In the three-plus months since the Apple Watch entered the market, the gadget has been the subject of endless coverage, both critical and adoring. One reviewer shaved his forearm for it, another publicly broke up with it in the New York Times Style section. Even Beyoncé acknowledged its presence.
But amid all that hype, one Wired piece really resonated with me. In it, Kevin Lynch — a vice president of technology at Apple and one of the employees tasked with designing the Watch — explained that the gadget was meant to be a more natural way of staying connected. He wanted it to be the answer to the question, “How do we provide [connectedness] in a way that’s a little more human, a little more in the moment when you’re with somebody?”
When I first got my Apple Watch last month, that’s what I was most looking forward to: a tool that would keep me connected yet help me break from the magnetic pull of my cellphone — that thing I kept glancing at whenever there was a pause in my life, whether I was at an intimate dinner or on a productive conference call. I wanted to be less distracted, less obsessed with notifications. I wanted a gadget to save me from gadgets.
Soon after I snapped the Watch (steel case, black classic buckle) to my wrist, however, I felt exactly the opposite effect. The notifications poured in, and with them, a new feeling of organization and efficiency. But with that productivity came a new sense of conflict between digital life and real life. I was becoming a more adept person, but also a more horrible one.
I credit this change to the Watch’s clever-yet-distracting notification system. Every time something you’ve deemed worthy of interrupting your life occurs, you feel a subtle, human-like tap on your wrist. Being summoned with these little nudges throughout the day is the most intimate experience I’ve had with a computer. The buzz of a phone, though attention grabbing, is easy to physically ignore. I can silently acknowledge that I got a text and make a note to check my messages later without flinching, or breaking eye contact with the person I’m talking to. But my reflexive reaction to a robot flicking my arm is almost always to look down at it.
And look down, I did.
Mid-date with my boyfriend, I interrupted our conversation to see that several people I followed on Twitter were talking about True Detective. (The Watch doesn’t let you specify which app notifications are OK and which aren’t, just whether you want to see them at all.)
While watching the Amy Winehouse documentary, a particularly moving scene of her singing “Back to Black” was interrupted by a note from my Dark Sky weather app notifying me that it would drizzle soon.
During a conversation with my co-worker in the break room, I reflexively looked down at my wrist when I felt the tap to see a news alert about the removal of South Carolina’s Confederate flag. “Oh, oh, so you’re doing that now,” my colleague said as I squinted to read the screen on my wrist. “Sorry, what was I saying?” I replied when I looked back up.
Apple Watch apologists would argue that I could adjust the settings for the number of notifications I receive. But the problem is that my interest in certain alerts fluctuates throughout the day. My 8 a.m. self is much more tolerant of news alerts than my 5 p.m. self, who just wants to be left alone to play Two Dots on the train. My 9 p.m. after-two-glasses-of-wine self is the most accepting and will gladly welcome all notifications of Instagram likes and incoming Snapchats.
So sure, I could open the Apple Watch app on my iPhone and change the settings every time I feel like reducing or increasing my wrist feed. But that’s a lot of maintenance, especially for someone who was hoping that this device would result in less screen time, not more.
Standing up, showing up
Even as the Apple Watch was turning me into a worse human being, it was also undeniably making me a more efficient one. In almost every part of my day, the gadget was there to help me manage my responsibilities. Its Events feature automatically reminded me about my daily 10:30 a.m. meeting — something I’m often too distracted with work to remember — with reminders an hour and then 10 minutes before it started. Within a month, my lifelong tendency to forget appointments pretty much vanished.
Meanwhile, the Watch’s Activity app ruthlessly monitored my sitting time at work, nagging me to utilize my dorky adjustable standing desk with cold hard facts about how little time I’d spent on my feet that day. Within a week, I’d increased my standing time by a couple of hours. I was also obediently following the alerts related to my exercise and calorie-burn status updates, which made a point of subtly shaming me into being more active throughout the week.
Thanks to notifications from my weather app (the same one that so coldly interrupted Amy Winehouse to tell me it was drizzling), I found myself better prepared for New York’s inclement weather than I’d ever been. If I felt a buzz on my wrist about incoming thunderstorms, I’d remember to snatch an umbrella on the way out, letting me stay dry in the worst summer downpour.
After a month with this gadget, I was more punctual, more fit, and drier — all for the small price of interrupting human interactions to stare at my wrist.
When I got the Apple Watch, I was hopeful that it would somehow improve my human relationships and free me from my obsession with technology. But that thinking, I now realize, was based on my own fetishized views of the product. Tech journalists like me are constantly searching for some digital holy grail that will solve their life’s problems. I don’t blame Apple’s marketing team for playing into our fantasies about such life-enhancing magic gadgets.
But in practice, the Watch is just another iteration of the productivity tools that came before it, a descendant of the computers that helped white-collar workers with their daily workloads (without shortening their work days). No gadget can help us focus harder on the person in front of us. The only way to do that is to turn off your computer, put away your phone, take off your smartwatch, and make some eye contact.