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A little more than a month in, I’ve been spending radically less time on my iPhone and my computer — less time scrolling through social media feeds, less time idly lingering on screens, waiting for stuff to happen
In 2011, Nicholson Baker attended the launch of the first iPad in Cupertino, California, and recorded the curious phenomenon that happens every time Apple introduces a new line of products. Steve Jobs stood on stage and told everybody what the iPad was. And then, the tech bloggers and newspaper reporters in the audience, unimpressed, sat around and complained. “Immediately afterward, the carping began,” Baker wrote of the unveiling, in the New Yorker . “ Meh , the iPad wasn’t magical at all, it was just a big iPhone, the journalists said. Until people, real people, found otherwise. The iPad “was a smash; people immediately began figuring out new ways to use this brilliant, slip-sliding rectangle of private joy.”
For Baker, Jobs was the undisputed “king of the world of making good things flow better.” But it wasn’t only that. It was that Jobs could make something superfluous seem totally indispensable. He could turn stuff you didn’t know you wanted into stuff you feel you need. This process has repeated itself every couple of years since the invention of the original iPod. Every time Apple devises something new, the world responds with a collective shrug: We’re supposed to be excited about that ? Then we use it, and about two days later we can’t imagine doing without. Apple is in the business not of satisfying needs, but of creating new ones.
The way an Apple product comes to seem essential is rarely the way you might have imagined using it. Before we all had iPhones, it was impossible to imagine ordering an Uber, or paying for a coffee with a mobile wallet, or finding out the name of the song playing on the radio with Shazam, or any of the other things we now do instinctively. And it’s been likewise with my Apple Watch, which I’ve had for a month and has already, in ways I never would have predicted, completely changed my relationship to email, texting and the web.
My impression of the Apple Watch when it launched was not unlike the disgruntled reporters at the launch of the iPad: It looked like another phone, only smaller and less useful, affixed to your wrist. Like many people, I hope to be less connected, not more, and hope to reduce my time on screens, not increase it. The idea of making myself more accessible, and indeed of giving myself more opportunities to turn away from the real world and gaze at a digital display, was not especially appealing.
What I hadn’t foreseen was that the Apple Watch is designed with these problems in mind. It doesn’t contribute to the problem of excessive connectivity or compulsive interest in the happenings of the internet; if anything, it solves those problems. A little more than a month into using this thing, I’ve been spending radically less time on my iPhone and my computer — less time scrolling through social media feeds, less time hovering over empty inboxes, less time idly lingering on screens, waiting for stuff to happen. It’s been hugely liberating, in ways I did not, could not, expect.
One of the most pernicious effects of the smartphone revolution has been the constant war for your attention. You go out to dinner, or have beers with a friend, or sit on the sofa and chat with your wife, and buzz : You feel the vibration that heralds a new email, or text message, or Twitter DM, and you are compelled to withdraw your phone just to check and see what it is. We all know the breach in etiquette this constitutes, and most of us, for the sake of courtesy, will wait to look for an appropriate lull in the conversation. But when the phone comes out, the damage is done — and what started as a well-meaning effort to ascertain if a message is urgent quickly curdles into directionless browsing. Even at home alone it can happen. You put down your book to check who’s messaging you, and before you know it you’re plunging through Instagram rather than reading.
But when you receive a notification on your Apple Watch, it nudges you softly, with a whisper of a twitch. You turn your wrist slightly, more slightly even than you would to check the time, and you can see in a millisecond who’s after you, whether what they need is important; if it’s an email from Best Buy, or a Facebook message from a distant aunt who can wait for a reply, you can carry on your conversation, or your reading, without the slightest perceptible disruption. You can go a whole evening certain that nothing significant is happening that demands your immediate attention — and you can do it without once looking at your phone. The phone remains snug in your pocket, or on the nightstand plugged into the charger, and all that nice stuff going on in real life around you can be enjoyed virtually without distraction.
When I first started carrying a BlackBerry, in the late 2000s, it provided its own kind of liberation: Suddenly I no longer felt chained to my laptop, where I’d been checking my email on my web browser near-constantly. Smartphones made the concept of checking your email redundant, because push notifications, that brilliant idea, told you precisely when you had an email to check, obliterating the need to look at an empty inbox, hopeful for mail. The Apple Watch just takes that notion one step further. Now the notifications themselves are less obtrusive, demanding less of your attention, making it possible to deal with work, engage with a social network and remain available when needed, without reaching into your pocket and pouring over your phone every 30 seconds. It’s another win for private joy.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019