Why Do We Care So Damn Much About the iWatch?

AppleStoreLine
People line up overnight outside an Apple store in New York on September 7, 2014, ahead of the expected release of the iPhone 6 and other products. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

The likely unveiling of a new Apple smart device is less than 24 hours away. The event has generated worldwide excitement about new features and functions. In recent years, such hysteria has become commonplace with product releases from Google, Apple or Amazon. To explore why that is, Newsweek got in touch with Columbia University modern art theorist Jonathan Crary, whose recent book, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, examines why individuals crave these devices.

The marketing of smart devices plays off the insecurities and anxieties people have of somehow ‘falling behind’ or losing a competitive edge in whatever professional or social sphere they inhabit,” Crary writes in an email. For example, one of the products many speculate will be released at the Apple event is the iPhone 6. According to the Los Angeles Times, some of the most popular rumors about the new device are that it will “produce better photos and video...provide a new wealth of physical sensations” and feature a durable “sapphire glass” screen. There is also speculation that it will include a stylus and a digital wallet to (theoretically) eliminate the need for credit cards.

Why any of these possible upgrades deserve mention in the Los Angeles Times—or in Newsweek, for that matter—is somewhat hard to figure. According to Crary, these minor improvements derive their appeal to consumers partly from the fact that “to be perceived as ‘out of date’ or outmoded is less and less acceptable these days. There is the delusion that buying the latest devices will inevitably be an advantage, when in reality any tech product we buy is always an ever shorter time away from obsolescence.”

In other words, the more often people purchase these products, the more strongly they feel they need even better ones. (One has to wonder how minor an iPhone upgrade would have to be to not receive widespread media attention.)

At the upcoming event, it is also rumored that Apple will unveil its iWatch—a wearable smart device. Little is known about what the device might do, but a recent article in Medium speculated about what could distinguish Apple’s watch from other products: “It’ll constantly be monitoring and tracking everything you’re doing, from your pulse to your steps to your sleeping patterns, and feeding it all to iCloud via your iPhone.”

A watch that can monitor sleeping patterns and send them to the cloud, where they will be stored and analyzed is, on the one hand, technologically impressive. But, again, it is worth considering why anyone would want Apple to be collecting all that information in the first place. According to Crary, the allure is that Apple seems “to offer ways to enhance health, fitness, intelligence, financial assets, etc. But more importantly, they produce new forms of narcissism and self-absorption in that the new layers of information they provide are like new mirrors for new forms of self-regard and self-interestedness.”

He explains that this desire to quantify one’s self stems in part from the increasing push for people to build digital selves on social media. He writes, “Obviously there is something seductive about an identity that we can easily customize, modify and embellish with little effort. But the flip side of the time we spend elaborating our on-line selves is how we become exposed to ever more nuanced forms of quantification and data analysis, whereby we’re turned into monetized bits of information, for sale to the highest bidder in the global data marketplace.

“The point,” he explains, “is we are in new phase of global capitalism (or neoliberalism) in which every possible area of individual and social existence is being reorganized to coincide with demands of the marketplace. The formula is to financialize whatever used to be part of personal or private life, or owned in common.” This, of course, is why Apple is so excited about its new products.

As for everyone else?

“Consumers,” Crary writes, “are now on a treadmill in which our task is to mindlessly keep buying whatever is promoted as somehow ‘essential’ to our lives.”