When I slip on my headphones, the clatter and chatter of the subway becomes an oasis of calm. This is the way personal technology has always made sense to me: not as a barrier between me and the world, but as a buffer, a temporary escape.
Most modern mobile technology, however, is now seen as the inverse. The glare of the smartphone screen and its tendency to distract is seen to represent an excess of escapism, or a surfeit of inwardness. But now, with the Apple Watch—an object literally tied around your wrist and designed to inform you of things—it seems we’re about the enter a new era of distraction and anti-social behaviour.
Scholar Michael Bull once argued as much—not about the Apple Watch, but the iPod and the Walkman. He suggested that personal audio let people create “auditory bubbles” that drive a wedge between individuals and their environment, fostering anti-social behaviour and closing users off from the world. More recently, The Awl’s John Hermann predicted that the Apple Watch will succeed not because of features or apps, but because of its ability to “create new rude exclusionary worlds for its wearers.”
But as academics like Nick Prior point out, things aren’t that simple. Prior found that users of the iPod and Walkman would use their auditory bubbles strategically, deploying music not only as a kind of soundtrack to augment the monotony of the city, but to also use personal audio as a way of shutting out noise, distraction, and the mass of other humans.
What if the Apple Watch offers a strategic respite from the reconfigured conditions of the Notification Age?
In other words, it’s not that technology cut people off; rather, it gave them control over the new conditions of urbanism. A pair of headphones actually helped people circumvent the excess of social interaction in the modern city.
Nevertheless, some have begun to worry that the Apple Watch will only amplify the worst of the distracted digital age. The era of the notification, after all, is now here to stay: every service and app, from email to social media to fitness tracking and so on bombards us with notifications, our phones pinging every hour, every minute. It is built into not only the technology we own, but the social networks we live on, and the services we use. The stream is now the default.
In such a world, the glare of the smartwatch screen is the new Walkman, and the perceived problem with the Apple Watch is that it enters a deteriorating situation and makes it worse. But I wonder if, instead, the Apple Watch might offer a strategic respite from the reconfigured conditions of the Notification Age.
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