Early evening on Saturday my wife and I were in the mall shopping for a graduation gift for a family friend when my wrist got a now-familiar buzz. This just in, we have the first Triple Crown winner in several decades, The Guardian announced when I flipped my wrist to get the news. It was followed shortly after by several more buzz alerts by CNN, News Republic and others announcing the same thing. I am experimenting with a range of news and alert systems keyed to the Apple Watch, so I now get the sensation of being a walking wire service.
The difference between getting this news on my wrist and getting it the now “old fashioned way” of pulling my iPhone from my pocket to respond to an alert seems trivial but palpable (no pun intended). There is an incremental satisfaction attached to feeling the news as it comes in and having it just that much closer -- conveniently within a glance.
I don’t know why there is some slight satisfaction to this, but the experience is making me question why I find some nominal value to this increased intimacy of my connectivity. That the Apple Watch even raises the question in me is valuable I think.
It almost goes without saying that we are much, much too early in the smartwatch/wearable life cycle to come to any sound judgments about the viability of this evolving platform as a content and media delivery/consumption system. Those of us who are playing with the thing inquisitively can only glimpse (again, no pun intended) at some possible value that is not yet inherent in the device. I am a walking lab experiment now.
I strap on this watch every morning dutifully when I rise with the expectation that its value will become evident if I find uses for it and as both media and data collection services craft more meaningful utility from the intimacy of the thing. For now, we can just thrash around with fragments of possible insight that are as scattered and shallow as the interactions with the Apple Watch itself. To wit, the little I have sensed/learned/felt/intuited thus far:
A headline is enough more often than not. We learned that already from the notifications system on smartphones. I rarely use the handoff function on the Watch to dive into a breaking news alert on my phone, just as I rarely did with a phone notification.
And yet while the Watch brings me that much closer to the media, it also distances me from it. It introduces another step. I find this with my Meerkat and Periscope alerts. When the alert comes in on the Watch it now requires an extra step of pulling the phone out -- once removed from swiping the alert on my phone to call up the stream. Now I ask myself, is this media experience worth that incremental effort, and the answer usually is no.
I can’t tell whether I am arming myself with this device each morning because I don’t want to miss anything about the world or because I don’t want the Watch to miss anything about me. The health trackers heighten the sense of this mobile device as personal data collector. One feels obliged to keep a complete record, even if its value is unclear. I am still waiting for new insight about my daily exercise routines and activity I didn’t’ have or intuit before. The Watch is more irritating than helpful in its reminder to stand and move every hour as well as its wildly inadequate calorie counting of intense exercise. A function of greater intimacy is greater impatience with the device’s flaws. If a machine is going to be in my face with monitoring, alerting, pestering, then it damn well better be right. I don’t log on to the Apple Watch so much as I allow it to log on to me.
Which brings me to another point about faux intimacy. So far, attempts to leverage the greater intimacy of the Apple Watch have fallen flat. The robotic activity alerts feel more pestering than welcome. In the spectrum of fictional automatons, this is more Robbie the Robot than Hall 9000. These alert/pesters feel more mechanistic than personal. I may be more sensitive than most to being tugged by a machine, but therein is the point. If this intimate interaction with automated services is to work for a range of people, then one size/style/tone will not fit all. They will require a personalization not only of content but of style, voice, timing, and more.
What may be most interesting about the Apple Watch experience thus far is the questions it raises in myself and about my relation to connectivity, media and machines. And my hope is that in pursuing real answers to these questions developers will find the potential value in wearable media and make a case for it to me and others.
One of the great, first and still unheralded pop culture critics of the early twentieth century, Gilbert Seldes (The Seven Lively Arts) once argued that popular literature isn’t better than it is because no one asks it to be. Wearable media is at that nascent stage where it is imperative to ask and press the right questions in order for it to find a meaningful shape. For now it feels like connectivity for the hell of it. But that is precisely why this platform is already of value. Its intimacy forces a question about digital media we have deferred for two decades.
The promise here is of persistent “connectivity.” Is it a link to information? Is it a personalized and meaningful set of intimate contacts? Is it a deeper connection to me? Is it some new abstracted pulse of digital activity we have created in the last decade that we all fear disconnection from? FOMO? But fear of missing out on what? This little thing on my wrist presses upon us (or upon me, at least) a larger question of the digital age I am not sure we have engaged as deeply as we should. What exactly am I connecting to?