Watching the #Watch Watch

Jacob SilvermanMarch 11, 2015
Steve Jobs illustration by Surian Soosay

Steve Jobs illustration by Surian Soosay

Any publicly traded company must show continued growth year after year, evidence of its cancerous appetite for new markets. In the hydrocarbons industry, billions are bet on the basis of “proved reserves,” oil and gas deposits that a company can be reasonably sure it can recover within the next few years. At ExxonMobil, finding new reserves has long been central to the company’s mission—particularly under its former CEO Lee Raymond, who once told an analyst that it was the only thing that kept him up at night.

Silicon Valley relies on its own kind of reserve replacement in the form of planned obsolescence. But the last decade—perhaps since the introduction of the iPhone—has seen an intensification of the entire cycle. The gyre of breathless media coverage, fanboy devotion, and the strategic leaks—all of it runs year-round now, like a storm on a gas giant. You can tap into this any time you want—if it’s not the #Watch, it’s the Mobile World Congress, or SXSW, or some other horrorshow of forced applause, epileptic lighting, minimalist slide decks, and a tired pop star going for twice his day rate.

The nihilism of these consumerist spectacles still doesn’t obscure the fact that each is a kind of referendum on the company’s future, and our connection to it. Will it be a hit? Do we want it? When will my disgust reach its saturation point? Perhaps none of it matters, and we could just treat each one as the day’s shared media object, our collective salt lick.

But what does often go unconsidered are the ways in which we are the new markets. Instead of looking for oil or gas, tech companies derive value from us by selling us new gadgets or getting us to turn over data to which they didn’t previously have access. In this respect, Apple has been much like the company with which it jostles for the position as the world’s most valuable. Apple is the ExxonMobil of reserve replacement, continually inventing new product categories, or at least refining them into a form that then becomes the industry standard. See the PC, the iPhone, iPad, etcetera.

The Apple Watch is not the first “smartwatch” of its type; it could very well flop. It’s best seen as another entry in a lucrative constellation of devices and services that are designed to work in concert, to mediate a devoted Apple customer’s entire life. Tech companies need to grow their sales of existing gadgets, but they must also find new sites of mediation, new devices and objects that can be made “smart.” In this respect, wearable computing and the smartification of once-dumb objects like thermostats is to the tech industry what fracking has been for the oil-and-gas industry. They allow Silicon Valley to extract value from areas that had previously been considered off-limits or otherwise cost-prohibitive. Similarly, Apple’s rumored work on self-driving cars is an effort to get a foothold in a place where it hasn’t booked any reserves yet, so to speak.

A graphic that went around on Twitter during the Apple keynote on Monday tells this story in miniature. The text reads simply “why the wrist matters.” Below is a timeline showing which devices a person might use and when, throughout the entire day—smartphone after waking, maps during the commute, PC at work, etcetera. Running parallel to this timeline is another that runs all day and features only an Apple Watch. “Always visible, always on,” reads some text, with a red arrow pointing to the watch.

I keep thinking about the grim certitude of that first phrase: “why the wrist matters.” The wrist! How could we ever ignore the ever-present wrist? How could it have been previously neglected, barren, or adorned with what we probably should now call a “dumbwatch”? Before, it was just a part of my body. Now it’s a potential node on the network.

As more devices and sensors are added to those that already track and shape our lives, there will be more incentives, if not outright requirements, to stick with one company as a digital steward. At a certain point, the path of least resistance becomes surrendering to these pressures, giving in to the convenience of one tech ecosystem and its yearly upgrade cycles. But every evening, when we put our devices away, set alarms, charge this and don’t charge that, change that password, download the new app, and try to find where that other charger is—perhaps, during this daily clerical work that dogs every technology user, we’ll remember that their growth comes at our expense. One day we might even do something about it.