Op-Ed: I Am A Disabled Cyborg

On the heels of our recent Pizza, Beer and Ethics discussion with Laura Forlano, a social scientist and advocate for feminist techno-science, I came across a a recent report by Éthique sur l’étiquette and Clean Clothes Campaign that Nike and Adidas paid “poverty wages” to garment workers sewing Football World Cup shirts for 2018 players with sponsorships from Nike totaling $50.5 million and Adidas $65 million (per year) until the next World Cup.

The Clean Clothes Campaign writes: “Workers’ wages in the supply chain of the same brands do not follow this upward trend. The new Foul Play report, published today, compares the current production costs of Nike and adidas sport shoes with those of 25 years ago. The share of these costs that ends up in a workers’ pocket is now a staggering 30% less than in the early 1990s.”

While our conversation with Laura focused on the movement toward the “de-centralization of human centered design” to a more systems based view that takes these “non-human users” into account, we examined how we are attaching ourselves to our mobile phones, social media and devices that automate services (like insulin monitoring). How are these attachments turning us into cyborgs who are becoming dependent on our machines and connectivity, and when they break how are we in effect becoming disabled?

Ultimately we developed a list of questions to inform our decision-making process as we design our products over the next ten weeks as part of the TEK-TILES 2018 Project.

They are worth sharing.

1) Who is included and excluded in/by this innovation?

2) What values and or politics are embedded in this innovation?

3) Does this innovation actively overturn the embedded notions of (our) society?

4) What are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats inherent in this innovation?

5) What intersections and boundaries are being created between human and machine (we often think about the the best case of a product but we should be examining the worst case scenario of an innovation gone bad.)

6) What labor is being used/created by this innovation?

7) What is the impact on the environment and animals of this innovation?

A day or so later, when I read the report by Éthique sur l’étiquette and Clean Clothes Campaign, question 6 popped into my head. Despite the fact that a first article featuring the “Foul Play” study is two years old, and maybe things have changed a bit, I’m pretty sure that the “prime concern” of apparel companies hasn’t shifted away from prioritizing economic performance and profits. I’m not convinced that brands have made labor and social justice  their prime concern. They may be asking the question, “What labor is being created by this product,” but not hard enough. Which means we (the consumer) need to question ourselves harder.

Question six is a non-negotiable. Solutions for a living wage and safe working conditions are the priority. As we move forward into our future, start to embrace our inner cyborg and try to make peace with the environment, we must remember to insist on humanity and the treatment of living beings.

Our treatment of the vulnerable tells our truth.

Deb Johnson is the founder of Pratt Institute’s Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator, a hub for ethical design, production and technology for NYC designers. The BF+DA mentors emerging design-based ventures into triple bottom line businesses and supports research projects exploring innovation at the intersection of sustainability, technology and manufacturing in the fashion industry.