A Response to Paul Krugman on the Apple Watch

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This is a response, at the request of my friend Phil Mathews, to a blog entry in the New York Times by economist Paul Krugman, which appears here: http://hdin.in/1PAOPYk

First of all, I’m glad for the opportunity to opine about the Apple Watch publicly as it’s a solicitation rather than a personal impulse (the response to which, never mind the receptivity, is virtually impossible for me to gauge; as far as I can tell, I have about three fans, and those not consistently). I do have opinions about the device, which I’ve shared, in pure speculation, because it has not been available for viewing or handling by the hoi polloi, of which I am a decided fixture. But I’ve shared them privately. Just to give a context for whatever else I might have to say, I did agree with another friend here on Facebook that one of my first reactions to the announcement of an actual product, with photos and some cursory explanations as to functions and functionality, was, thank God, finally a gizmo from Apple I don’t want and, when you come down to it, I really don’t need.

I think it’s interesting that Krugman has a point of view about the Apple Watch, of course. However, I’m disappointed that he decides to take a personal perspective, instead of doing what he’s done so well in other regards so often—though not always—that is, to step to one side, figuratively speaking, and look at the phenonomenon of the Apple Watch and the category it represents as the trained scientist he is. More pointedly, it’s possible, in fact, that the Apple Watch will actually end up defining that category, as Apple is wont to do with emerging consumer product technology. They invent very little in that regard, the genre aready exists, i.e., a wearable multi-function computing device. In the same way the portable digital music player was defined by iPod, or a highly portable entertainment, consultative and reference device, with facilities for rudimentary record keeping, similar to both a laptop, for the size of the screen, and a smartphone, for its lightness and compactness by the iPad, of course, and so forth.

Rather he has taken a tack, perfectly legitimate in this world of media wherein anything goes, even in the name of news, analysis, and factual reporting of the truths derived from statistical data and double-blind experimentation on live subjects in actual conditions. If he wants to speak for himself, who’s to stop him? As he says, what the heck?

He does, in the process, break a cardinal rule, as I have always understood it, in market research and analysis, even of a speculative sort, and that is, never to assume that you are yourself representative of even a tiny valid statistical segment of prospective markets.

In the end, I beg to differ with Mr. Krugman (disclosure: I too wear a fitness band, though I gather a different brand than his, and I have always been a small-time aficionado of the art of the horologist, that is, I love watches, and own several; in the past 50 years I’d guess it’s rarely that a day has gone by that I have not been wearing a watch, and for most of the past 20 years or so, it’s been the same watch, the acquisition of which was a purely personal attainment, it had been an object of desire for me for some time and, as it was, at the time, costly (to me) required extra long deliberation about making the ultimate purchase… though once I did I never looked back, and I also never stopped looking at other fine specimens of the watchmaker’s art—none of which I indulged in acquiring).

I think of the Apple Watch, still sight unseen except in dazzling, augmented images mainly on the Web, in the same way I think of the iPhone, as well as of the iPad, and that is, one way or another, they are computers that have been designed to a particular set of applications, in the broadest sense, and in a form that makes them suitable and adaptable to a particular set of highly specific computer programs, or apps as they’ve come to be called.

The first unfortunate observation Mr. Krugman makes is the one he asserts at the very beginning, setting the tone, but more importantly defining a polarity that I think is not even factitious. I think he’s made it up in terms of his own highly circumscribed needs and the uses to which he himself puts these devices to meet those needs.

