The new Apple Watch and the problem of our creeping connectivity

by David Beer

One of the most memorable images from my childhood is a suave and leather jacketed David Haselhoff, playing the reluctant but slick hero Michael Knight in the TV show Knight Rider, speaking into his watch. He’d usually utter something like “Come and get me Kitt” or “I need you buddy”. Kitt, the automaton car, would be there in seconds. The fantasy of being able to communicate through a watch was spectacular stuff for a child in the 1980s. With the launch of Apple Watch we may only be a mildly sarcastic robotic car away from that dream, but for some reason the realities of the networked watch seem a little less shiny than the fantasy version. Instead, the corporeal hyper-connectivity of this new wearable device highlights to us the strains and pressures that come with always being switched-on.

The problem is that this type of smart watch inevitably seeks to increase our already deeply connected lives. Just over a decade ago Scott Lash wrote of the lack of space for critical reflection that results from the dense information flows that have come to dominate our lives. Our constant exposure to information simply leaves us with little room to think. We live, he has suggested in a more recent book, in an ‘intensive culture’. The pace and volume of these information flows are seen to be escalating and are becoming increasingly difficult to swim against. With the arrival of smartphones in 2007 and now with the smart watch, these information flows are increasingly finding their way to the inside of our bodily routines and are embedding themselves deeply into our everyday lives. As these wearable devices connect us into our environments, it will almost certainly become harder for us to disconnect – even for fleeting moments. The Apple Watch is another step towards the networking of our bodies into the communicative networks in which we live. The consequence is that we will be opening our bodies up to the pressures of constant networking and the unstinting demands of mediated social connectivity.

Indeed, if we put this into a broader context, there has already been plenty of work to suggest that the very divide between work and leisure is breaking down. This is a result of the changing nature of work and, more specifically, the rise of mobile and home based working. It has been argued that we occupy and exist within a kind of social factory. Work and leisure blur as the time and space of labour and “free-time” dissolve into one. Our lives become spaces of production and value creation. The consequence, for writers like Ros Gill and Andy Pratt, is that work can become inescapable – as can the type of bodily and emotional sensations that it provokes within us (they report on how the precarious nature of labour and the heightened competition it fuels leads to feelings of insecurity, fatigue, anxiety and exhaustion). Alongside this, it has also been argued that the divide between production and consumption is breaking down as we engage in the significant labour required to maintain our social media profiles, feeding them with personal data for others to consume. These arguments have been unfolding for some time, but with the Apple Watch we have a device that is designed to further blur the boundaries between work and leisure and to optimize our performance as productive and active consumers. This is a device that makes clear to us the very inescapability of our role as value or content generators, and reinforces the obligation to be always switched-on.

William J. Mitchell once spoke of the way that our nervous systems are extended and augmented by mobile devices. With the Apple Watch we have the most literal and obvious embodiment of this meshing of our nervous systems with our informational environments. The biological body can now be connected ever more directly and smoothly into these information flows.

When you look at the marketing that has accompanied the launch of the Apple Watch, you actually find that this kind of bodily and nervous connectivity is a central part of how the watch is being sold. We are told that it will provide a more “haptic” experience. This is a tactile and sensory set of connections, with the watch sharing sensory information with the body. It extracts information such as heart rate, using its sensors placed on the skin, whilst buzzing with notifications and bodily interventions. For example, as the TV advert shows, the watch might buzz to tell us that we have been sitting for too long and that it is time to stand up, this is just one possible way that we can use it to enhance our lifestyles.

Reflecting on how these devices are constructed in Apple’s series of marketing videos is revealing. We find the fetishisization of materials, of personalization and of capability. The “heritage” of watch making is forged in the metals and connects the past with the technological present. This is a device of precision. It is a device that heightens our sensory connections – we can now feel information as well as see and hear it. There are then various new possibilities for the body to be tracked, measured and compared. The device is presented as being part of a lifestyle in which our connectivity becomes the means of self-improvement and heightened experiences. This is a device, we are told, that helps you to be more healthy and active. As the video dedicated to health and fitness suggests, this watch “gets to know you the way a good personal trainer would”. That is to say that it takes on an active role in guiding your lifestyle, suggesting goals and activities. The promise is that you will become less sedentary and the watch’s presence on your body will stimulate and provoke action.

The launch of the Apple Watch gives us the opportunity to reflect more broadly on how connected we might want to be. Do we really want a “haptic” connection to our informational environment? Given the recent accounts of contemporary work and productive consumption, we might wonder what the consequences of not being able to step away from the intensity of contemporary culture will be. Based on the discussions of precarious forms of labour and the active role of the consumer in the production of culture, it is certainly a device that is fitting with the social conditions of today.

Despite their glossy appeal, I won’t be buying a smart watch. A buzzing wristwatch will only heighten my stress levels by reminding me of the work that needs doing and the things that require my attention. The type of physical feedback that these watches give, the corporeal buzz of a responsive and personalised notification, is the perfect technological embodiment of the social factory. Our bodies will get caught up in the demands of being switched-on and will become the surfaces on which the tensions between work and leisure become a reality.

So the type of connectivity that the Apple Watch offers is not so much the realization of a fantasy as the spreading of the pressures of the contemporary world. We should note William Mitchell’s observations and wonder what might be the outcomes of appending our nervous systems with such devices. Being physically connected with information and communication systems might seem like progress towards some technological dream, but it is likely to extend the reach of the demands placed upon us by the social factory. Such devices are likely to disrupt our immediate social connections and interrupt our time/space of rest, recuperation and thoughtfulness. These, via such devices, are likely to be unsettled and disturbed by the pressures of constant and inescapable connectivity. The dreams of the communicative watch that populated my childhood seem less appealing in the unforgiving and stark daylight of the present day – especially as they represent the furthering of the presence of new forms of mobile work, bio-tracking and the demands of new media-based consumption. In short, the Apple Watch is emblematic of the creeping extension of our connectivity. Its launch presents us with an opportunity to reflect on just how connected we want to be.

David Beer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York. His publications include Punk Sociology, Popular Culture And New Media: The Politics of Circulation and New Media: The Key Concepts (with Nicholas Gane). He is currently working on a book called Metric Power and he is an editor at theoryculturesociety.org .


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