In 1984, Apple launched an ad that marketed the Macintosh computer as a device that would obliterate mindless conformity and usher in a new era of the office worker as an individual rather than a drone.
At the time, Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The New York Times that Apple's TV spot -- lauded as one of the greatest commercials of all time -- was completely ridiculous.
''The notion that a personal computer will set you free is appalling," Weizenbaum said. "The ad seems to say the remedy to too much technology is more technology. It's like selling someone a pistol to defend himself in the event of nuclear war.''
His sharp critique is still relevant more than 30 years later, as our culture moves to embrace the Apple Watch and other wearable technology.
Weizenbaum, a great mind and self-described technology heretic, died in 2008, years before "smartwatch" became a buzzword. According to MIT's obituary, he once said of technology, "It helps [man] avoid the task of giving meaning to his life, of deciding and pursuing what is truly valuable." It's not hard to imagine how he might have felt about the Watch, which Apple positions as a device to enhance your relationships and everyday life.
Still, imagining might be a useful exercise for all of us.
It may often seem that technology like the Apple Watch is foisted onto us. Put another way: It's very likely that you have a smartphone, but you may not remember the intention behind buying it. I don't really remember why I got my first smartphone, for example. I was a senior in college, and there was an upgrade available on my family's wireless plan. It seemed dumb to use it on a flip phone, so I had a brief email exchange with my mom, and shortly thereafter I was walking to my apartment on a dark Lower East Side street, cradling a new iPhone 4 like an egg.
Years later, I have a newer smartphone -- an Android, not an iPhone -- that pings to life every couple minutes or so with a text message, Twitter or Facebook notification, new personal email, new work email, Chase "low balance alert," Spotify playlist update, Instagram "like" or Slack mention. It's like an external component of my brain -- specifically the part that shoots to life at 3 a.m. wondering, "Did I send the rent check?" -- and my thoughts about it are basically irrelevant.
The smartphone is a part of my life, just as it is for 64 percent of all American adults, and my occasional anxieties about it certainly don't outbalance the convenience it brings to my life. But sometimes, when I peer up from my phone and see that I'm surrounded by a group of friends -- or even strangers -- staring down at their own devices, I wonder if we should have given those anxieties more weight before allowing ourselves to become so connected.
Certainly, such anxieties are nothing new -- smartphone angst is practically a cliche of modern life. But wearables seem to present an interesting opportunity worth examining. There's potential for them to greatly reduce the amount of time we spend glued to our phones, but they can also send things spiraling the other way. By grafting notifications to our wrist, we may be setting ourselves up for a tech-drenched existence we can't get out of.
To clarify, that wouldn't be a problem with the tech itself, per se. Any smartwatch offers you the ability to limit notifications. If you don't want to obsess about your email, text messages and social media, you could turn those notifications off and use your shiny new Apple Watch as a basic watch. Maybe you'd use it to track your health and fitness. Most likely, you'd wonder why you bought a smartwatch at all.
So, any "problem," if we wanted to call it that, wouldn't necessarily be with how the tech is built, but rather with how any reasonable person would use it.
Arianna Huffington, editor in chief of The Huffington Post, recently made an interesting statement about former Apple head Steve Jobs.
If Jobs had the Apple Watch, "he never would have invented Apple," she said during an appearance on "Real Time with Bill Maher."
Jobs was a proponent of meditation. Smartwatches, with their constant pings and notifications, seem very much the antithesis of sitting quietly for significant stretches of time.
And make no mistake, Apple wants its Watch to be a major part of every moment of your life. For an illustration, look no further than a recent Apple Watch commercial. (If you're a "Mad Men" fan, you've likely seen it a handful of times already during the show's 10 p.m. block on AMC.) The theme of the ad, titled "Us," is pretty clear: The Apple Watch is a personal piece of technology, one that connects you intimately to the people and things around you. Jarringly, it highlights also how a simple act of commerce becomes loaded with significance and emotion under the strap of an Apple Watch:
A woman sends a text message to "Lance" saying "I'm sorry." She receives the answer on her Apple Watch: "Me too." Then, a forlorn man is seen buying flowers using the Chase card connected to his Watch. (Source)
Apple's marketing is killer, just as it was in 1984. And just like that fateful Macintosh ad, the new commercial for the Apple Watch suggests the panacea for whatever ails us is the addition of fresh technology. The Apple Watch requires a paired iPhone to do much of anything, so it's by definition additive. The purchase of an Apple Watch will remove nothing from your life, though a smartphone could, for some, take the place of a personal laptop.