I’ve gone out of my way to describe the phones and the tablets and even the watches (as well as the music players, and a whole variety of hybrid devices: phablets, lapbook/tablets) as computers, because that is, ultimately, the genus of each of these species of cybernetic creature. Alan Turing, the fathering genius of the age in which we find ourselves, posited in what he called “the universal machine,” or in plain terms of today, a computer (a word which originally meant, when applied to a device designed to a specific task, a machine to do calculations). What Turing meant, and what the whole industry spawned by his idea has set about to make actual—even to defining the epoch in which we conduct our daily business—was that such a machine or computer could use a calculating engine to perform almost any task, including a universe of tasks (like talking in real time to another person over extreme distances in a simulacrum of voices that are unmistakably those of the speakers) that seemingly have nothing to do with calculating numbers. It’s because all tasks can be understood, using the legerdemain of converting physical changes, of even the most minute dimensions, into sequences of numbers that, reinterpreted by a reverse process of conversion back to something resembling the original physical changes, to be mere sequences of coded symbols, called programs. Even the stuff of life, in something of a misnomer—as the real stuff of what we call life remains a mystery—DNA and RNA are understood best as sequences of replicable codes of a deceptively minimal number of constituents.

What I’m getting at, with all this beating around the bush, is that Mr. Krugman can use his fitness band and presumably an Apple Watch, or a competitive product (and I predict he’ll own one, probably sooner than later) any way he likes. I use my fitness band differently, and I needn’t go into it as it’s irrelevant, and I do so mainly because I have a different set of personally important objectives to attain by doing so, than he does.

Further, and truly to get into the meat of the matter, he misses the boat entirely, in my opinion, because he fails to account for what is an indisputable set of phenonmena that have emerged as more and more people use more and more smart devices. Most people have a streak, wide or narrow, it’s there in most of us, wherein two seemingly very human impulses are served.

It is important, in increasingly complex ways, for us to stay in touch with increasingly larger circles of individuals with whom we either share an affinity—even if its only an affinity for staying in touch with increasingly larger numbers of people—or can at least pretend to have an affinity, again if only on the strength of having formed a connection in the first place. And what we share in the actualization of that continuous connection, is information, some of it, probably most of it, of a personal nature, and essentially trivial, banal, and, without using judgmental qualifiers such as these, most certainly quotidian. We tell one another, on a full-time basis, if not, indeed, 24/7, what we’re doing, what we’ve done, and what we plan to do, even so as to subsume all of our habits, including eating habits, sleeping habits, fitness habits, leisurely pursuits, passive entertainments, and game-playing. Many people, doubtless, share even more intimate details of their emotional states, their loves, their hates, their fears—or why would people keep doing it and yet express such outrage at the prospect of having all that information captured by the government?

Smart devices have made it easier and easier not only to track our own activities, but more importantly, or at least as importantly in a different context, we can not only share the record of those activities with others, but we can count on the computational and analytical capabilties of these really amazingly powerful computers that fit, now, on our wrists (and there has been talk for years, to varying degrees in response to the prospect of horror and wonder, of embedding computer chips into our bodies, with nary a lump or a shock) to allow us to compare our “performance” and achievements with those of our cyber-families.

If anything, because they are more literally more intimate, actually contacting on a continuous basis our skin, the largest organ of our bodies, and tap into the wealth of data obtainable via this means of connection, even to more deeply embedded organs, recording by ingenious means, respiration, perspiration, heartbeat, blood pressure, and, if not now, then no doubt imminently, fat-to-body mass ratio, rate of caloric intake, rate of caloric consumption, etc., and I’m just listing somatic data (mainly because Krugman set the pace, so to speak). There’s also neurological and specific brain wave activity somewhere in the future…

And no doubt, there are many of us for whom, as for Krugman, this is of some level of vital personal significance to know, if only for the sake of knowing as a touchstone for maintaining honesty with oneself about how responsible one is being about keeping fit (as if that were all there to it). I have to wonder, do we even need a minimally 350 dollar aluminum watch, assuming we are desirous of the status of the Apple Watch (a status it has apparently already begun to accrue to itself, still two weeks before the first orders are fulfilled for the first customers) to help us be honest with ourselves?

