Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Though there was not terribly much question about it, there is now clear confirmation that “wearable technology” will be the next major front in technological society. While there had been rumors of an upcoming wearable device from Apple for quite some time there is now an actual release date – along with images and details – regarding the Apple Watch. The Apple unveiling was – as has come to be expected from Apple – quite an event that presented the Watch to the eager audience only after making them salivate over the new iPhone 6. Yet a question lingered for many in the audience and for many covering the event: will the Apple Watch succeed?
At this point it has become fairly clear that tech companies are placing their proverbial bets on wearable technology: from fitness trackers to the Android smart-watch operating system to Google Glass and now to the Apple Watch. It may be tempting to believe that Glass has gone from inevitable to something Google is trying to let quietly die – but it remains premature to dismiss it – just as it is premature to pronounce victory or defeat for wearable devices. It may well be that what the Apple Watch truly represents is the point at which tech firms show they are willing to really wager on wearable devices. One need not think highly of Apple, smart phones, or the iPhone to recognize that the unveiling of the first iPhone represented the “arrival” of the smart phone – and it may well be that the Apple Watch will be the true arrival of wearable tech. Not everybody rushed out to buy an iPhone when they were first released in 2007 – but in 2014 such devices (and similar ones by other companies) are ubiquitous in technological societies. Not everybody will rush out to buy an Apple Watch, but if enough people do it could spark the start of quite a trend. And a factor that should not be overlooked regarding the Apple Watch is that it does not have to overcome the “creepiness” quotient of Google Glass.
Nevertheless, what the Apple Watch represents at this moment is something of a new technology, and thus now (before it really hits the street) is a wise moment to think critically about the Watch. An ideal thinking tool for these critical purposes was put together by the thinker Neil Postman in his book Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century in which he laid out 6 questions to ask of new technology (to which two more questions can be affixed). Without further ado, let us run the Apple Watch through these 6 (+2) questions:
1. “What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?”
There are two problems the Apple Watch primarily addresses. The first is the problem a person encounters in having to take out their smart phone (the Watch exists in a symbiotic relation to the phone) – the Watch puts the information right on the wearer’s wrist. Meanwhile the various fitness and health monitoring capabilities of the Watch make the device a replacement for the various fitness trackers that do little more than track steps taken. That the Watch can notify its wearer of messages, provide directions, and so forth should not be overlooked – but such functionality is already to be found in smart phones. The primary problem, to which the Watch is the solution, is the problem of taking out your phone – and that this is the case is somewhat obvious. While the Watch will boast of the Apple Pay software that is likewise a solution for having to take something out of a pocket or bag (a wallet). The Watch, in a somewhat amusing way, solves an issue related to time – for it saves the wearer several seconds that otherwise would be used taking out something else. The second problem the Apple Watch solves is Apple’s need to expand into new areas of the market and to take in more money – it is likely that this second problem is the main driving force behind the Watch. Though this becomes clearer in regards to the second question
2. “Whose problem is it?”
There are doubtlessly some individuals for whom taking out a device is a genuine difficulty – this should not be overlooked – and it is true that for these people a wearable device may represent a very real benefit. Such people should not be forgotten – yet Apple’s strategy is clearly to sell many devices, primarily to those for whom taking out a phone is simply an inconvenience. Though there are moments where a search for a device in a bag or pocket can be annoying the problem that the Watch really addresses is Apple’s problem. While the iPhone still sells very well (and the iPhone 6 is an attempt to regain some lost ground) the fact is that very many people have smart phones and it can be easier to convince people to buy something new and different than it can be to encourage people to trade-in a still working phone. Planned obsolescence as a corporate strategy demands that people regularly replace their devices – but this rate is not fast enough for some tech companies. Thus, a canny workaround is to dream up new devices to sell people. Apple has done well with iPhones, iPads, laptops and other computers – but they need to keep expanding – and Apple was hardly going to miss out on the push for wearable technology. The Apple Watch is a solution to Apple’s problem, and that problem could be phrased as: “how do we make more money?”
3. “Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?”
