'Apple Watch allows you to communicate immediately, and much more intimately than ever before," Apple CEO Tim Cook said at this week's launch of his company's shiny new toy. Far be it from me to criticize a man who could buy my house with an hour's earnings, not to mention order hordes of fanboys to beat me to death with their iPhone 6s, but let's think about this.
Is a tiny screen displaying "Meet Ken for lunch" really more immediate than a shout up the stairs, more intimate than Napoleon's letters to Josephine? Perhaps Napoleon would have enjoyed a smartwatch: "Marching home, army in ruins, don't watch House of Cards without me."
The watch launch in California was accompanied, in true Apple fashion, by dancing girls, white tigers and zeppelins flying in formation. Okay, perhaps not, but there were thousands of salivating tech bloggers, a supermodel (Christy Turlington) and one very appreciative audience. I kept waiting for the applause to die down and for Mr. Cook to reveal the slogans the company had rejected: "Apple smartwatch: For people too lazy to reach into their pockets," or "The actually quite dim watch, because you still need a phone to use it."
That's worth remembering: Most smartwatches, including Apple's, still require a phone to operate. Instead of replacing one phone with another, the Don Draper-level geniuses of the tech world have ensured that you will need to own two devices, where one would previously suffice. Actually, I take it back: That's not just smart, that's satanic smart. Take a bite of the Apple, people.
As many as 28 million smartwatches will be sold this year, according to the research firm Strategic Analytics. The crowdfunded favourite Pebble sold its millionth watch in December. Apple will sell millions more. With its watch retailing in Canada between $450 and $15,500, that's … well, I'd do the math but I don't have a calculator strapped to my wrist.
No one uses a smartwatch for calculations, unless you're calculating how many steps you've taken that day. It is the perfect tool for quantifying in a society that's measurement-mad. Your smartwatch will track your heart beat, caloric intake, blood pressure, running speed and infrequency of calls to your mother.
"Time to stand!" The Apple Watch will remind you periodically. "Time to stand up and move for one minute." This is odd, because in all other ways the device seems designed to ensure that your limbs atrophy and fall off. You can pay for a can of pop without reaching for your wallet, change the thermostat without crossing the room, check the weather without actually having to go outside and experience it. When we're Weeble-shaped lumps of flesh with vestigial stumps for arms, this will all seem quite funny.
Everything can be quantified with a Dick Tracy watch, no matter how nebulous. Will.i.am of the band The Black Eyed Peas has created the Puls, a "smart cuff" – he refuses to call it a "smartwatch" – that looks like something a felon would wear on day parole, and offers the usual social-media connections while also measuring "emotional responses." That is, it includes an app that will tell you how you're feeling if you speak into it for 30 seconds.
I'm not sure how this is an improvement on looking in the mirror, or even just asking a friend, "Do I seem more hormonal than usual?" but then I'm not exactly in the smartwatch target demographic. I doubt that Will.i.am was thinking of middle-aged ladies who remember the squandered promise of LaserDiscs and New Coke when he told Yahoo News, "We are not bound by tradition. We don't have to adhere to yestertools."
I feel like a bit of a yestertool myself when confronting the inexorable march of technology, or like Grandpa Simpson, shaking his fist at the world and pining for the days when we all wore onions on our belts. But I don't think I'm alone. We're in the middle of a seismic moment, both seduced by the possibility of technology and frustrated when it creates more voids in our lives than it fills.
We've always been good at creating technology to fill holes we didn't know were there. Douglas Adams was once asked why he had such a dislike of digital watches. (In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, human feebleness is defined by affection for such gadgets.) He said it wasn't so much that he didn't like them, as he didn't see the point. Why replace a perfectly good wristwatch with one that you needed two hands to use? "The great thing about human beings," he said, "is not only do we invent stuff that's new and better, but even stuff that works perfectly well we can't leave alone. It's the most charming and delightful thing about humans. We keep on inventing things that we got right once."
I tend to agree with him, but then my judgment is suspect. After all, I'm still using a BlackBerry.