Krugman mentions only monitoring his personal fitness stats once or twice a day. Sometimes for me, as long as it’s confession time, I rarely consult the gizmo at all. I did far more often when I first started using it, as it represented an indisputable, highly accurate frame of reference—a reality check. I don’t need a gadget to know I’ve pretty much done my duty by myself to get in some physical exercise sufficient to preserve whatever pitiful level of fitness I enjoy at the moment. Whatever it’s merits, or lack of them, to me, I share this information, about sleep habits, steps, exercise, etc. with no one, except my wife, who has a more avid involvement for her own legitimate reasons with her own activities, and a legitimate fond conjugal concern for my state of health. I don’t compare my “performance” with norms established and maintained by the manufacturer of my fitness band. The last thing I would do is share any of this information with my friends. My universal motto, in that regard, as regards all matters of social intercourse insofar as its constituted of the exchange of news about daily activities, physical or intellectual, is “It’s not a contest.” Even less than I am interested in the minutiae of my own behaviors, as measured by these devices and wondrous gizmos, I am not interested in how many steps my buddies have taken that day, or how long they spent on their rowers, treadmills, elliptical trainers, etc.

However, unlike Krugman, by inference from what he says in the Times, I don’t suppose in any way that I am a typical specimen, subject, or consumer. Very much the contrary. I think, contrary to his conclusions “A smartphone is useful mainly because it lets you keep track of things; wearables will be useful mainly because they let things keep track of you,” that both are parts of some larger universal machine that allows the aggregation of data, instantly retrievable, automatically transmitted and shared, and rapidly analyzed for comparative, if not strictly competitive, purposes.

The chief complaint about the Apple Watch in preliminary reviews allowed by Apple to be conducted by a selected band of “power users” and professional industry watchers is that though the functions of the iPhone, especially by way of tracking and notification of one’s own agenda, schedule and itinerary (the framework of a busy life for a particular tribe of people engaged in a particular set of occupations) are no longer an annoyance as manifest on the phone, they are an immense annoyance on the watch, because it not only makes small annoying sounds. It actually buzzes, vibrates, tickles, pokes, and otherwise prods your epidermis in a way that is, by their almost universal account of it, distracting and, in the presence of others, invasive. I see all this not as a sign of a different function for these devices in the Krugmanian formulation: “they let things keep track of you.”

As I already said, I think this is an utterly shallow misreading of the actual gestalt of increasingly personal cybernetic extensions of our conscious preoccupations. And the initial complaints are merely a sign that the necessary adaptation of the always elastic set of protocols and behaviors (what used to be called manners and etiquette) are due for another revision, like a new release of a major operating system. The iPhone, with its beeps, whistles, vibrations and blinking and winking, was thought to be a distraction and rudeness personified. An individual’s attachment to their iPhone, even in public, even in social scenarios, involving as few as one other person, and as many as a conference room full of many others, has become the basis for a normative set of behaviors that people my age find at best amusing, and at worst painfully rude and offputting.

I predict in not too long a period of time (as the Apple Watch seems destined, indeed, to be the best next thing, and an expansion of the armamentarium of gadgetry with which large segments of the population will equip themselves) that wrist consulting, and various otherwise comically impolite sound effects and reflexive behaviors (haptics are a new set of phenomena to which people will have to become acclimated), will become the newly revised norm that in a couple of years we’ll all wonder was such a bother.

Krugman’s got it wrong, because, for once, he’s not looking at a big enough picture.

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2 thoughts on “
A Response to Paul Krugman on the Apple Watch

  1. I’ve noticed that automobile advertisers now tout the various ‘smart’ features of their vehicles —as if that’s a either a necessary or sufficient reason to choose one auto over another.

    This broad category of smart devices and the sub species is more about,as Herbert Marcuse would opine, moronizing its users.

    • So I gather Iz that you equate the inclusion of smart features in cars (to aid in navigation, preserving some sense of how to operate a vehicle more safely through fewer distractions, etc.) with “tolerance of what is radically evil,” which is what Marcuse, and at least two of his co-authors, attributed to the “moronization” of children and adults alike? What is it, exactly, that you would point to as radically evil in smart features of automobiles, as opposed, say to your new Apple iPhone 6 Plus?

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