Welcome to the See-Easy

Pervasive surveillance is a funny thing, and I wonder how it will affect dress. All those cameras are sharpening the difference between public and private spaces, so how about this scenario:

The beautiful people, who feel the most threat from paparazzi, bored security guards, and network-based voyeurs, cover up and disguise themselves in public places. Others soon follow the trendsetters, adopting the glamor of incognito. As status indicators, the well-toned face and body that come from the ample leisure time give way (outside of private spaces or posted no-camera zones) to a language of elegant, concealing garments, like you see in more modest countries.

Teenage girls become statistically less fearful about body image, and anorexia rates drop. Rifts develop between groups with different attitudes towards concealment. A tipping point is reached, and in the Prisoner's Dilemma of female modesty, power is taken back by the unionized-sisterhood strength of concealment over the winner-take-all competition of the freer playing field. Male attitudes toward women change as a result.

Meanwhile, law enforcement and the intelligence community don't want faces covered, with all their face-recognition and tracking software. So anti-concealment laws are put in place. The cool rebel kids (along with true criminals) also push in the direction of concealment. A mini industry springs up of wearable concealing devices, analogous to radar jammers and license plate concealers, with a similar "arms race" between laws and the innovations designed to circumvent them. Welcome to the see-easy; check your headcover at the door.

(I'm guessing that there's Sci Fi and Gender Studies out there that has a lot like this, and would love any pointers. Again, I feel lucky to access the firehose of BoingBoing community knowledge.)


  1. Introducing the Celebri-Burqa – anonymous clothing for celebrities (or people who want to be mistaken for celebrities). I look forward to the scandals caused by the young female celebs who ‘inadvertently’ reveal glimpses of their naked faces as they get out of limousines.

  2. Fritz Leiber’s Coming Attraction:

    The coupe with the fishhooks welded to the fender shouldered up over the curb like the nose of a nightmare. The girl in its path stood frozen, her face probably stiff with fright under her mask. For once my reflexes weren’t shy. I took a fast step toward her, grabbed her elbow, yanked her back. Her black skirt swirled out.

  3. Interesting idea, though maybe we could just hide from the cameras and not from each other.

    One possible way to do that is with IR LEDs, which (if bright enough) can blind cameras, but are invisible to humans. (BB covered this a while ago actually.) Use custom-shaped, clear LEDs as the centrepiece of a necklace or choker and you have something very interesting. (Providing you can hide the battery somewhere of course…)

    1. See my previous Post (#1). The English translation is at the bottom of the page. And they used a headband. Great pictures.

  4. You theorize everyone will wear burqas oh I’m sorry concealing face covering garments, you mostly focus on changes women will make in discussing this new world, and you imply that men will think better of women in this new ‘elegant…modest’ burqa wearing world. Seriously? wow. just wow. Way to fail.

  5. Fritz Leiber’s Coming Attraction? Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren? You mean no one thought of the scramble suit from Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly?

  6. While I think your basic idea and the effects it would have on technology are interesting, on the gender dynamics it’s a complete fail.

    First of all, women’s (or men’s) body image issues don’t come from seeing everyday people on the streets, no matter how revealing or glamourously they’re dressed. The problems are the staged and photoshopped pictures in magazines etc. And they wouldn’t stop just because people wear burqas (or whatever you call them) in public to escape surveillance.

    Then you said,
    “A tipping point is reached, and in the Prisoner’s Dilemma of female modesty, power is taken back by the unionized-sisterhood strength of concealment over the winner-take-all competition of the freer playing field. Male attitudes toward women change as a result.”

    Women don’t have problems with sexism et al. because they’re dressed not modestly enough. It’s a matter of socialisation, of power dynamics and goes much deeper. I don’t think that any of that would change just because people would dress differently.
    Also, what Hel@#9 said.

  7. efergus3 / #1:
    That link made me laugh so hard I had to rename my Angry Neighbors, Angrier Neighbors.

    That is AWESOME.

  8. I’m intrigued by the idea of “Incognito Chiq” but I don’t think the gender dymanics are on. Eating disorders are more about control than about body image (though body image might feature as a justification), and affect many dudes, too. Certain studies suggest that women might be more prone to “unrealistic body image” problems then men are, which might imply that the cultural problem with women’s body issues are more about how women treat other women, rather than how men treat women.

