises over time. Among Chandler’s most charming sights are the business-casual dads joining their wives and kids for lunch in the mall food court. The food isn’t the point, let alone whether it’s from Subway or Dairy Queen. The restaurants merely provide the props and setting for the family time. When those kids grow up, they’ll remember the food court as happily as an older generation recalls the diners and motels of Route 66—not because of the businesses’ innate appeal but because of the memories they evoke.

The contempt for chains represents a brand-obsessed view of place, as if store names were all that mattered to a city’s character. For many critics, the name on the store really is all that matters. The planning consultant Robert Gibbs works with cities that want to revive their downtowns, and he also helps developers find space for retailers. To his frustration, he finds that many cities actually turn away national chains, preferring a moribund downtown that seems authentically local. But, he says, the same local activists who oppose chains “want specialty retail that sells exactly what the chains sell—the same price, the same fit, the same qualities, the same sizes, the same brands, even.” You can show people pictures of a Pottery Barn with nothing but the name changed, he says, and they’ll love the store. So downtown stores stay empty, or sell low-value tourist items like candles and kites, while the chains open on the edge of town. In the name of urbanism, officials and activists in cities like Ann Arbor and Fort Collins, Colorado, are driving business to the suburbs. “If people like shopping at the Banana Republic or the Gap, if that’s your market—or Payless Shoes—why not?” says an exasperated Gibbs. “Why not sell the goods and services people want?”"
virginiapostrel  us  chainstores  2006  urbanism  cities  heterogeneity  retail  consumerism  diversity  activism 
march 2014 by robertogreco
STEM: Still No Shortage
"There’s another side to these STEM shortage arguments, and they are straightforwardly moralizing: the reason for our continued employment crisis is that too many students took “impractical” majors and are suffering as a result. As Virginia Postrel pointed out last year, this narrative simply is not supportable. We don’t, actually, graduate a ton of people in the supposedly impractical arts or humanities. While participation in the humanities is stable, the number of students who pursue humanities majors is low, around 12%-15%. (Incorrect claims that the humanities are in a crisis of plummeting enrollment somehow coexist with arguments that too many students are taking them as majors.) These majors are also disproportionately concentrated in elite colleges, whose graduates enjoy far better economic outcomes than the median graduate, whether through quality of education, selection bias, or some combination of factors. A quick glance at the actual data shows that the notion of an army of deluded dreamers taking supposedly impractical majors is simply not supportable. What sticks out, more than anything, is the relentless rise of the Business major, by far the largest and one which now produces a mind-blowing 350,000 BAs or so a year. (I’d be very interested to see the economic outcomes for graduates of this eminently “practical” major.)"



"The irony of all this is that the typical argument for the superiority of STEM disciplines would probably focus on these as fact-based disciplines, but the notion of a STEM shortage has almost no facts in its support. The notion of a STEM shortage is based on hype, cultural resentment against the arts and humanities, and an unshakeable American faith in technology as the deliverance from all of our problems. I genuinely believe that the biggest part of the belief in a STEM shortage results from our cultural obsession with technology and our perpetual belief that it will cure all of our ills. This discussion echoes another one of my hobby horses, the notion that technology will solve our education woes in K-12. Again and again and again in education research, rigorous independent studies find little or no statistically significant gains from using new technologies in the classroom."



"When I mentioned that point to my friend, he laughed and said, “These companies are all trying to get the same 50 students.” This, more than anything, may be the source of the persistent STEM shortage myth: the inarguable value of being a star in a STEM field. There’s little doubt that people at the top of the food chain in computer science or electrical engineering or biomedical engineering, etc., often enjoy fantastic material and economic gain. But this is a banal point: it’s good to be a star. It’s good to be a star engineer in the same way it’s good to be a star musician or a star psychologist or a star writer. What public policy and politics demand is that we pay attention not to stars but to the median person. And the median American is facing a world of stagnant wages, the arbitrary nature of the employment market, and the constant fear of our financial system’s boom and bust cycle. The problem is that by definition, very few people get to be stars. I don’t doubt that the median Purdue STEM graduate is doing well. But Purdue is a top-flight STEM school, and half of our graduates will be below the median, and many who start those majors fail out of them, and the country is filled with schools who graduate STEM students who can’t get jobs. Basing our perception of the employment market on the outcomes of those 50 star students is pure folly.

None of this is to question the legitimacy or value of the STEM disciplines. Indeed, they are absolutely central to our experience of the good life. But then again, so are the arts, and in neither case does their inherent value say anything about the employment conditions for those fields. The elementary problem here is in part the notion that college exists for the uncomplicated process of training workers in a particular field. Universities are an essential part of our society, but they were never meant to solve all of our macroeconomic problems. Indeed, this whole conversation elides the large majority of Americans without a college degree at all, who suffer far worse outcomes on average than those who have one and who are struggling simply to stay afloat. What’s required is not to blame individual students for the failures on the job market, but to take a long, hard look at the future of employment, our winner-take-all economy, and the basic American social contract."
education  humanities  stem  economics  employment  virginiapostrel  2013  freddiedeboer  rebeccaschuman  vivekwadhwa  labor  policy  us  politics  highereducation  highered  via:ayjay  technosolutionism  technology  shortage 
december 2013 by robertogreco
Pop Psychology: Why asset bubbles are a part of the human condition that regulation can’t cure - The Atlantic (December 2008) [via: http://askpang.typepad.com/relevant_history/2008/12/the-atlantic-on-financial-bubbles.html]
"Experimental bubbles are particularly surprising because in laboratory markets that mimic the production of goods and services, prices rise and fall as economic theory predicts, reaching a neat equilibrium where supply meets demand...For those of us who invest our money outside the lab...two implications...beware of markets with too much cash chasing too few good deals. When the Fed cuts interest rates, it effectively frees up more cash to buy financial instruments. When lenders lower down-payment requirements, they do the same for the housing market. All that cash encourages investment mistakes...big changes can turn even experienced traders into ignorant novices. Those changes could be the rise of new industries like the dot-coms of the 1990s or new derivative securities created by slicing up and repackaging mortgages."
investing  virginiapostrel  markets  finance  crisis  2008 
december 2008 by robertogreco
Playing to Type by Virginia Postrel
"A revolution in typeface design has led to everything from more-legible newspapers and cell-phone displays to extra-tacky wedding invitations."
typography  design  fonts  atlantic  virginiapostrel  typeface  typesetting  economics  culture  graphic  formatting  usability  theatlantic  type 
july 2008 by robertogreco

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