Wearables — incremental or step change?
John Borthwick of Betaworks shares a thought-provoking reflection on the narrowing space between ourselves and our technologies in a recent piece on AI, smart technology, and presence. His post closes in on a couple themes that are essential for understanding what technologies are to us: what are these technologies doing for us and to us; and are they really making us better?
The first and obvious observation about our technologies is that they’re not just objects. The line that Borthwick sees disappearing isn’t a line to begin with. Technologies are tools, they are experienced, they have state, are connected, provide information, and now capture and track it as well. McLuhan called them extensions, physically, mentally, and culturally. That was before the internet and social — so we might add that our technologies are now social extensions as well.
But they’re not separate in the way that the subject-object description suggests. What matters in any understanding of personal technologies is our habits of use. Use grounded in habits, practices, and activities. That is where they have their effect, and how they drive change. (To discover what they do, turn them off. See what you notice. What you miss should give you the answer, and it won’t be the object.)
In fact use, not technology, is what we should be focusing on. Foucault taught us that to understand what we do (as a society) pay attention to how we talk about it. Language is how we make sense of our world, insomuch as it is the means by which we make sense of our experiences with others.
The utility of technology is such a tacit assumption in our time that we refer to ourselves as users. Use, users, utility. We not only neglect the symbolic meanings, and cultural significations of tech (wearables are fashion). We take utility as a given. Utility is good.
But is it good enough? Much of the debate around Apple’s Watch is about its utility. What will it do? Do we need it? Is it really a difference maker?
One could expand the debate and ask: are wearables in general a difference maker? Are they step change or are they incremental improvements? Perhaps they are just a new form factor, novel in some ways but because their form factor is limiting, not so in others. In some use cases, they may offer a fundamental improvement, but owing significantly to what they connect to (the whole IoT thing).
I think the question of use value is the one we should be asking. Borthwick states that our technologies should be getting smarter, in turn making us smarter. But what does that mean? Most of the time it’s information. But we know that more information doesn’t make us better informed, and certainly doesn’t make us more knowledgeable. For that one needs not only information but judgment. Smart, like utility, is another of those assumptions we have made about technology that is now tacitly accepted as a given.
What technologies do is really in fact what we do with them. It’s in our habits and practices that we can understand the changes wrought by technologies. Technologies change our proximity to the world around us, change its immediacy to us, and in their connectedness, change our temporality or experience of time. Borthwick lands on the idea of presence, in a discussion of tele-presence, then describes meditating as an example of a different kind of presence. VR is not presence it’s mediation. Meditation is self-presence.
The difference made by these personal technologies is one of embedding and disembedding. In embedding themselves in our daily habits and practices they disembed us from being present in the natural flow of being here and now. This is sometimes useful, but sometimes not. And this is why the question of their utility is so hard to fathom.
More information about tracked activities, data about our movements, location-specific context, notifications and the many ways in which distance is erased in the name of real-time connectedness — these are the disembedding consequences of our technologies. Whether these features are useful or not should lead to the question of whether they are good for us. We rarely ask that question. Perhaps we should.