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Would George Orwell Buy The Apple Watch?

grumpy Apple Watch
Photo by @cajigasjd on Instagram.

I pulled quotes representing some essential insights from Martin Weigert’s article on how smart wearables (specifically the Apple Watch) will accelerate mass surveillance. It’s arguable that the tech press has done an about-face on this issue. As Weigert remarks:

“[M]any of the people who have expressed their concerns about systematic mass surveillance now eagerly line up for an Apple Watch [even though] a universal wearable like that is one more major step towards a world of constant and ubiquitous surveillance.”

Perhaps people trust Apple enough that they’re not worried? Tim Cook is explicitly pro-privacy and Apple has been decent about keeping user information safe. But it’s more likely that people don’t actually care about day-to-day surveillance. I mean, I’m apathetic personally, just not politically.

IMO, mass surveillance by the public of the public would be a good thing. Everyone watching everyone would be okay if all the data was publicly available and publicly negotiated. However, the world where people with power surveil little-suspecting citizens and privately hoard the reams of data is terrifying. Corporations and government bodies don’t have a good track record re: human rights.

To be clear, this is not an abstract future. We already live in a plutocratic oligarchy of citizen data, or rather we live in sets of overlapping plutocracies and oligarchies. Google shares with the CIA and shrugs off the tiny PR hit whenever journalists try to remind people ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Illustration by Hisham Almiraat via Global Voices Online.
surveillance graffiti
Photo by nolifebeforecoffee.

Weigert gives an example of how law enforcement agencies could use the body data that wearables collect:

“A person for whom the algorithm finds slightly suspicious online behaviour, and whose body values indicate a high level of unusual stress? Flagged for closer examination.”

Lest you scoff at the proposed ubiquity of wearables, Weigert reminds the naysayers who expect the Apple Watch to fail:

“While smartwatches do not seem essential from the get-go to many, the history of the digital age taught us that we usually suck at evaluating the future perceived or actual value of new technology.”

Apple Watch Edition, gold
Photo by Jacky Liang on Instagram.

The Apple Watch is here, possibly here to stay, and there’s a high likelihood that we should be worried. This device is not the first of its kind, and surely not the last.

The Apple Watch for Anyone Late to the Party

Edited to add: I am not against Apple Watches or the people who buy them — apologies if the tone implies otherwise.

Apple Watch Sport
Photo by LWYang.

As a consumer—that is, a person who buys things—I am primarily interested in valuable products. Not valuable in the monetary sense, but in the sense that they do something important, and do it better than what I had before. My tech habits tend toward gadgets that are useful as well as cool. For instance, I am typing this on my iPhone. I don’t technically need a smartphone, and certainly not this particular “elite” model. However, if my expensive device died, I would lay out $300 to get another 5S (secondhand). I’m over here making minimum wage, so that’s impressive consumer loyalty. In my case, especially impressive because the desire for an iPhone overrides my desire to be a good person, which manifests as my commitment to ethical shopping. I’m not naive enough to think that iPhones are manufactured ethically, but I would spend on Apple products anyway. I feel guilty about that, but not guilty enough to give up being able to type on the train while listening to Clipping.

Would I make the same monetary and ethical sacrifices for the Apple Watch, the latest much-hyped tech toy? Absolutely not. Why would I? The only benefit would be bragging rights, and even those are dubious. The Apple Watch is not going to be a useful tool that happens to be beautiful, like the iPhone. The Apple Watch is going to be a luxury item that is ostentatious in its understatement. When I say “understatement”, I mean Apple’s signature sleek minimalism. I don’t mean that the Apple Watch was designed to disappear. Expect this item to be flaunted. Consider it a Rolex for tech aficionados, with an appropriately high price tag.

On VentureBeat, Mike Nguyen gives us the rundown of the Apple Watch: “The new gadget lands in stores April 24. The device is supposed to last 18 hours on a single charge and will come in a range of prices starting at $350 and going all the way up to $10,000. The basic steel watches are between $550 and $1,050, depending on how consumers customize it.”

Also on VentureBeat, Dylan Tweney explains that it’s not quite that simple… or cheap, claiming that the minimum Apple Watch expense is $1,000, because of everything else you need to make the device useful. For instance, if you don’t have a recent iPhone, the Watch doesn’t work.

DIY Time Machine Wallpaper
Image by FHKE.

I admit that it remains to be seen how much the Apple Watch can do. At the moment, it just does whatever your iPhone does. New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo says that “the watch’s major functions [include] a fitness tracker, texting app, email reader and payment device for locations that accept Apple Pay. I boiled down the list to this rule of thumb: Just about anything you can do with your phone, you can do with your watch, faster.”

But when app developers start cooking, what will pop up? Matt Sundstrom floated five intriguing possibilities, including a new way to navigate. Writer and indie developer Dave Pell isn’t so optimistic, lamenting how much easier it is to get ahead if you’re a large corporate entity. (What else is new?) The potential functions are important, but I side with Matthew Sparkes, deputy head of technology at The Telegraph, who illuminated the matter while explaining why it isn’t called the iWatch. He wrote that “with the launch of this new product, Apple has made it clear that it is targeting a fashion-focused audience, rather than technology-obsessed first adopters. The ‘i’ brand, successful as it has been, is not what it wants to convey. It is after a whole new type of customer.” Are you listening, Anna Wintour? Apple has always been more of a lifestyle brand than staid companies like IBM, even when the two businesses competed selling personal computers.

