Gendered tech

SEPTEMBER 1ST, 2016 — POST 241

There’s an aisle in every toy store that is as cliché as it is anachronistic. The “pink aisle” — notably stuffed with Barbies, Bratz, and My Little Pony toys — was in my childhood like entering another world. These were girl toys, so the pink cladding boldly stated. This visual divide along gender lines persists in products designed for those well beyond childhood. There are aisles of a pharmacy that bear identical products from Nivea or Rexona — one black and silver and chunky and “masculine”, the other white and blue and slender and “feminine”. And for years tech operated under these old models.

There wasn’t one girl worth her salt in my 10th grade English class who didn’t have a pink Motorola Razr. Sure, the hard angles of the handset in its black/silver colourway would have been just as useful, but for these girls it had to be hot pink. My first phone was a Nokia 3315, a phone I later realised was basically a feminised version of the now-mythical 3310. But with the iPhone in 2007, this kind of gendered versioning started to melt away. Instead of the handset prescribing the gender of person to buy it, the user quickly became to express their identity in cases.

Even with the widening of the general smartphone pallet to include rose gold — or Samsung’s “pink gold” (what?) — it doesn’t feel as gender prescriptive. Rose gold especially has colloquially become known as “bros gold”. But there remains one burgeoning segment of the tech sector that is falling back into old ways. In virtue of their placement on the body, wearable tech is the new frontier for gendered design in tech. The Verge last week published a story about the glut of fashion brands getting into wearable tech, producing products embellished with flowers, cat ears, and zircons. As Nicola Fumo, formerly of Racked, pointed out in January after CES:

“The final step in making wearable tech for ladies? Throw some jewels on it.”

But yesterday, the Samsung Gear S3 smartwatches were revealed: the Frontier version aping a chunky dive-watch aesthetic. Instead of adopting Apple’s inclusive approach to their Apple Watch — no mention of “men’s” or “women’s” even though the device comes in 42mm and 38mm variants — Samsung seems intentionally exclusive. Both Gear S3 variants look as if they’ll only be bought by your uncle who uses Android because “I don’t want Apple looking at all my stuff”. They’re failing an infiltration into an image that includes Omega and Tag Heuer — yet still one that is distinctly “masculine”.

Both “feminised” wearables and “masculinised” wearables feel brutalist in their conception of the user avatar they’re designed for. They’re largely tone deaf to the genuine nuance of gender expression as well as the real fact that guys can have slender wrists and women thicker wrists. And this might not ever change. The general tech-doing-fashion tone deafness brings to mind the inscrutability of TV interface design. TV software is some of the worst in the world, specifically because people who make good software work for good software companies. The same problem seems to be eating away at tech’s capacity to capture some of fashion’s cachet — good jewellery designers probably just aren’t too interested with joining Samsung.

We can point to usefulness of wearable tech as a force that is prohibitive to a wider market penetration. A lot of people just don’t seem too interested in getting notifications on their wrists or tracking their steps. But my suspicion is the design of every wearable still isn’t at a point where enough people could say “Yeah, I want to wear that”.


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