Silicon Valley is a land of contradictions. The glass facades of tall tech buildings are blinding, but their shadows house the homeless. Locals fish in their pockets in search of the bus fare, while a small fleet of oblivious tourists buzz past on Segways. For those who work in the tech sector, it’s the place to be. But at the same time, a deep-seated ambivalence over the ways technology is used has divided the Bay Area’s residents.
I’ve noticed this ambivalence reflected in the area’s attitudes to new technological start-ups. Though we increasingly rely on technology to simplify our lives, we still want to believe that behind the scenes is a happy, human face, rather than an impassive machine that does the dirty work for us.
Nowhere have I seen this sentiment embodied more strongly than with Stitch Fix, a United States-based subscription box service that sends each of its customers five ‘hand-picked’ items of clothing each month.
Newcomers to the service are asked to fill out a thorough style profile, providing details about their body shape as well as various style preferences – What do you think of bohemian chic? Are you hoping for office-ready wear, or something more casual? Are you willing to go backless? By perusing your answers and feedback, as well as links to any social media profiles you choose to provide, a stylist selects five items of clothing or accessories to suit your taste, and ships them to you to try on in the comfort of your own home. You keep whatever you like, paying for your purchases via the website, and anything you can’t see yourself wearing can be sent back to Stitch Fix HQ.
The company markets itself as a way for busy women – or those who simply loathe shopping IRL – to purchase clothing without leaving the house, thanks to a ‘personal stylist’ who is familiar with your tastes and needs.
It sounds delightful, of course. When receiving outfit compliments, you get to answer flippantly: ‘Oh, yeah, my stylist totally chose this skirt for me.’ There’s a personable gleam to the whole process that elevates Stitch Fix customers above the riffraff who must, horrifyingly, leave their houses to pick up a new jacket. You needn’t do anything so drastic; your stylist has got your back!
Unfortunately, my experience with Stitch Fix hasn’t felt anywhere near as personal as the company led me to believe it would. In the time I’ve been a subscriber, I’ve gone through three different stylists, averaging a new stylist every other month (rescheduling or delaying shipments, as I’ve had to do a couple of times, seems to shuffle around the assigned stylists). I’ve had some strange, decidedly not Katie-like clothing sent to me, including a pair of bleached, cuffed jeans that I assume were chosen mostly because of my Californian postal address. My clothes are selected by a stylist, but packed and shipped by someone else entirely – Stitch Fix stylists work from home, and have, I suspect, little physical contact with the clothing they select for their assigned clients.
Also, if any of my stylists had truly been paying attention to my Pinterest profile, I would surely have received at least one cat-themed item of clothing by now.
It’s really nothing like having your own virtual Nina Garcia hold a blouse against your body, insisting it will look just fabulous. Though customers are encouraged to give feedback on each item of clothing they’re sent, the feedback fields don’t allow for answers much longer than tweet-length. I suspect Stitch Fix’s operation leans heavily on algorithms to help the stylists select clothing their customers are likely to enjoy.
If you take these algorithms as a given, the aforementioned cuffed jeans make a lot of sense: they’re comfy and laid-back, popular with women of all ages in the perpetually sunny city I live in. (And, although I would never have selected them for myself, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up liking the pair Stitch Fix mailed me.)
I’m not criticising algorithms. If a computer can determine that many women around my age, with a similar physical build and style, have delivered glowing feedback on a particular jacket, it makes sense that I’m likely to appreciate that jacket too. What does annoy me is the apparent reluctance of both Stitch Fix and their customers to publicly embrace the technology that drives their business. Perhaps this stems from the belief that we should be fearful of our ever-advancing robot overlords (‘There have been movies about this!’ warns tech figure Elon Musk). But by refusing to acknowledge how technology assists us, we are perpetuating fear of its power.
A ‘personal touch’ is not necessarily a desirable feature for every interaction. Lyft sells itself as a luxurious but down-to-earth transportation service, with drivers who will gladly fist-bump and yak with you. But who ever gets into a cab wanting to engage in awkward conversation with their driver? Certainly not me.
With an ever-growing pool of life-enhancement services to choose from, I’m hoping we can learn to drop the (frankly boring) disdain for algorithms. We share a lot of personal information on the internet and with the databases of distant companies – why not embrace the potential for that information to quickly direct us to products we might be interested in next time we browse Amazon or eBay? Is it really so shameful to acknowledge that computers aid Stitch Fix’s stylists in dressing thousands of women? Is that not, in fact, the coolest thing ever?
Bring on the robot overlords, I say. At the very least they’ll dress us well.