In Plain View

How the see-through-hand­bag trend blurs the lines be­tween fash­ion and sur­veil­lance.

Fashion (Canada) - - The Draw | The New Armour - By Ta­tum Doo­ley

Our affin­ity for shar­ing our cu­rated lives in URL seems to have mi­grated to IRL ter­ri­tory with the re­cent buzz about clear hand­bags. These totes, which are made of vinyl, are the ana­logue at­tempt to blur the pri­vate-pub­lic di­vide. You can have an In­sta­gram­wor­thy still-life shot and then show off your per­fectly cu­rated life on the street. In both cases, it’s a fab­ri­ca­tion of pseudo-au­then­tic­ity—or the ver­sion of our­selves that we want the world to see.

In Mar­shall McLuhan’s sem­i­nal 1967 book The Medium Is the Mas­sage, he pre­dicted that dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy would lead to a cli­mate of over­shar­ing as the re­la­tion­ship be­tween “our claim to pri­vacy and the com­mu­nity’s need to know” be­comes blurred. “The older, tra­di­tional ideas of pri­vate, iso­lated thoughts and ac­tions—the pat­terns of mech­a­nis­tic tech­nolo­gies—are very se­ri­ously threat­ened by new meth­ods of in­stan­ta­neous elec­tric in­for­ma­tion re­trieval,” he wrote.

“Mech­a­nis­tic tech­nol­ogy” was a term McLuhan used to de­scribe phys­i­cal ob­jects. To­day, he might sug­gest that the clear-plas­tic hand­bag rep­re­sents a con­tam­i­na­tion of our need to share—or to ap­pear as if we are shar­ing. Per­haps the nor­mal­iza­tion of shar­ing on­line made way for the clear-hand­bag trend, cre­at­ing an In­ter­net phe­nom­e­non that now ex­ists in the phys­i­cal world.

Clear hand­bags were pop­u­lar­ized in the mod ’60s, but this year, ma­jor de­sign houses—la­bels rang­ing from Cé­line to Prada to Build­ing Block to MM6 Mai­son Margiela—have de­buted their own ver­sions of the bag. Ri­mowa took the trend a step fur­ther with its see-through suit­case col­lab­o­ra­tion with Off-White’s Vir­gil Abloh (an aes­thetic de­ci­sion that surely de­lights TSA agents).

The added se­cu­rity ben­e­fit—that any­one can see into your bag—hints at a more sin­is­ter plot line be­hind the trend. Af­ter yet another school shoot­ing in the United States, some schools cre­ated a pol­icy re­quir­ing stu­dents to use clear-plas­tic back­packs. Ma­jor sport­ing events and protest marches have also im­ple­mented poli­cies that re­quire par­tic­i­pants to carry clear bags. Where’s the bal­ance be­tween pri­vacy and sur­veil­lance?

Amelia Vance and Sara Collins from the Fu­ture of Pri­vacy Fo­rum, a non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that re­searches the in­ter­sec­tion of pri­vacy and tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion, em­pha­size that while pri­vacy is im­por­tant, it shouldn’t get in the way of nec­es­sary school safety mea­sures. How­ever, Vance and Collins, who pro­vide le­gal coun­sel to the group, sug­gest that the pol­icy of clear back­packs is both too broad (a school doesn’t need to see the en­tire con­tents of a stu­dent’s bag) and not broad enough (a knife can be con­cealed in a text­book).

The fact that the same ob­ject—the clear hand­bag—is si­mul­ta­ne­ously be­ing used as a tool of sur­veil­lance and a fash­ion state­ment makes me pause. The in­ten­tion of the wearer of a clear bag be­comes im­por­tant: Is he or she be­ing forced to use it or opt­ing in will­ingly? In the lat­ter case, what’s the ben­e­fit? Is it worth giv­ing away a frag­ment of your pri­vacy for another pro­jec­tion of your­self? Or is it enough to sim­ply take another In­sta­gram photo?

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