Apple Watch: To Wear It Like a Man—or a God?

According to Apple, this is technology that ‘embraces individuality and inspires desire.’ What could possibly go wrong?

This article originally appeared in Time Magazine online, 10 September 2014.

Technology keeps getting more and more personal. First “personal computers,” which sat on your desk, gave way to laptops, which sat in a rather more intimate position. Now laptops are giving way to tablets and phones, which nestle in your hand and slip into your pocket. And early next year, the Apple Watch will wrap around quite a few wrists, which it will tap gently to signal that a friend is calling or a message has arrived.

You could say the Apple Watch will be the ultimate personal computer, but more to the point, it is one of the first intimate computers. It promises to be with you every moment of the day (though it will part with you at night for recharging—such sweet sorrow), aware of your every motion, responsive to your touch. It will be close enough, Apple promises, to feel your heartbeat—and share that heartbeat, in a feature that is either sweet or slightly creepy, with a friend.

I think Sting sang about this kind of intimate watchfulness a generation ago: “Every move you make, every breath you take, I’ll be watching you.” Oh, that song was not so much sweet as slightly creepy? Well, it won’t feel that way with the Apple Watch—unlike Sting’s hovering would-be lover, it is watching you in order to serve you. After all, in the reverent tones of Sir Jony Ive, narrating the watch’s introductory video, this is technology that “embraces individuality and inspires desire.” What could possibly go wrong?

There will be two ways to wear the new Apple Watch, and the even more powerful and intimate devices yet to come: to treat it like a tool, or to treat it like magic.

“Every sufficiently advanced technology,” in Arthur C. Clarke’s famous words, “is indistinguishable from magic.” So perhaps, as we take one more step toward intimacy with our devices, it’s worth remembering what human beings have always sought from magic. Central to the idea of magic is the idea of secret knowledge—of knowing something about the world, whether runes or potions or spells, that will give us mastery over it. Magic promises that there is a secret passage through the mystery of the world, a doorway that leads to control. Long before modern technology, human beings sought (and frequently claimed to have found) that door.

But there is something we yearn for even more powerfully than mastery over the world—we yearn to master ourselves. We are a great mystery to ourselves. For hours every night we sleep, slack and unaware. During the day we barely notice our heart’s perpetual rhythm and our chest’s rise and fall. What if we had access to magic that promised knowledge of the secrets of our bodies? What if, behind that promise of knowledge of our bodies, lurked magic’s other promise, the promise of control of them?

This is why the “killer app” for the next generation of devices is fitness. Now that phones accompany us almost everywhere, they have begun to count our steps. On my own iPhone is an app that lets me number my calories day-by-day and track my weight with previously unimaginable precision. How much more will we be able to know, and control, once we enter the age of intimate computing, with computers that know us better than we know ourselves?

All technology, like all magic before it, craves godlikeness. Technology pursues the classical divine attributes of omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence—knowing everything, being everywhere, being capable of anything. Technology, like magic, seems to possess these divine qualities, and it promises that with its help we can have them, too.

Indeed, there is a very old story, one of the founding myths of Western civilization, about the pursuit of knowledge that would lead to control. “You shall be like God.” “You shall not surely die.” Those were the two promises the serpent made on behalf of the fruit in the Bible’s opening pages, and we’ve been chasing those promises ever since. The two promises are linked: We believe that if we have knowledge, we will also have power. If we can escape our creaturely limits, we will also escape our creaturely fate.

It is perhaps worth pondering the fact that so far in human history, these promises have always failed—not just the man and the woman in the primordial garden, but all the various magicians and religions since. We have neither achieved godlikeness nor escaped our mortality. Will technology be the exception that proves the rule, the path to secret knowledge that actually does let us transcend our limits? Or will technology fail at making us like gods, eventually failing in the way all false gods fail, demanding more and more from us while delivering less and less, until eventually they demand everything while delivering nothing?

There is, in fact, a powerful counternarrative in Western culture, an ongoing protest against magic, that says that the knowledge we seek, and the control we yearn for, is not available to us. Which does not mean it does not exist. “You have searched me and known me,” one of these protesters wrote, “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.” The singer of this psalm was not addressing a device within his control, but a transcendent being beyond his ken, who nonetheless was closer than his own breath. The testimony of this counternarrative is that we are only fully ourselves when we acknowledge a greater reality beyond ourselves; that we gain dignity, rather than losing it, when we accept the limits of human knowledge—even knowledge of ourselves.

So there will be two ways to wear the new Apple Watch, and the even more powerful and intimate devices yet to come: to treat it like a tool, or to treat it like magic.

We can see this watch as just one more tool—one more way to move mindfully (and watchfully?) through an enduringly mysterious world. Not as a way to master ourselves or our surroundings, but as a way to be reminded of, and grounded in, our embodied limitations. One of Apple’s promotional images for the new Watch showed it reminding its owner to stand up and walk around after sitting too long (presumably in front of a screen). That’s the kind of simple, humbling prompt we human beings need.

Or we can indulge the hope that this device (or some new version just down the road) will free us from our limits—will help us know what we cannot know and avoid what we cannot avoid. Wear the Watch that way, and you’ll not only be disappointed—along the way you’ll miss much of what actually makes life worth living.

As with all technology, the choice with the Apple Watch will come down to this: to wear it like a human being, or wear it like a god.