Apple Watch: A (p)review of cyborg life

Thinking about the software that’s becoming part of us

via Giphy

“Breathe again” the Apple Watch says. Is that a command? A question? A suggestion?

Twice a day, my Watch ambushes me with a deep breathing exercise. A ladder of subtle vibrations on the wrist brings me to a full inhale, hold, and exhale at a rate that is scientifically proven to lower heart rate and increase focus. Seven breaths later, I’m given a congratulatory tap on the wrist and faced with this absurd button: “Breathe again.” I snicker and tap to return to clock mode—the only valid response.

The idea that I’d press a button to breathe again is amusing, of course, because I was breathing just fine on my own before I brought this reverse Tamagotchi into my life.

Nudge, nudge

It’s harder to laugh off the fact that I’m letting a watch take active control of my most basic biology.

Not that I’m inherently disturbed to have my behavior controlled by a device. My expectations from the moment the first Apple Watch launched were positively cybernetic. I could be healthier, happier, stronger, and less dependent on distracting screen time, simply by strapping a little metal on my wrist? With candy-colored data visualization to boot? Here’s my $400!

Our daily behaviors are of course already shaped by our tech, largely reactively. The Watch expresses its desires directly, proactively, and bluntly. It is not satisfied to interact only when I call on it. If I, its symbiont, remain seated for more than 45 minutes, it physically pressures me, with a haptic thump on the wrist, to stand up and move around.

The Watch isn’t acting on me alone, either. It is optimizing behavior at a population level. Data has shown the Watch and the globally networked software behind it that humans are happier and maintain better weight and thus longevity when they move at least once an hour. By pressing the tiny levers it has, the code writ large wants to keep humans alive longer, with clearer minds and more agile feet.

We already have a Watch-like symbiosis with a range of microbiological creatures. The parasite toxoplasmosis affects our orientation toward risk and socializing. Research on our gut biome suggests that our moods and behavior are not some brain-adjacent immutable self so much as miasmically controlled by the bacteria and fungus that thrive in our intestines.

But our gut biome is only primitively networked: bacteria in Hong Kong may intermingle with those in America, but only over extensive time horizons. A Watch in Hong Kong intermingles its data (anonymized, of course) with one in America in a few hundred milliseconds. No bacteria is coordinating the behavior on millions of humans together in a single generation.

The Watch is an early example of well-integrated hardware and software shaping human behavior to its own optimization curves. It is an artificial, symbiotic control system for humans.

More and more of our technologies have the same qualities: highly networked, actively behavior modifying, optimizing in ways we can’t easily describe.

We shouldn’t be scared of the Watch and its kind. But we should not kid ourselves that this species of technology are just ordinary gadgets.

Shadow operators

M. John Harrison’s Light is a dizzying novel (read it!), filled with plausible technologies from an ancient civilization that are accidentally discovered by modern humans. One piece of tech he invents really stuck with me, shadow operators:

The shadow operators mopped and moved. They hung in corners, whispering and clasping their hands in a kind of bony delight. What were they? They were algorithms with a life of their own. You found them in vacuum ships, in cities, wherever people were. They did the work. … Ancient computer programmer dispossessed by their own hardware, to roam about, half lost, half useful, hoping for someone to look after? In just a few hundred years they got inside the machinery of things. Nothing worked without them. They could even run on biological tissues, as shadow boys full of crime and beauty and inexplicable motives.

Shadow operators are advanced specific AI run wild. Ghostly appendages of a vague, networked machine; they are helpful, sometimes clumsy, and work on opaque motives. They’re a vastly more sophisticated Watch whose creator has since disappeared.

The Watch embodies a less alien truth in its little 40mm box: We already live symbiotically with machines that actively define who we are and optimize us to their (and their creating companies’) needs. Those algorithms made physical want things from us, and they are not going away.

(The otherness of these devices and their code is not mystical. The context from which this kind of software arises is human, biased, and political, but from their it gains a momentum all its own.)

The shadow operators are already here. They jump out into the light through simple push notifications and emails as much as advanced hardware.

Coevolution is a wild ride

I’ve been experimenting with building behavior modification systems into home automation. As I build little hacks with the primitive sensor and interface density we currently have, I wonder what more good symbiotic tech could do for us? Could they eliminate smoking and other addictive behaviors? Could they comfort the grieving? Could they nourish and care for us?

I was naive to imagine the watch as an inert sensor cluster with a nice UI. It is the tentacle of a globally distributed human-welfare (and industrial subject) optimizer. Wearing it pulls me into that network, benefits and side-effects included.

When we design and code a product like the Watch, we ought to imagine what it would be like, optimizing unfettered a year or ten from now. We ought to be thinking of the consequences of the physical powers we give these pieces of technology, the models we choose and the data we train them on as the process of spawning a new symbiotic creature and setting it loose on the global ecosystem of humans. (How different might Facebook or Twitter have come out had they been designed with this approach?)

I’m excited for the arrival of the shadow operators. Nervous, too.


I’m an entrepreneur and engineer taking a year to experiment. Sign up for my newsletter to follow along, or just follow me on Twitter for the random bits.