"More than machinery, we need humanity."
People have no lack of options when it comes to smartphones and tablets. Indeed, it may well be the case that a point has been reached at which there are too many options. A fact that is only made clearer when one considers that the difference between one device and the next may have more to do with cosmetic or branding differences than with anything more substantive. There may be smartphones that tout that they are more ethically made (the Fairphone) or are built with privacy in mind (the Blackphone), but these just add to the mountain of options. Certainly the ouroboros of planned obsolescence will ensure that vaguely different new models are continually released, but ultimately the differences between all of these devices seem…well…phoned in.
Which is why it should come as absolutely no surprise that the major names in the tech industry are looking for new areas where they can sell their toys and gather your data. Having arrived rather late to the device game, Google has enjoyed a great deal of success due to its Android operating system; however, it has done less well when it comes to the actual devices themselves – the Nexus tablets have not dethroned the iPad and the sales of Moto X were so lackluster that Google sold off Motorola Mobility (though they kept most of the patents [which was why they had bought it in the first place]). Yet, Google seems committed to taking a more commanding position in the “next big field” which appears as though it is going to be “wearable tech.” Though Google’s move to define the wearable field originally appeared to be Glass, it is now clear that Google is not content to be on your face, it wants to be on your wrist as well. And thus: Android Wear.
The Android Wear operating system is comparable in some ways to the Android OS that many people use on their smartphones – an OS that is designed by Google for usage on devices built by other companies. In the initial announcements for Android Wear it appears as the OS muscle behind a new wave of “smart watches.” While “smart watches” are not in and of themselves new (and it is worth noting that Apple has been rumored to be working on such a device), Android Wear seeks to revitalize and rebrand those devices whilst making Google an integral player in this new tech-eco-system. The early advertisements and PR spin about Android Wear suggests that it will allow users to get updates right on their wrist, provide basic information (weather, mapping), allow users to receive messages, and it’ll probably tell time too.
All of which raises a rather simple question: don’t most of the people these new devices are being marketed to already have a device with them that can do these things?
But the tech world is in thrall to the ideas of “innovation” and “disruption” and so deep has become this obsession that much of the times “innovation” and “disruption” have lost their grounding in anything useful and become a stand in for “our company must make more money.” Instead of considering the current state of technology in society, the focus is always on the next thing. As with all new technology it is useful to consider Android Wear (and wearable tech in general) with the assistance of Neil Postman’s 6 Questions for New Technology (to which the Shipwreck adds two more questions). Thus, let us run Android Wear through Postman’s thinking exercise and see if a new awareness of Android Wear emerges.
Perhaps we should be wary…at the very least we should be aware.
1. “What is the problem to which this technology is the solutions?” (Postman, 42)
Wearable technology solves the “friction” problem. This is the challenge which emerges when a technology user needs to interrupt the flow of what they are doing in order to pull their device out and use it. Thus, when your phone beeps with a weather update you have to pull it out of your pocket, or bag, whereas if the device is on your wrist you will be able to just glance at it. Such “friction” poses a problem as it demonstrates that technology has not yet become fully incorporated into our movements – our actions are still disrupted when we need to use a device, and wearable tech aims to disrupt this disruption by removing that friction. Granted, the other “problem” being solved here (and perhaps the real one motivating wearable tech) is that tech companies need to sell more things, and have more sources of information. If they want to sell more things and have more sources of information it helps them to have more things to sell and more sources that can be constantly gathering information.
2. “Whose problem is it?” (Postman, 45)
This question is deceptive when it comes to wearable technology. On the one hand (or on the one wrist), “friction” can be annoying, and many people would likely find it pleasant to have the few remaining rough edges of their interactions with technology sanded down. But is this really a problem? Or their problem? To walk through a technological society today is to see many people with their devices practically glued to their hands – it is not as if people are pining for a simpler interface on their wrist. In other words, the problem here is Google’s (and other tech companies). It is the tech industry’s need to sell a new product, it is the tech industry’s need to gather more information, and it is the tech industry’s need to convince people that they need yet another device. For all of their fabled “foresight” and love of “innovation” the tech industry seems only interested in the problem of making their stock value increase.
3. “Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?” (Postman, 45)
The harm of Android Wear, and wearable tech in general, can be somewhat difficult to quickly determine; particularly as much of the “harm” is better considered in line with questions 4, 5 and 6. Nevertheless, wearable tech sets up the next phase of “keeping up” with technology, wherein people and institutions who can not afford to keep up with the latest tech fad are left behind or frozen out of the conversation. Likewise all of those facing serious issues (income inequality, racism, misogyny, legacies of colonialism, ableism, homophobia [and this list could tragically go on]) are harmed by our societal focus on addressing problems to which there is a shiny “market” solution instead of considering some of the issues propagated by the market. In a world where technology brings with it many problems, all are harmed by blind faith in technological solutions. Wearable tech may look cool, but is it a way of addressing real issues or distracting from them? The disruption loved by the tech industry is the powerful thinking they have the right to disrupt the lives of others simply because they can. Rest assured, the institutions that profit off of income inequality, environmental degradation, and surveillance will not be harmed by this “technological solution.”
