Like lots of people, I’m paying attention to the Apple Watch buzz, and doing some of my own speculation. Needless to say, I have no special expertise here. But what the heck; I might as well put my own thoughts out there.
So, here’s my pathetic version of a grand insight: wearables like the Apple watch actually serve a very different function — indeed, almost the opposite function — from that served by previous mobile devices. 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.
As I’ve written before, these days I wear a Fitbit, not because I want precise metrics on my fitness regime — which I’m probably not getting — but precisely because the thing spies on me all the time, and therefore doesn’t let me lie to myself about my efforts. And to get that benefit, I don’t need to be able to read information off the device — the basic version is just a blank band, communicating its information by Bluetooth. All I need is to be able to check up on myself once or twice a day.
Now, in this case the only intended recipient of this information is myself, although for all I know the NSA, the Machine, and Samaritan are tracking me too. (If you’re not watching Person of Interest, you should be.) But it’s easy to imagine how a wristband that provides information to others could be very useful — easy to imagine because it already happens at Disney World, where the Magic Band tracks you, letting rides know that you have bought a ticket, restaurants know that you’ve arrived and what table you’re sitting at, and more.
And yes, I know that your phone can do some of this; but a wearable can gather more information while being, you know, wearable.
But will people want a Disney-like experience out in the alleged real world? Almost surely the answer is yes.
Consider the Varian rule, which says that you can forecast the future by looking at what the rich have today — that is, that what affluent people will want in the future is, in general, something like what only the truly rich can afford right now. Well, one thing that’s very clear if you spend any time around the rich — and one of the very few things that I, who by and large never worry about money, sometimes envy — is thatrich people don’t wait in line. They have minions who ensure that there’s a car waiting at the curb, that the maitre-d escorts them straight to their table, that there’s a staff member to hand them their keys and their bags are already in the room.
And it’s fairly obvious how smart wristbands could replicate some of that for the merely affluent. Your reservation app provides the restaurant with the data it needs to recognize your wristband, and maybe causes your table to flash up on your watch, so you don’t mill around at the entrance, you just walk in and sit down (which already happens in Disney World.) You walk straight into the concert or movie you’ve bought tickets for, no need even to have your phone scanned. And I’m sure there’s much more — all kinds of context-specific services that you won’t even have to ask for, because systems that track you know what you’re up to and what you’re about to need.
Yes, it can sound kind of creepy. Even if there are protocols that supposedly set limits, revealing only what and to whom you want, there will tend to be an expansion of your public profile and contraction of your private space — not to mention the likelihood that the NSA, the Machine, and Samaritan are watching regardless. But two points here. First, most people probably don’t have that much to be private about; most of us don’t actually have double lives and deep secrets — at most we have minor vices, and the truth is that nobody cares. Second, lack of privacy is actually part of the experience of being rich — the chauffeur, the maids, and the doorman know all, but are paid not to tell, and the same will be be true of their upper-middle-class digital versions. The rich already live in a kind of privatized surveillance state; now the opportunity to live in a gilded fishbowl is being (somewhat) democratized.
So that’s my two cents (which purchase as much in digital terms as several hundred dollars back when). I think wearables will become pervasive very soon, but not so that people can look at their wrists and learn something. Instead, they’ll be there so the ubiquitous surveillance net can see them, and give them stuff.