Watching the Apple show yesterday, as Tim Cook and company unveiled the new Apple Watch, you couldn’t help noticing how carefully, ritualistically they landed on the words “personal” and “intimate.” Steven Levy noticed this, and wrote:
Apple is one of the world’s biggest, most profitable and most powerful companies. It is a corporate Leviathan. Yet it has staked its claim on intimacy, tapping the private impulses of hundreds of millions of users.
Two ways in which the Watch gets personal: It’s backed with four sensors that both track your vital signs and can nudge and tap you. (Levy: “When it ‘pokes’ you, it’s not virtual. You feel it.”) And you can take the data from your heartbeat and share it with others — who’ll see an animated heart on their watches, throbbing in time to your actual pulse.
So what is this all about? On one level, Apple is taking a shot at Facebook. It’s saying, forget your faux friending. We are going deeper here. We are going to return the idea of digital relationships to something real. We will touch and connect hearts. (On Tuesday, Apple chose to share its own heart with Twitter by posting live tweets beneath the video stream of its product unveiling, and apparently the technical fallout from that choice led to the disastrous failure of the broadcast.)
Levy recounts the “thrilling and disturbing” implications of this ultrapersonal datasharing. The idea of “biorhythm hacking” is certainly hackle-raising. But it’s also an essentially abstract fear — creepy but not imperilling (yet). My nightmare scenario is different: It lies in the dangers of putting the marketplace on our wrists, giving merchants a line on our pulses and access to our sensitive skin.
We’ve already witnessed how quickly smartphone notifications moved from convenience to annoyance. The Apple Watch represents the next loop of this cycle: We will invite its alerts onto our arms for their utility, and then hve to deal with a tangle of permissions and restrictions — or soon face tap overload.
It’s easy to imagine useful and convenient applications of the Apple Watch’s private wrist-tap. You’re in line at a restaurant, and instead of having to carry one of those buzzing-flashing hunks of plastic, you just await a gentle watch nudge.
“Your table is ready” sounds pretty great. But then you’re walking past a display in a store — one enhanced by an Apple iBeacon, perhaps — and your watch throbs. Its message: “Buy this toaster! It’s on sale!” Maybe not so great.
When your watch knows that your heartbeat has quickened as you stand in front of a product display (or, for that matter, as you scan a review), it knows that you are what the ad people call a “qualified prospect.” Will the companies involved be able to resist using that data?
Here, history is not on the individual’s side. Every opportunity that large public companies have had to use our data to sell us things has been grabbed. We have mumbled the occasional objection but mostly gone along with these passive transactions, in which bits and pieces of our behavioral data become imperfect but irritating marketing profiles. The Apple Watch could be an alarmingly efficient interface between the corporate and the corporeal, messaging our nervous systems and monetizing our gestures.
We don’t have to let this happen, of course. Sometimes we jealously guard the realm of the “personal” and “intimate”; other times, we casually open it to strangers. We make these choices based on whims and hunches more often than on forethought and reason.
Apple is betting that we will fall so goofily in love with its tiny gleaming bundle of silicon and sapphire that we will overlook these qualms. Based on recent experience, I would not rush to bet against the company. We might be so mesmerized by Apple’s interface magic and gadget smarts that we don’t care that it is invading our bodies. Or we might look down at our own wrists and say, “This has gone too far.”