The time war

Fri Mar 13, 2015

Everybody wants your attention. There’s an invisible war raging out there and it’s all about where you are focusing your engagement. The victor of this war gets the spoils - your precious time.

The latest player in the battle for your eyeballs is the Apple Watch. At an event on Monday, Apple revealed more details about the smartwatch (along with an obscenely thin MacBook).

Reactions to the Apple Watch event were mixed, as to be expected. However, I’m sure Apple has nothing to worry about. Similar reactions followed the announcement of the iPad, and look how that story went.

One of the questions being raised is who would actually buy the Apple Watch Edition (which costs up to $22000 Canadian). Given the yearly obsolescence cycle of gadgets, this seems like a valid question. After all, where a luxury mechanical watch is an heirloom, the ostentatious solid-gold Apple Watch comes off as a toy for rich douchebags. Still, there’s no mystery over who will buy a short-lived gold watch - status symbols and conspicuous consumption are embedded into the culture of the nouveau riche, especially in places like China or Dubai.

The compelling subtext here is Apple’s utter braggadocio in peddling Veblen goods to the one percent - surely a signal to the world that the company is now the reigning King and no longer the underdog of yesteryears. But I digress - back to the time war.

The Apple Watch, or indeed any smartwatch, is another contender for your attention. But how useful is it really? My earlier thoughts on the Apple Watch still hold true. I’d like to expand on the idea of attention a little bit more though.

At any given moment of the day, you are attending to something.

Let’s break it down. You wake up. You have a shower, eat breakfast, and brush your teeth all while struggling to get the kids ready to go to daycare. Do you really want to be bothered with twitter notifications while you’re already overwhelmed with multitasking and trying to rush out the door? You jump in your car for the daily commute. Is it safe for you to catch up on your emails while you’re driving and attending to the road? I know these are all slightly silly rhetorical questions, but bear with me.

For most, the vast majority of the day is taken up by your particular employment. For me, and I suspect for many of you, my eight working hours are spent staring at a computer screen. My dominant attention is on the screen, so shouldn’t my notifications appear there too - as a seamless integration into my workflow?

In fact, with OS X Yosemite, Apple recently introduced this exact synchronicity between your iPhone and Mac. Notifications, texts, and even phone calls will appear on your computer screen and allow you to leave the phone alone. For PC users, the wonderful Pushbullet provides similar functionality (and is in fact cross-platform). When your eyes never have to leave your screen, you remain in context and notifications feel like less of a distraction.

If I’m getting notifications on my computer screen, do I want duplicate notifications to pop up on my watch? No, of course not. It’s one or the other. One of the major selling points of the Apple watch has just been rendered moot.

But perhaps in other contexts, the Apple Watch could work. If your hands are dirty then a smartwatch would be great, like say if you’re digging up weeds or working on a construction site and you want to see who is calling you. Too bad Apple isn’t marketing their watch to blue collar workers though.

Instead, Apple is targeting the ultra-rich and maybe white collar workers on the low end. The examples of usage Apple gave at their event were so ridiculously idiosyncratic, they won’t appeal to many outside Silicon Valley. Using your watch to call an Uber car, for example. Really? Who actually does that?

In our age of sensory overload, we’re trying to find ways to focus more and multitask less. Our time is a finite resource best spent doing the things we love. If any smartwatch is going to succeed, it needs to help us manage our lives more efficiently, not introduce more chaos and noise. The current generation of smartwatches may help a select few, but for most of us, they’d probably do more harm than good.

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