Other smartwatches are basically the same. They're married to your smartphone and give you information on your wrist. I've tinkered with the Apple Watch but have more extensive experience wearing the Moto 360 and Pebble units. I don't really like any of them because they make me self-conscious.
It's impossible to mask the action of glancing at your smartwatch to see a text message from someone other than the person you're having a conversation with. When I was wearing a smartwatch, it occurred to me that everyone might think I'm a jerk who not only has the bad manners to look at my text messages, but someone who values access to those messages so highly that I purchased an expensive piece of technology to see them as quickly as humanly possible.
Worse, when I tried to do the right thing and ignore the message until a more appropriate time, I felt antsy. "What does that wrist message say?"
When I finally took off my Moto 360 after several days, I swore I felt phantom vibrations on my wrist. I didn't really miss any of the conveniences it offered, though I admit I enjoyed being able to say "OK Google, set a timer for 20 minutes" before settling in for a short nap. This saved me probably 30 seconds versus typing an alarm into my phone.
I'm not alone in my reservations. On Tuesday, Business Insider published a "breakup letter" to the Apple Watch in which a once hopeful user expressed her frustrations with the device:
Well, Apple Watch, to be frank, you're driving me crazy. I thought I was "connected" before, but now not a minute goes by without my wrist buzzing or dinging, or even worse, when you tell me after just an hour to stand up. I run 6 miles every morning and I can't sit for more than an hour without a nagging from you?
Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief of The Verge, discussed the potential aggravations of wearing an Apple Watch when you're having a business meeting:
It turns out that checking your Watch over and over again is a gesture that carries a lot of cultural weight. Eventually, Sonia asks me if I need to be somewhere else. We're both embarrassed, and I've mostly just ignored everyone. This is a little too much future all at once.
It's unclear where all of this will take us. Remember what I said about how important intention should be when purchasing a new bit of technology, or at least a gadget that has such an impact on your life? I can't imagine what the intent behind a smartwatch is right now -- beyond molding yourself into the T-1000 of productivity, a person on a mission to handle each and every bit of information as swiftly and precisely as possible without regard for your mental health or those around you.
The Apple Watch does have a few cute features that make it a bit more personal: You can send your heartbeat to your partner or draw unique patterns, and the fitness options are nice. But mostly, you'll be looking at messages or app notifications.
A man directs a woman's gaze via an Apple Watch drawing, rather than shouting across an austere museum. (Source)
I worried that smartwatches might be addictive. After all, we're basically trained to have a Pavlovian response to every buzz on our wrist. "A new message! Must respond!" So, I talked to Dr. Kimberly Young, a known Internet addiction specialist.
Her patients are often those with more obvious problems -- people who are so hooked on games like "League of Legends" that they won't take bathroom breaks, for example -- but she had thoughts on the Apple Watch.
"You need to put the stuff on the charger every night and not look at it," Dr. Young said in a phone interview. "It's irrelevant whether it's an Apple Watch or an Apple smartphone. ... We've gotten to this place of immediacy. You're distracted and you're annoying people around you all the time."
She also used the word "intrusive" -- the idea of something interrupting you when you don't want it to. Ideally, you would use a smartwatch to stay connected when it's important. Realistically, you're just connected all the time.
"Are you going to be glancing at it? Of course you will," Dr. Young said.
Back to the smartphones most of us have: Chances are, you need to consciously decide to put yours away for "quiet time," if you make that decision at all. More likely, you just let it interrupt your days and nights. I know I do.
There's a chance to not let that happen with smartwatches. Get one if you want, but consider your intent. How connected do you need to be? How connected do you want to be? Certainly take it off every day -- for a good chunk of time -- especially if you let yourself be overloaded with notifications.
And remember the words of Weizenbaum: A computer can't set you free.
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