“You can share something as personal as your own heartbeat,” Apple's Jony Ive said, introducing the company's new Watch, which starts at $349. It's a typical bit of Apple bluster, coming pre-packaged with a sense of awe; it's also a weirdly tone-deaf conflation of distributing sensitive personal information with intimacy. For the tech class, the act of sharing personal data has become the equivalent of letting a friend read one's diary. Never mind that the biggest of brothers is reading along with you.
Gadgets have become our personal mood rings, trying to divine our thoughts, collect our status updates, and anticipate our behaviors. But often this process occurs in ways we might not envision or control, and one could easily imagine Apple putting together both a detailed and holistic picture of a customer's routines and feelings (the latter information drawn from biometric information like sleep patterns, movement, and heart rate) in order to better target advertising. Microsoft has done some work on this front, attempting to patent “emotion targeted advertising” and working with a company, MediaBrix, that claims to do the same. These ads could appear during important moments in games or when a person might be most susceptible to a company's messaging: “You seem tired. Maybe it's time for a Gatorade? There's a CVS a block away and you can use Apple Pay.”
It both helps and hurts Apple that an iPhone is required to use its watch, but the major tech companies have long been moving towards an ecosystem model in which they provide all the varying digital circuitry of your life. In fact, they dictate it. You probably don't need an expensive watch with sub-smartphone functionality—as early adopters of Samsung's Galaxy Gear or the Kickstarter darling Pebble found out—but consumer demand has always been something that Apple has created, not followed. Steve Jobs' words remain the company's guiding philosophy: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” he once said. As producers of data and as consumers of devices that help us create that data in the first place, we, the customers, have become but small nodes in the great cash-generating feedback loop.
Having first excitedly and, over the last few years, numbly sat through many of these keynotes, I no longer see the appeal. An expensive but less feature-rich facsimile of a device I already have? Another screen to charge, manage, update, and respond to as it pushes notifications at me? It doesn't quite seem enough that I can send sketches or tweets from my wrist. Nor does it seem empowering that, owing to the device's small surface area, it encourages you to use canned messages to respond to friend's chats. It's less a machine that provides a needed service or opens up new forms of creativity but that, in the typical Jobs mode, allows me to do only what it wants. (To that end, Apple's Watch can suggest workout routines that it thinks should you do).
But I am part of the jaundiced tech commentariat, and these gadgets, these events so uniformly scripted and familiar that they've ripened beyond parody, are no longer meant for me. It takes a while for cynicism to trickle down and become part of the cultural substrate. Apple, despite some missteps and Jobs' having ascended to the great turtleneck shop in the sky, remains the epitome of mass-market cool. It's Gap store or airport cool—that's where you're likely to hear the new U2 album that Tim Cook called “the biggest album launch of all time” because Apple's giving it away for free on iTunes. But it's a brand of cool all the same, one that provides something relatable and reassuring for well-heeled parents searching nervously for gifts around holiday season. And when those parents enter their local Apple store, they'll no longer have to think or look very hard. They've seen the promos and heard the ads and withstood the clamoring from their teenagers, and it only takes a couple steps, I'm told, to place one's iPhone against the till and charge a few hundred dollars through Apple Pay. It's practically automatic.
Why not do it again next year?