It may be that the Apple Watch simply advances the types of harm that have already been pushed by smart phones – as people become subjected to ever more constant streams of distraction and find their every movement being even more closely monitored and tracked. As wearable devices become more prevalent some of those who will be harmed may be those who are left behind (which is different from those who willfully abstain) – especially should the data stream from the Watch become an important component in qualifying for health insurance or the like. Functions like Apple Pay (part of the watch) may also harm various workers who are automated out of their jobs by this “tap to pay” system. The groups who will be most seriously harmed are also those who are the most unseen: the workers who mined the minerals in the Watch, the workers who assembled them in factories, and the e-waste recyclers who will encounter the devices after they have been discarded. Before the device is used by a consumer, the device consumes resources and labor. Furthermore – to take it in another direction – all wind up being harmed by a continued societal obsession with “new” consumer technologies that offer fresh solutions…for things that may not have been problems in the first place.
4. “What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?”
Beyond the problems of e-waste and labor exploitation – which are a part of pretty much every new consumer technology – a further problem that might be created by the Watch is that it ratchets up the surveillance (and the potential for surveillance) another few notches. This is particularly important to consider given the way in which the Watch will track health data and the ways in which Apple Pay will track purchases. Smart phones have already opened individuals up to a grotesque degree of surveillance – but for those who felt that much was insufficient the Watch arrives to turn people into ever better transmitters of data. Furthermore, insofar as the main “problem” is Apple’s need to constantly expand, this need will only be shortly sated by the Watch. Indeed the Watch will soon fall into the same cycle of planned obsolescence as one finds with the iPhone, and before long Apple will have to unveil yet another product to feed its hunger not just for money but for user data (which can be further monetized).
5. “What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?”
Also those that Apple allows to build applications for the Watch. There are some individuals who may think that every new device grants users abilities akin to “super powers” – yet however much power a new product will give it is certain that this is miniscule compared to the power it gives to the company that designed and sells that product.
6. “What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?”
Postman’s sixth question can be a bit harder to analyze before a new technology has truly come to be used widely – as linguistic shifts can take time to truly emerge. There is obviously a certain irony to the fact that the Apple Watch is a device name that perfectly captures what the device does: it lets Apple watch those who wear the device. The changes that might occur – this is just a prediction of a possibility – involve the way in which the Apple Watch comes to be a stand-in for the whole class of objects known as watches, while Apple Pay may eventually become another way of saying “pay.” Yet a key thing to be aware of – as regards what is “lost” – is the way in which ever more of our language for discussing standard daily affairs (like paying for things) gradually becomes filtered through the framework of technology.
7. What happens when you hit this piece of technology with a rock?
The early reports claim that the Watch will have a very sturdy screen – after all, this is a device to be worn on the wrist it will likely take its share of bumps and bashes. And yet the Watch’s “crown” may still get jammed, the screen may get cracked, the wrist band may break, the device may be exposed to water for too long, and so forth…Consumer technologies break, whether this be through clear physical fractures or the steady influence of planned obsolescence. The Apple Watch may be constructed of sturdy stuff – but enough drops and bashes and the user will watch as their device ceases to function.
8. What will happen and who will be impacted by this piece of new technology once it becomes a piece of old technology?
While planned obsolescence is found amongst most consumer technology the Apple Watch – and other wearable tech – puts an interesting twist on this by turning tech into even more of a “fashionable” accessory. This may result in an increased speed of obsolescence for these devices as newer models come and go – and yet amongst all of this those who will be most impacted will not just be those who cannot afford to keep up, but those who will have to sift through this new class of device that will soon be added to the e-waste mountain. Consider: the iPhone 6 will be the fifth model of iPhone in seven years (there was no iPhone 2) – which does not take into account the differences between the 4 and the 4S or the 5 and the 5C and the 5S, and so forth. If we were to hypothesize that the Apple Watch will be successful and then were to expand from this into a prediction that jumps ahead to 2021 it is not a great stretch to imagine that the Apple Watch 6 will have just been unveiled – at which point how many millions of Apple Watches will have been sent to the dump?
The above questions are not the only ones to ask – nor are the above answers the only ones that can be given. What is meant by the above exercise is to simply pose some of the questions – and answers – with which to approach this new technology. Apple is highly skilled at presenting exciting launch events, but before we launch ourselves down this technological course it is worth taking a few critical steps back – or at the very least looking at these new devices whilst bearing in mind a very prophetic line from the philosopher Erich Fromm:
“what we use is not ours simply because we use it.” (Fromm, 225)
We may become the Watch wearers – but somebody else is doing the watching.
Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom. Routledge Classics. London: 2001.
Postman, Neil. Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century. Vintage. New York: 1999. (the 6 questions appear on pages 42-53)