Of course, there are skeptics. Casey Newton quips on The Verge, “For all the talk of Apple’s grand debut as a fashion house, it’s notable how much its debut product resembles nothing so much as an inbox strapped to the wrist.” He continues, “I’m no fashion expert, but it strikes me that the best clothing and accessories grab our attention and hold it, fixing the moment in time as we consider the color, the shape, the way they move. The paradox of a smartwatch is that however nice it looks, it so often takes you out of that moment, flickering at you with all manner of distractions.”

So what does the computer-as-bracelet situation look like? There are three kinds of Apple Watch. The stainless steel model is simply called the Apple Watch. The Apple Watch Sport is made of “anodized aluminum [and] strengthened Ion-X glass.” Fanciest of all is the Apple Watch Edition, on which the company waxes poetic: “The Edition collection features six uniquely elegant expressions of Apple Watch. Each has a watch case crafted from 18-karat gold that our metallurgists have developed to be up to twice as hard as standard gold. The display is protected by polished sapphire crystal.” Wowzers. The three collections are paired with sets of bands that “match”, in ethos and aesthetic, the Watch, the Sport, or the Edition.

Apple Watches Edition
Image via Apple.

Before the unveiling on Monday, price predictions ran wild. Esteemed tech blogger John Gruber predicted that the first-tier model would be at least $1,000, pricing the high-end Apple Watch Edition at roughly $20,000. He wrote, “The more I think about it, and the more I learn about the watch industry, the world of luxury goods, and the booming upper class of China, the better I feel about that bet. I don’t think I was wrong [about] a $9,999 starting price. I think I was wrong to guess just $4,999 in my ostensibly sober published analysis.” As it turns out he was wrong, but probably not about everything. Gruber claimed, “The nicer bands aren’t accessories that Apple hopes you’ll tack onto your purchase; they’re signifiers of how much you paid for your stainless steel or gold Apple Watch.” He drives the point home in a footnote: “At prices like these, an Apple Watch Edition is not an accessory for your iPhone—your iPhone is an accessory for your Apple Watch Edition.”

I know a lot of people with iPhones, but I don’t know anyone who can afford to spend $1,000 on an iPhone augmentation. Will this product be a success? Tech and media blogger Simon Owens writes that the Apple Watch will assuredly sell “millions of units”. However, he asks, “will it have the universal appeal of the Mac, iPod, and iPhone, products that have propelled Apple beyond the category as a mere tech company into the stature of global behemoth?” Owens concludes that no, the Apple Watch won’t be the same kind of big deal, explaining that “the Mac, iPod, and iPhone [succeeded because] Apple took a product we absolutely needed—thereby ensuring a near-universal consumer base—and enhanced it.” No one’s job requires a smartwatch, and smartwatches aren’t considered to be staples of modern life like cell phones are.

Owens’ counterexample is the iPad, which arguably doesn’t do anything that you couldn’t do better on your phone or laptop computer. Accordingly, “Many of the iPad’s users were those with enough disposable income to purchase it as a luxury item, a product they could use while relaxing on the couch in the evening.” (Side note for any wannabe tech entrepreneurs out there: Owens concludes, “I’m surprised Apple didn’t choose instead to tackle another indispensable gadget—the TV. Not only it is a product nearly every American owns at least one of, but we’ve shown a propensity for paying a hell of a lot of money for them.”) In the same vein, Kyle Chayka writes for Pacific Standard:

“Technology has always been something of a luxury good. We don’t need a smartphone, laptop, or 90-inch HD television for survival, but they’re nice to have, and they bring us into digital consumer society, which is looking increasingly like one of the last communal spaces we have left. While we tend not to think of our phones in the same way we think of an extravagant name-brand leather jacket or handbag, they are still expensive, branded products. […] Promoting that exclusivity moves Apple away from being the everyman’s aspirational technology buy into the more rarified air of baubles made for consumption solely by the wealthy.”

Brikk Lux Watch
The sumptuous and/or gauche Lux Watch.

If your reaction to the Apple Watch is, “I would buy that, but I want a glitzier option,” then you’re in luck. Mac Daily News reports that Brikk, self-described as “a luxury technology-driven brand that is rapidly redefining the meaning of opulence,” plans to “sell platinum and diamond-encrusted Apple Watches for up to $74,995.” Alright, henceforth I will consider opulence redefined.

Personally, I’m surprised that there is a market for any of this. Are we facing the promise of the future? The most profitable company in the world decides to release a glorified pedometer? Paying extra for a high-quality product makes sense, but how will the Apple Watch improve people’s lives except by adding prestige? You need an iPhone to even use the thing. If you have an iPhone, why should you also carry a more limited smart device? One of my friends wears an Android smartwatch, and he claims it saves him time taking his phone out of his pocket to check the time or review notifications. My stance: If you’re checking your phone so often that it disrupts your work, you need to adjust your communication habits, not make it even more convenient for your texts to interrupt your train of thought.

An addendum from Ben Thompson of Stratechery, pointing out that fashion is crucial: “the utility of wearables and software-enabled objects [AKA the internet of things] are significantly increased in the presence of each other, but the customer being willing to actually wear the wearable is itself a precondition to unlocking this utility.”

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