    What’s interesting to me is that this style would force a lot of nations to re-examine Islamic stereotypes. What is now seen as a symbol of female oppression can be liberated from that context and shown to be liberating, much as many modern women who wear head scarves are already preaching (sort of how pr0n, stripping, nudity, and sex are turned around in some cases). That’ll be interesting. It’s always intriguing to me how cultures domesticate their cultural “enemies” into themselves.

  9. @kalafudra 13 – yeah, I think you’re right– I was imagining it too abstractly, too attached to my simple game theory analogy to paint a realistic picture.

    So, what do you yourself think the effects on gender relations would be, if any, should large numbers of people (both men and women) in the U.S. began concealing their faces and bodies in public places for the reasons described?

  10. I’m not kalafudra, but since I agree, I’ll give it a shot…

    Assuming this was a voluntary fashion/trend thing and not a sort of moral or legal imperative, I don’t see it having a tremendous effect. People cover up, but they still express their own thoughts and ideas, and gender is part of that. I think gender would become very flexible, though, especially in the exploratory period of high school. Boys wearing “girl styles” and girls wearing “boy styles.” Androgynous “neutral styles.” This might lead to the older generation (and the government) complaining about the decline of traditional values and styles and gender roles and whatnot, but the fear would probably be overblown. Most of the time you can tell what someone is like, even if you can’t tell exactly who they are. Earthy hippie types will wear the moral fabrics, high-end power-brokers will wear the sleekest, most eye-catching cuts, punk rockers will show rips and tears.

    Where it really gets interesting is when an exceptional individual (such as the protagonist in an SF novel) starts to pass between these roles freely just by changing clothes. Pretending to be something you’re not becomes easy when similarity and stealth are virtues (see, for instance, the Iranian(?) dissident who dressed up in a burqua to avoid the law). Most people still want to telegraph their personalities and natures with their clothing (even if the clothing obscures identity).

  11. @Daedalus / #18 — thanks, yes that seems wiser and more realistic– if not as dramatically moralizing! :-) I’m intrigued by the androgyny possibilities idea and am wondering if there’s ever been a culture where men and women, even just younger ones/teens, dress ambiguously gender-wise– not just in an androgynous-y direction, but covered up so that people really can’t be definitively categorized until you actually interact with them (which I think would be fun).

    This makes me think of The Left Hand of Darkness, although it’s not an exact match.

    1. You’d be wanting Terry Pratchett’s dwarfs, then. Both sexes are fully bearded, and what with all the chainmail and leather it’s mighty hard to tell the difference. Dwarf courtship mostly revolves around very tactfully asked questions. I’d recommend The Fifth Elephant as the quintessential dwarfish culture book, with Thud! a close second. Not only does T5E have androgynous dwarfs, it also has naked werewolves, teetotaler vampires, a single man killing thirty men and a dog, and someone actually eating a very small but significant amount of dwarf bread.

      By the way, although your latest sentiments are much better, I detested your original post. It sounds like an apologetic advertisement for moral oppression, right up to having gaggles of gossipy old prudish hens do most of the actual enforcement. That someone would voluntarily invite it – jeez, man.

  12. What Beelzebuddy said, both re: Terry Pratchett’s books and the feeling he got from the first post.

    I don’t see that scenario as likely, though. I think it more likely the opposite will happen; it’s becoming less and less possible to keep anything personal secret, so I think people won’t care so much about secrets.

  13. And this is why I come back to BoingBoing so consistently. Great conversation taking in technology, art, gender, government, culture, and more. Sincerely, Thanks, Honest.

  14. Sorry, didn’t mean not to reply, but I had a few busy days…

    Anyway, as Daedalus said, I don’t think that it would have much of an effect on gender politics at all. Not even as Daedalus said, a gender-bending one.

    The way I understand it, people would only wear these “burqas” in public. But gender politics are made and reinforced mostly in private.

    In any case, I again agree with Daedalus that the most intriguing part of the story would be the possibility to use the burqas as concealing tools.

Comments are closed.