Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The Apple Watch, history and creativity

It’s a very good thing that TIME magazine’s tech writer, Lev Grossman, is an intelligent guy, even when he teams up with others, such as Matt Vella, in the writing of an article called “Wearing the Internet”, on Apple’s newly introduced Apple Watch (TIME, September 22 2014, pp. 28-33).

Anyone less intelligent is likely merely to trumpet all the novel features of the Apple Watch, as well as the ways in which it surpasses all its competitors, launched before Apple finally unveiled its own “perfection” of what others had tried, and failed, to do. But unlike Grossman, most others are also likely to fail in exploring the downside of wearing technology that “gives you control and takes it away at the same time” (p. 32).

Grossman and Vella have an interesting take on Apple’s modus operandi – strictly speaking, it does not invent things from scratch, they point out; it practices a “grislier trade: resurrection” (p. 30), by effectively seeking out failed inventions, and refashioning them after all the reasons for their failure have been carefully identified. Apple is known for redesigning the device in question so thoroughly, and with such sensory seductiveness, that demand is created with its appearance. The Apple Watch is no exception, but according to Grossman and Vella it goes further – it is “moving a boundary”.

What interests me in this piece are two things – the writers’ claim, above, as well as their previously mentioned insight into the double-sidedness of smart technology generally, and this one in particular. Their reason for claiming such originality for the Apple Watch is its likelihood in succeeding where other companies have failed, namely to make smart technology just that much more intimate in relation to our bodies. To be persuaded that one can, and should, “wear” smart technology is for them something really new, which amounts to “strap[ping] a computer to your arm” (p. 30). And their take on Apple’s shot at this is that, this time, it will convince consumers to do so.

When glancing at the features of this elegantly designed smartwatch, their conviction is easy to understand. The Apple Watch – they stress that it is without the “i” – it is not obtrusive or heavy, it boasts an impressive array of features and functionalities (including “phone” calls, e-mailing, texting, sending drawings and even your own heartbeat, pay accounts where responsive technology is installed, monitor your fitness and a host of other things), and supports tens of apps, although this largely depends on an iPhone link. The sum of all this amounts to what for many people (the tech junkies among us) would be great, and for some, rather off-putting and intrusive: being constantly connected, never being offline.

This is why these writers believe that the Apple Watch is so special: it allows for every way of connecting to the internet and to monitor all your bodily functions, all the time. But one of their sentences sounds alarm bells (p. 30): “…it is technology attempting to colonise our bodies”. After elaborating on everything the watch can do for its wearer, Grossman and Vella become more reflective (pp. 32-33):

“The reality of living with an iPhone, or any smart, connected mobile device, is that it makes reality feel just that little bit less real … The paradox of a wearable device like the Apple Watch is that it both gives you control and takes it away at the same time. Consider the watch’s fitness applications: your body is constantly throwing off data, and now the watch gathers them up and stores and returns them to you in a form you can use. This gives you control over your body that you never had before … But wearables also ask you to give up control. Once your device starts telling you what you should and shouldn’t eat and how far you should run, it’s getting in between you and your body and mediating that relationship. Wearables will make your physical self visible to the virtual world in the form of information, an indelible digital body print, and that information is going to behave the way any other information behaves these days. It will be copied and circulated. It will go places you don’t expect. People will use that information to track you and market to you…The more of our behaviour that ends up online, the more the Internet affects that behaviour, and wearables will reach deep into our lives. That’s tremendously empowering, but it also makes us vulnerable to the rampant comparison and gamification that infect any aspect of our lives that becomes public … Lives lived in public become performances, and even posthumans need to get offstage once in a while.”

All of this needs to be put in perspective, especially given these writers’ claims regarding the “historical” significance of the Apple Watch – they see its “intimacy” as paving the way for the next logical step, namely the “iMplant”, or moving technology into our bodies. Perhaps this does represent an historically novel development, although I would argue that the idea of a cyborg has been around for a while, from Donna Haraway to the Terminator movies. And once the idea is there, taking the actual technological steps is just a matter of time. So what does creating something truly novel really mean?

In Negations (p. 171), in response to a question on politics, history and becoming, Gilles Deleuze remarks that: “Becoming isn’t part of history; history amounts only [to] the set of preconditions, however recent, that one leaves behind in order to “become,” that is, to create something new. This is precisely what Nietzsche calls the ‘Untimely’.”

What Deleuze has in mind here is the difference between a series of historical conditions that are all of a piece, being connected in the way that every successive stitch in the process of knitting a scarf is connected to the preceding ones, on the one hand, and something radically new that enters the historical process – something so novel that, had it been a stitch introduced into the knitting process, it would require all the preceding ones to be reconfigured for the scarf to have pragmatic integrity.

The occurrence of something historically “untimely” is creative in a comparable sense: it leaves one no other option than to (re-)think of everything that came before it in a hitherto unimagined, untried way. The American revolution – which preceded the French Revolution in the late 18th century and later earned the new American nation an acknowledgement, by the French, in the shape of the key to the infamous prison, the Bastille, as a gift – may be seen as such an “untimely” event that created something so new that politics could from then on not be thought in the same manner as before.

The Apple Smartphone, while being announced as a kind of watershed event in the development of smart technologies, is not new in this sense. But the thought of “thinking machines” that emanated from British scientist Alan Turing, who is credited with being the “intellectual father” of the computer, is (see Isaacson, W., TIME, December 1-8, 2014, p. 56). It brought something new into history, and in the process reconfigured it. The information technology race has been, and still is, the working out of the consequences and implications of Turing’s inventive thinking – his creative moment of “becoming”.

How many people can “become”, in the Deleuzian sense of living creatively? Using the latest smartwatch, smartphone or tablet by activating all or most of its features is not synonymous with becoming in this sense – it is simply using the functions of what other people (first Turing, and then all those who have followed him) have created, in the process probably confirming your own increasing dependence on it. Paradoxically, therefore, one has to conclude that whatever is truly creative in history, is not itself historical, because it transcends all given historical conditions.

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