The departure gates board is reflected on the shades of a passenger wearing a protective mask as she travels for the Lunar New Year holidays, at the Beijing West Railway Station in Beijing on Jan. 24, 2020. (AFP via Getty Images)

Face Masks: The first sign of dystopia

Lee Anderson
3 min readJan 28, 2020

Wearing accessories and clothing that protect us from our environment is not new, think umbrellas or steel-toe boots or insulated outerwear. But when it comes to environmental threats that might internally compromise our physical wellness, things quickly turn dystopian.

The recent Coronavirus outbreak has sent a flood of these dystopian images and headlines into our news streams and conversations. News of shortages of surgical face masks in Chinese cities reinforce the images of crowds with white and blue squares covering their noses and mouths. While reported as a “last line of defense,” the barrier can provide a feeling of control for a population reeling from an invisible assailant.

Passengers wear protective face masks at the departure hall of the high-speed train station in Hong Kong, Thursday, January 23, 2020. AP Photo/Kin Cheung

What Are We Breathing?

It’s not just halo-wearing germs that threaten our respiratory systems, but also unclean air. Cities around the world have suffered from pollution challenges since the industrial revolution. The rate of development, however, is faster than ever before and it matched by the rate of pollution.

In response to what author Naomi Klein coined as “disaster capitalism” in 2007, companies are starting to turn these dystopian fears into commercial opportunity. One example is Ao Air’s Atmos Faceware, presented at CES earlier this month. The mask speaks to a truth that we might not be ready to admit is our own reality, especially at $350 a piece. Like Google Glass was a signal of change, but never widely adopted, this technology speaks to an undercurrent in our collective consciousness but not one that we’re willing to adopt en masse.

Ao Air
Atmos Facewear promotional image

Because it is so hard to imagine such an Accessory becoming mainstream, the masks present as an intriguing concept, but too SciFi. In other words, too soon. It calls back to an article from this summer about face masks

Lee Anderson

Design strategist, researcher & educator. 🔎 sustainable future through design science collaboration & new business models. 📚 @SDSParsons . Also @faarfutures