Much has been said about the impact that the Internet and constant connectivity courtesy of smartphones has had, and is having upon society, with attributed upsets ranging from elimination of work-play balance to eradication of critical thinking[2]. Yet despite these fears, we are rapidly progressing towards increased connectivity, and moving towards a semblance of bionic standardization. We are now entering what could be termed as the post-iPhone era, where the revolution of the smartphone has moved from the “oooh, that’s so cool” novelty stage to the “what? You don’t have a smartphone?” ubiquity stage. Instead, we are moving into a wearables era, in which products such as Google Glass, Pebble Smartwatch, Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, and a plethora of similar endeavours are moving onto the market and trying to gain acceptance by society. This acceptance is something that is proving to a challenge above and beyond the technical challenges of fitting masses of computer technology into unobtrusive designs. While we have grown used to having computers in our pockets or in our hands, the idea of a computer that is perpetually visible and part of our visual makeup meets with resistance.[3]

Constant connectivity is at the heart of the wearable movement, moving beyond the connectivity between our phones and the Internet, and towards connectivity between ourselves and the Internet, and all that implies. In many ways, it echoes aspects of Spigel’s examination of Smart Homes, where he points to “a mode of domestic subjectivity based on the melding of silicon and flesh.”[4] In the wearables concept, we can replace “domestic” with “social” and the almost literal definition that results mimics the trend that ensues. Especially similar are his arguments surrounding the separation of labour and leisure[5]: with a constant physical connection to the virtual or information world, how possible is it to separate the two daily states? Even if we are not actively undertaking action based on the information provided to us by these wearables, we are still absorbing and mentally processing this information that may-well counter the work or play present.

Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren famously pointed out in 1890 that “numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.’”[6] While the sentiment was over a century ahead of their time, courtesy of this constant connectivity, we have entered what Marc Andrejevic references as a “participatory panopticon.”[7] We happily (mostly) submit to surveillance, and actively propagate and participate in it, going above and beyond guards in a watchtower or CCTV cameras on street corners. Our connected devices leave continuous breadcrumbs that detail every move we make, and entire business-models are built upon consumers’ willingness to actively or passively share massive quantities of data. Technologies such as Google Glass however have been ample to make society cringe, for individuals to unleash intense hatred and violence, and for lawmakers to scramble to limit their use.

While many people are wowed by the technology behind Glass, opposition against the device appears to be growing. One Web site called “Stop The Cyborgs” was founded in response to Glass, and other wearables, and the issues they present when it comes to privacy. “Wearable devices socially normalise ubiquitous surveillance,” the site writes. “That is they create a society where we expect to be recorded, where every moment to is shared, documented and data-mined.”[8]

Yet how is this distinct from the CCTV-rollout of the early-2000s, or the propagation of the video camera-equipped phone in the past decade? Andrejevic application of “asymmetrical, nontransparent information gathering”[9] provides a potential reason, where while smartphones with recording capability are ubiquitous, and we can both record others and equally be recorded by others, wearables have yet to reach that stage. While there are several thousand Glass-equipped individuals walking around, the vast majority of individuals are unable to even access the technology. The lack of ubiquity breads distrust and causes a backlash of enmity. Esquire contributor A.J. Jacobs traced that as a crucial determining factor as to whether he would continue beyond his testing of Glass:

“Will I wear Glass in real life? That depends a lot on whether everyone else wears it. I’m impressed overall, but I don’t want to be one of those in America’s small cadre of Glassholes. I need social acceptance.”[10]

Furthermore, many concerns and arguments against Glass have pointed to its camera as a means of taking undetectable photos of unknowing people (despite the vibrant green light that signifies it’s doing so). Yet this is hardly anything new, as the average smartphone or cellphone can easily do the same thing, yet few complain at this point. Mat Honan found this resistance from documenting family moments with his wife:

I didn’t have to convince her I should take pictures or shoot video. She hoped I would do that. It was the form factor of the camera that irked her. It was the way Glass looked. It might let me remain in the moment, but my wife worried it would take her out of it, that its mere presence would be distracting because it’s so goddamn weird-looking.[11]

Part of the draw and fear of wearable technologies is the effective amalgamation of the physical and the virtual, blended together in bionic harmony. Shaun Moores pointed at events occurring both simultaneously in the physical locale, while “occurring” remotely thanks to television, radio, or other communicative mediums, leaving the individual in two or more places simultaneously, creating a “doubling of place”.[12] That collision, thanks to wearables, has progressed to a point where that doubling is able to occur on a far broader scale. No longer would that doubling be confined to locales or situations where one of these communicative mediums was being hosted, or constrained to specific global events, but rather becomes part of the continuous reality. Much of this doubling is caused by what is termed augmented reality: where what is ongoing is positively supplemented by additional data. Yet we again return to the similarities to the already-acceptable smartphone – the simple consultation with this device at any point serves equally to augment what is ongoing. However, there is a distinct difference between the effects upon reality that a smartphone (or laptop, tablet, or navigation system) has compared to that which a wearable device has. I would propose a differentiation of terminology, where a phone (or similar non-openly visible devices) provides for reality interruption, while wearable devices provide reality augmentation. Phones and their ilk, by virtue of their form and intent serve to interrupt our interaction, doubling our place yet not allowing us to actually inhabit both places simultaneously.

