Part man, part machine - all nerd
`Wearable computer' pioneer Steve Mann keeps one eye locked on the future
Eric Shinn
RESISTANCE IS FUTILE: Hamilton native Steve Mann always has one eye on the real world and the other on a projected world.
THERE IS A LOT to watch in Toronto these days. At Yonge and Dundas, Police Chief Julian Fantino is soon to install security cameras in a new public square. At Richmond and Peter, eight "lofters" broadcast their lives 24/7 from 23 live Webcams on And at every corner you can see people wearing their interconnectivity on their sleeves, tapping into the broadband ether on cell phones or Palm Pilots, or listening to downloaded mp3s from a player in their backpack, pen or even the lapel of their coat.

Yep, it's a wonderful wired world, but Steve Mann is none too pleased.

"It's too little, too late," says the University of Toronto computer science prof and the world's first cyborg.

He should know. Webcam surveillance, wearable computing and networked intelligence are only starting to enter the public vernacular, but Mann's been living and advocating them for years.

"The real world is my lab. My life is an experiment," he says while sitting in his lab wearing his trademark "eyetap" goggles, which digitally project the light entering his right eye onto his retina, enabling him to apply filters and effects to the image he sees, or project his field of view to another screen - be it a computer display or even the eyes of another person if they're also wearing an eyetap.

Mann commonly transmits to his wife Betty Lo, so that she can help him grocery shop, when she can't visit the fruit isles with him physically.

"Sometimes I have to take a bath, otherwise I'd wear them all the time."

Part culture-jammer, part mad scientist, part artist and all nerd, Mann can lay claim to several interesting firsts, which have resulted in several interesting "I told you so" victories.

After learning math before he could read, and insisting on sewing his own clothes as he grew up in Hamilton, it seemed only natural that Steve Mann would pioneer the world's first wearable computers, which he did in Toronto fashion circles during the early '80s, before founding the wearable computing lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after moving to Boston in 1991.

"I had a fashion show called Hardwear in the summer of '85. With all of the '80s' New Wave androgyny, I thought if it was okay to be male-female, why not man-machine? I thought New York and San Francisco would embrace my cyber-fashion, but for some reason they didn't.

"Toronto is a cosmopolitan, cyborg-friendly city though, and it caught on all right here, but not too much. Everyone told me to go to MIT in Boston, that they would accept me there, but when I went I found that it was just like everywhere else, and people thought I was a freak."

The administration at first ostracized him, but eventually came around. The first annual International Symposium on Wearable Computers was held in 1997, and the school now pours huge resources into the program. As MIT's media-lab director Nicholas Negroponte now says, "Steve Mann is the perfect example of someone deemed to be on the lunatic fringe, but who persisted in his vision and ended up founding a new discipline."

In 1994, when the only known Webcam in existence was a live video feed of coffee brewing at Cambridge University, people told him it was stupid to broadcast his life on this new thing called the World Wide Web. Inspired by the situationist philosophy that places importance on the mundane moments in life, he did it anyway, uploading a continuous video feed for two years. His skeptics can now only sneer at the popularity of Jennicam, The Real World and The Truman Show.

And at his wedding in 1993 at a U of T chapel, he became the first groom to photograph his own marriage from the altar, as he saw it through his eyetap.

Well, maybe that one hasn't caught on yet.

For the curious, a good place to start understanding Mann's complex body of work is, a vast archive of personal image captures, scientific papers, patents, and media coverage over his career. Cyborg, a non-fiction book coauthored by Mann and culture critic Hal Niedzviecki, will be released this fall.

For the spatially inclined, a retrospective of his work, "Prior Art: Art of record for Personal Safety" is on display until July 29th at TPW Gallery at 80 Spadina Ave.

With enlargements of his digital photography, videos of his fashion shows, a chronology of his wearable computers' evolution over the years and a panopticon-inspired decontamination and surveillance chamber, the exhibit offers a good overview of how he has critically explored cyborg issues over his career.

Mann puts his theory to practise by engaging what he finds to be offensive abuses of technology at the point of human contact. He is particularly irked by Big Brother-style surveillance, and counters it by infiltrating monitored environments with his wife or some of his grad students while wearing personal surveillance devices.

In a typical foray as seen in the documentary Shooting Back (filmed entirely by his right eye), Steve enters Sears while filming from his "eyetap" glasses, and concealing a video camera behind his back. When he asks Sears clerks if the black pods on the ceiling are surveillance cameras, they either deny the cameras exist, or explain that they are "for customer comfort and safety." Mann then whips out his video camera, and asks them again as they squirm under the counter-surveillance, in obvious discomfort. "Sir, why are you filming me?" they ask.

"It's for you own safety," he replies, disturbing them deeply.

Mann feels that by "self-demoting" ourselves to use the same practices as Big Brother, individuals can counter the oppressive surveillance with positive surveillance. He ultimately sees humanity evolving into a collective consciousness in which all information is free and people care for each other in neighbourhood watch-style online communities. As an extension of this process, he has founded a new "existential technology" company called Existech (, in which he has given himself the title of "Assistant Mailroom Clerk." The company will license his inventions and promote shared intellectual property.

And while Mann's ultimate plan for the future is a rosy one, he still feels the best way to direct the future in a responsible way is to satirize the dystopic futures that must never be, hence the decontamination chamber on display at Gallery TPW. The jury is still out on whether the society he advocates is utopian or dystopian, but Mann clarifies that there is a path towards ultimate truth in his work.

"Seeing eye to eye is a great way to get to know one another."

Explore the work of Mann and others at and projects/wearables.

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