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How to Stay Sane in the Notification Age

Some think the Apple Watch will drive us apart, but what if it's actually a filter for the new conditions of a smartphone society?

When I slip on my headphones, the clatter and chatter of the subway becomes an oasis of calm. This is the way personal technology has always made sense to me: not as a barrier between me and the world, but as a buffer, a temporary escape.

Most modern mobile technology, however, is now seen as the inverse. The glare of the smartphone screen and its tendency to distract is seen to represent an excess of escapism, or a surfeit of inwardness. But now, with the Apple Watch—an object literally tied around your wrist and designed to inform you of things—it seems we're about the enter a new era of distraction and anti-social behaviour.


Scholar Michael Bull once argued as much—not about the Apple Watch, but the iPod and the Walkman. He suggested that personal audio let people create "auditory bubbles" that drive a wedge between individuals and their environment, fostering anti-social behaviour and closing users off from the world. More recently, The Awl's John Hermann predicted that the Apple Watch will succeed not because of features or apps, but because of its ability to "create new rude exclusionary worlds for its wearers."

But as academics like Nick Prior point out, things aren't that simple. Prior found that users of the iPod and Walkman would use their auditory bubbles strategically, deploying music not only as a kind of soundtrack to augment the monotony of the city, but to also use personal audio as a way of shutting out noise, distraction, and the mass of other humans.

What if the Apple Watch offers a strategic respite from the reconfigured conditions of the Notification Age?

In other words, it's not that technology cut people off; rather, it gave them control over the new conditions of urbanism. A pair of headphones actually helped people circumvent the excess of social interaction in the modern city.

Nevertheless, some have begun to worry that the Apple Watch will only amplify the worst of the distracted digital age. The era of the notification, after all, is now here to stay: every service and app, from email to social media to fitness tracking and so on bombards us with notifications, our phones pinging every hour, every minute. It is built into not only the technology we own, but the social networks we live on, and the services we use. The stream is now the default.


In such a world, the glare of the smartwatch screen is the new Walkman, and the perceived problem with the Apple Watch is that it enters a deteriorating situation and makes it worse. But I wonder if, instead, the Apple Watch might offer a strategic respite from the reconfigured conditions of the Notification Age.

In The Atlantic, Ian Bogost suggests that the Watch is a form of lock-in, figuratively rather than literally tying users to Apple products by making it dependent on the iPhone. Thought of that way, the Apple Watch is grease for the cogs of the capitalist machine: Apple makes billions of dollars peddling screens, which then light up with notifications from Facebook, Twitter, and news organizations—presumably with rumours about the next iPhone. It's a vicious cycle of digital tech and information, and the Watch only intensifies the circularity of it all, looping us in into ever-tighter cycles of consumption in which technology begets information which demands more technology.

It's true that thus far, the smartwatch, and in particular, the Apple Watch, seems designed to only heighten the absurdity of our situation, rather than solve it. In his review of the device, Bloomberg's Joshua Topolsky complained his wrist was constantly beeping and buzzing with notifications. But controlling which beeps you allow is actually a lot more granular than Topolsky let on. You can actually turn them off. In the abstract at least, there's no good reason why someone would ever choose to have Twitter notifications or unfiltered emails buzzing at his or her wrist.


In one sense, Topolsky's complaint is a bit like reviewing a car by driving it with the windows down and complaining the experience is cold, windy, and noisy. The Apple Watch may allow for incessant buzzing, but it also allows for even less intrusion than is possible with a smartphone by relegating some notifications entirely to the phone—without shutting them off entirely. The Watch, thus, can act as a filter, distinguishing a text from your partner or an email from your boss from the ping of a fitness app, both physically and mentally separating the important and the flippant.

It's possible, too, that no notifications is the ideal. But like the city itself, technology is always fundamentally ambivalent, always both good and bad. The Walkman and iPod could be put to differing ends, cutting people off, but also offering them control of their experience of the urban. Similarly, if we were to abandon notifications, we might also give up on being stitched into a world of discovery, connection, and information. This is the digital bargain that has been struck for us, the barrage of notifications like the good and bad of the city, and in the absence of some global revolution in which we raid Facebook's offices and shut down their servers, a filter for notifications seems a better solution than none at all.

What we thus need is a technology that can be used to curtail desire—and in truth, the Watch isn't a bad start. What it offers above all is constraint, whether screen size, limited battery life, or the simple embarrassment of talking into your watch on the bus. It is technology that enables a person to combat the era of the notification in miniature—by turning them off, or fine-tuning them so that, instead of relentless beeping, there are instead only important calls and messages from loved ones. It sets up barriers, between you and the notification, between you and the smartphone, between you and the Age of Distraction.

There is certainly an element of solutionism here—that term from writer Evgeny Morozov that connotes seeking out a technological solution when one may not even be necessary. But what the examples of the Walkman and iPod suggest is that technology does not corrupt a once-pure ideal state, ruining, for example, the harmony of a morning commute with headphones; it's that technology is often a reaction to a set of circumstances that technology itself produced.

Is it possible, then, that a smartwatch might offer some choice and control over our notifications, reclaiming them so as to make them useful again? The Apple Watch on its own may not be that thing. Ironically, it may be too "magical"—that Apple codeword for inducing compulsive use—to function as a collar on desire. But perhaps the smartwatch as an idea, or a symbol, might still do that work: that in the space between the wrist and the pocket, and the limitations of that screen, we might find a barrier between ourselves and a world meant to ceaselessly distract.