Wearables, by contrast, are a gateway to augmented reality, a more ubiquitous but less distracting data layer that gives us constant intelligence about the world around us—and keeps our attention grounded in that world, rather than off in the digital ether […] to “make you more aware, more mindful. They’ll reduce the number of seconds in the day when you’re confused. That’s what this whole connected universe will do. It will make you a functionally smarter human being.”[13]

While much of this argument focuses on the “Never Better” or “Ever Waser” spheres coined by Adam Gopnik[14], the “Better Never” argument is also prevalent, as another technology journalist for CNET cries:

It’s hard to write when I’m slapping my forehead very hard, but isn’t the way to engage more with the world around you, to not keep looking up at the right-hand corner of your Borgiastic glasses?[15]

Both arguments approach the situation from divergent strands, yet are unified by the fact that they are both probably correct. However, complete engagement with the world in front of us has already become a forgone occurrence, with technologies providing constant and prevalent distractions, therefore the key to returning to being present in the physical place is of managing or adapting technology to meld with our physical place rather than remove us from it.

The fact of the matter is, wearable technology is an arena that is far too new, young, and inexperienced to judge effectively at this point.

A sentiment I hear from a few wearables thinkers, [says that] “it feels like 2003 of the mobile era”—that is, right before smartphones came along to invent a new category. A pessimist, pondering the reaction to Google Glass and the Galaxy Gear, might counter that it’s more like 1993, when Apple’s Newton PDA showed off the capabilities of mobile devices a decade before the public was prepared for it.[16]

As such, early adopters and experimentalists provide, as demonstrated, much of the realistic inferences that we can gather from these new technologies. While past scholarly abstractions provide a basis for understanding and relation, the societal and technical realities of these new technologies in some ways surpass the theoretical background. The smartphone, despite being a socially accepted and normalized phenomenon has distinct social (or antisocial) implications, yet wearables have the potential to curb those aspects:

Phones separate us from our lives in all sorts of ways. Here we are together, looking at little screens, interacting (at best) with people who aren’t here. Looking at our hands instead of each other. Documenting instead of experiencing. Glass sold me on the concept of getting in and getting out. Glass helped me appreciate what a monster I have become, tethered to the thing in my pocket. I’m too absent. Can yet another device make me more present?[17]

With such a novel field, my bias should be noted, as my wrist is embellished with one of these wearable technologies, which, beneath the brushed steel, glass, and leather of a classic watch, lies a mass of computer technology, electronic-ink display, and mechanical interface. This smartwatch acts as conduit between the digital activity of my iPhone, and the ongoing activity of my day. As Mat Honan pointed out above, this wearable technology allows me to keep my phone in my pocket, keeping it out of my hands, and preventing its constant interruption in my present place, and eliminating that habitual tendency to consult a phone to see if I am missing anything, supplanted instead by unobtrusive alerts on a watch that fits in with the ongoing activity of the current. Just as consulting a watch to gain rudimentary information regarding time has been a societal norm for decades, a smartwatch provides the rudimentary information involved in an information society without serving to interrupt or separate the user from his or her surrounds. Similarly, Glass in many ways mirrors what it is modeled on – eyeglasses. They serve to mediate between the current place and the user, augmenting that with the information that is lacking, be it due to ocular loss or data lack.

It seems astonishing that adding further technology to one’s life could possible decrease the use of technology, and in fact, that is in itself a fallacy. Wearable technology does not decrease the use of technology, and in fact can do the opposite, yet it streamlines the way we interact with it. As stated by Apple design chief Sir Jonathan Ive, “Technology is at its best and most empowering when it simply disappears.”[18] That disappearance of technology, or at least its minimization can have a profound effect on our experience, allowing us to forgo the active interruptions caused by technology, and instead focus on the reality, or rather, the augmented reality.


 

[1]Spigel, “Designing the Smart House Posthuman Domesticity and Conspicuous Production,” 416.

[2]Kraut et al., “Internet Paradox.”

[3]Streitfeld, “Google Glass Picks Up Early Signal.”

[4]Spigel, “Designing the Smart House Posthuman Domesticity and Conspicuous Production,” 405.

[5]Ibid., 416–418.

[6]Warren and Brandeis, “The Right to Privacy,” 195.

[7]Andrejevic, “The Discipline of Watching,” 405.

[8]Kerr, “Google Glass Blamed for Melee in SF Bar.

[9]Andrejevic, “The Discipline of Watching,” 398.

[10]Jacobs, “Google Glass: What You’re Not Supposed to Do.

[11]Honan, “I, Glasshole.

[12]Moores, “The Doubling of Place: Electronic Media, Time-Space Relationships and Social Relationships.”

[13]Wasik, “Why Wearable Tech Will Be as Big as the Smartphone.”

[14]Gopnik, “How the Internet Gets inside Us.

[15]Matyszczyk, “Google: No, No. You’ve Got Glass All Wrong.”

[16]Wasik, “Why Wearable Tech Will Be as Big as the Smartphone.”

[17]Honan, “I, Glasshole.”

[18]Apple Inc., iPhone 5s Announcement Video.