4. “What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?” (Postman, 48)
In the wake of the ongoing NSA revelations (which goes OS in device with corporate surveillance) it should be extremely evident that the information gathered on us by tech companies winds up being put to many uses we had not realized we had agreed too. Sure, being a constant target for advertisements is a hassle, but it is often hard for people to recognize just how much information has been gathered, who has done the gathering, and what is being done with this information. Wearable tech turns the wearer into a fountain spewing forth ever more information for the tech companies, and in some cases (such as Google Glass) it also turns those around the device users into victims of the wearer’s surveillance gaze. Granted, it should be acknowledged that the problem of “friction” is only partially solved as it is hard to imagine people wanting to watch movies or read books on a tiny screen on their wrist (“hard to imagine” does not equal “impossible to imagine”). However, the real “problem” was the corporate need for more profits…and after wearable tech takes off and the cycle of planned obsolescence sets in the tech companies will once more have to think of a new way to bilk users out of money and more information. As those dreaming of the “singularity” make clear, there are already those eagerly awaiting the announcement of Android Brain.
5. “What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?” (Postman, 50)
The technological change brought by Android Wear seems to be less of a wholesale shift in technological society and more of an entrenchment of already powerful forces. Wearable tech will mean more money and information for companies already well positioned to make more money and gather more information – companies which have been efficient at buying out would be competitors before they can pose a threat. After the patent wars around smart phones, wearable tech is simply opening a new front in the wars between tech firms as they compete to see which of them can earn the title “too big to fail” or “knows more about you than the NSA” or “Big Brother” or “Sauron.” The “people and institutions” that will acquire more power are those that are already powerful. The new boss is exactly the same as the old boss, it’s just that the new boss is wearing a hoodie.
6. “What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?” (Postman, 53)
At a point when people seem ever more comfortable talking to each other through technology (text, email, SMS, Facebook message, etc…) wearable tech wants us to start talking to the devices. Android Wear threatens to make “OK Google” something which you’ll hear often as people command their various devices to do certain things. Likewise the droll talk of wearable tech helps enforce the funny situation in our world wherein tech is treated as if it is not actually the result of corporate decisions. After all, many people can get behind the idea of “wearable tech” it sounds pretty good, but they’d perhaps frown upon “corporate surveillance wearables” or “Big Brother manacles” or “prisoner monitors.” The house arrest anklet and the Android Wear watch bear an uncomfortable similarity. Technological society creates a walled garden for its citizens to live in, and it can be a nice garden provided one does not imagine what is beyond the walls, wearable tech helps the caretakers know where everybody is in the garden. But describing the monitoring devices as “wearable tech” makes it seem like a natural step, not a corporate strategy.
7. What happens when you hit this piece of technology with a rock?
If you’ve seen a person with a broken device (or broken one of your own devices) you know that they are not the sturdiest of items. Granted, as they are infected by the logic of planned obsolescence, it is not as if they are truly made to last anyways. Yet the point is that wearable tech is even flimsier and delicate, thus it is even more likely to encounter some type of difficulty at which point the ability of the user to fix it themselves is rather unlikely. Wearable tech sets technology to the seasonal habits and throwaway logic of fashion; it is not meant to last. Furthermore, an excellent way to guarantee profits is to keep people buying, and buying, and buying.
8. What will happen and who will be impacted by this piece of new technology once it becomes a piece of old technology?
Chances are that those who will be jaunting about wearing devices powered by Android Wear will not be the same people who actually assembled those devices (assembled and designed are not synonymous), and likewise those who will be tasked with processing the toxic e-waste from those devices will not be the ones who wore them. Here the topic of wearable tech returns us to question 3, but from a different angle, and demands that we remember that while the device may have been designed in Silicon Valley it was probably put together in a sweatshop, and when the device is tossed away, its toxins will go back to poisoning the people who never enjoyed the “benefits” of that device. The circle of technological solutions to technological problems – which is also the circle of capitalist solutions to capitalist problems – relies on an unequal distribution of costs and benefits so that those who receive the benefits (tech users) often do not even need to think of those paying the costs (tech builders, tech recyclers). Wearable tech does nothing to break from the cycle of consumerism and the waste generated by consumerism. The speed with which new technology becomes old technology is a reminder that behind new technology is an old ideology.
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So, what does Android Wear and wearable tech really represent? Ultimately, less of a dramatic change than it may seem. Rather, Android Wear is more of the same, a disruption that does nothing to disrupt the status quo, and something new that helps keep the old power system in place. At a time when people are being buried beneath a mountain of technology, wearable tech helps the mountain rise higher.
Yet Android Wear, and wearable tech in general, should be considered as a jarring reminder of societal priorities, in which the “innovative minds” in Silicon Valley are busy building toys and singing about disruption and progress. Yet “disruption” and “progress” are not good in and of themselves, and should be viewed with suspicion when they use the language of the “good” to mask the agenda of selling “goods.” But it is important to differentiate between actual thought out definitions and PR speak. Luckily, none could accuse Walter Benjamin of the latter when he wrote:
“Definitions of basic historical concepts: Catastrophe—to have missed the opportunity. Critical moment—the status quo threatens to be preserved. Progress—the first revolutionary measure taken.” (Benjamin, 474)
While tech firms may attempt to cast their devices as bringing “progress” the truth is that what they demonstrate is the “catastrophe.” The “revolutionary measure taken” by the tech world is a performance of revolution, filled with bright lights and spectacle that does nothing to alter the power structures defining society. For the moments where change could truly come, moments where change is needed, such innovators turn out more things which simply reinforce the status quo. And as Benjamin observed:
“That things are “status quo” is the catastrophe.” (Benjamin, 473)
The question that confronts us is not a matter of how good people will look with devices powered by Android Wear.
It is a matter of where we are going.
Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. The Belkin Press of Harvard University Press, 2002.
Postman, Neil. Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. Vintage Books, 2000.