Brave new network: Why I hope Apple never releases a smart watch
Imagine walking alone in the woods—listening to the birds, watching squirrels scurry up the trees, letting your thoughts and feet wander. Nobody can see you. Even the satellites can’t take a picture of you through the canopy of leaves.
You’re alone, and it’s delightful.
Then, breaking the spell, your wrist buzzes to let you know you’ve got email and some Facebook messages. One is from a friend asking why you’re walking alone in the woods—he knows where you are because he used Find My Friends.
Then your iPhone rings: It’s Joe from work. “Hey, Joe,” you answer. Some birds fly away at the sound of your voice. Joe wants to know if you’re going to make it to his barbecue tonight.
If for one second you felt at peace in the woods, if you felt some kinship with the animals, you forget it now. You’re distracted—and utterly divorced from the natural world surrounding you.
Aldous Huxley's great dystopian novel, Brave New World—so much more predictive than George Orwell's 1984—taught us to be wary of cool things that dazzle us. 1984 imagines a system where speech and thought are controlled by a state power and its misuse of language. Brave New World imagines a world where we give up our freedom voluntarily.
We give it up because we like being social. We like the “feelies” and we like taking holidays with the drug soma. We like being included. We hate being lonely.
The worst thing in Brave New World is to be antisocial. In fact, it’s impossible without being exiled.
After hanging up with Joe, you take a picture of some trees and post it via Instagram after applying a cool filter that makes it look as if it were taken in 1913.
But it’s not 1913—you are walking in the woods. But you are not alone.
Wrapped around a limb
I bet Apple has ideas and designs—maybe even prototypes—for a smart watch. I think it's especially likely that Apple is testing those waters, given the prerelease success of the Pebble smart watch (and countless competitors), which connects to your iPhone to notify you, via the watch, when certain events occur on your iPhone.
Apple may never release a smart watch. I hope it doesn’t, because that’s where I draw the line.
I love our smart and connected world. I write iPhone apps, and I love making people’s lives better by helping them communicate with other people.
I also love setting my iPhone on my desk and walking out of the office without it.
The critically important point for me is that my identity resides in me and not in the network.
I often think of Kafka’s idea, illustrated in The Trial and in The Castle, that in the modern world our identity is stored in files in some remote location that we can’t even get to. Our physical body and our psyche are just shadows of our real identity. These days we even use the term “identity theft” as if our bank account number or Twitter username constitutes our identity.
I resist that.
I resist it enough that the idea of strapping a network node to my wrist is unthinkable. A smart watch is a wristband with an invisible electronic chain.
I’ll carry an iPhone around, but it’s easy enough to take it out of my pocket and set it aside.
But who takes off a watch? I would do that at most once a day, before going to sleep—which would be the only escape.
Resistance is futile
Maybe distinguishing between an iPhone and a smart watch is a distinction without a difference. After all, if I go walking in the woods, I will bring my iPhone. (What if I get attacked by rabbits and need to call for help?)
I admit that the difference between an iPhone and a watch is arbitrary and emotional.
But that’s my point: While I love our brave new network and the good it brings, I still want to make room for the nonalgorithmic, the emotional, and even (or especially) the arbitrary and the specific. I need to be able to say silly things like, “Apple watch? No way.”
I want to stay human, in other words. I want to like things in the thousand different ways there are to like things, rather than just click on a Like button. I want to say and think things that take more than 140 characters.
I want to not take a photograph, because no picture, no matter how beautifully filtered, can express what it’s like for one person to walk in the woods alone. I need to remember.
P.S.: Game over
I’ll probably buy that Apple watch anyway, because it will be so amazingly awesome and I’ll want to write software for it.
And eventually—you know this is coming—I’ll have a chip in my head. And so will you.