The similarities between fashion and politics are much stronger than people think, says Christopher Wylie, now widely known as the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, in an exclusive conversation with Vogue Italia.
Why is someone who blew the lid on the Facebook data scandal talking about fashion? Canada-born Wylie was studying trend forecasting at the University of the Arts London while working at Cambridge Analytica, and has spent much of his career exploring links in culture.
Much like fashion trends, politics is cyclical, and encompasses the idea of presenting an aesthetic, or narrative, he explains. “Trends are just as important in politics as they are in fashion; just that rather than an aesthetic trend, it might be an ideological, behavioural or cultural trend,” he says. “You need to keep track of all kinds of trends in politics because you need to know if you come out and say something, what the adoption of that will be six months down the road. And is that going to help you win an election.”
Given the nature of his role at a data business, unsurprisingly he also has a big view on the impact of artificial intelligence and machine learning on the fashion industry too.
Fashion’s intuitive nature is not only hard to measure in trends, but also incredibly complex for machines to learn, he explains. He believes fashion is contextual because its trends and aesthetics are hard to quantify. “How do you define bold? If I go to a black tie dinner but I’m decked out in camo, I’m actually wearing quite muted colours, but it’s quite bold,” he exemplifies, saying boldness is contextual, depending on where you are.
“How do you tell a computer about that? Amazingly, with fashion, is that not only is it visually and aesthetically really enriching, computationally and mathematically it’s really hard. It’s a hell of a lot harder than politics.”
Computer vision could be the solution, he says, because an outfit is essentially visually-encoded information. In that sense, it is human beings who would need to look at pictures of people wearing clothes and choose the relevant adjectives that describe what they look like. They then need to work closely with computers to teach them about fashion.
“Everybody needs teaching, even computers. You learnt fashion in the first place, so the computer needs to learn fashion from people as there are no machines that know fashion yet,” says Wylie.
We saw this movement towards focusing on the human earlier this year at SXSW. While every conversation was underpinned by the concept of artificial intelligence, the topic kept highlighting the sense of instilling humanity in all interactions – from robots learning from humans, to humans being freed from minimal tasks to focus on what matters.
Another strong theme from SXSW – and one permeating consumer trends full stop today – is around the lack of trust in society. The Edelman Trust Barometer has reported a straight-line decline for 25 years, and Wylie likens the rise of ironic fashion such as Vetements to this too. “If you have a lot of designers who are starting to make stuff that is ironic – or stupid like the €200 DHL t-shirt – and people are buying it, it’s because you have a total collapse of trust in institutions, including fashion institutions,” he says, adding that this is where fashion and culture in general have a lot more power than they give themselves credit for.
The Vogue Italia interview otherwise covered Wylie’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook data scandal more broadly, and exactly why he decided to go public with the information.
For more on the future of data regulation and privacy, listen to our episode of TheCurrent Innovators podcast with Amnesty International’s Sherif Elsayed-Ali.