THE BLOG

Apple and Wearable Technology: A Warning From History

31/01/2014 13:34 GMT | Updated 01/04/2014 10:59 BST

Picture the scene - you are completing an application form for life insurance and a page comes up giving you the option to upload data from your always-on fitness monitor, outlining your exercise, work and sleep patterns for the past 6 months, with the incentive that reduced premiums may be available for those who do.

You don't wear a fitness band, so don't have access to data that will reduce your premiums, but a promotion on the page is offering you one at a special rate, with a neat tag-line that emphasises the money you will save and the love your children will express for taking care of yourself.

You have concerns. You're a fit and healthy person, but the only way to prove this without paying for a 'special' assessment (which incurs increased admin charges) is to give in and have a fitness band installed. You click the link and find in the small print that your movements will be monitored and any changes to your health status reported directly to the company, with could incur penalties or reduced cover.

Sound far-fetched? Quite the opposite - this is where 'wearable tech' will likely be taking us. Not because we particularly want to be living in the world outlined above, but because of the logic of economics.

One pressure point that might hasten this journey has been widely reported this week. In an event to make all iPhones vibrate anxiously: despite increasing sales and huge profits Apple's stock price has fallen. Why are investors nervous? Commentators have concluded that Apple needs to 'do it again' - release another ground-breaking product that will release in us desires that we didn't even know that we had and send a 'niche' product towards ubiquity.

Apple has been so successful recently because of a singular model: with the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone and iPad Apple 'aced' previously existing products in these fields and take them to another plane, thereby making them irresistible. The iPhone is an 'aced' version of the mobile, the iPod an 'aced' version of the Walkman, and what is possible now is incredible: we can stream music and video to a pocket or bag-sized HD device, we can read up to date news and communication via video calls or social networks.

The tough question now is this: is there is anything left to ace? The stock exchange appears to think not. Apple - and other tech companies - have all had big releases lately of course, but each of them has simply been along the lines of 'faster, thinner, lighter', with the occasional change to screen resolution or aspect ratio. Lacking the need for any further ground-breaking device, markets consider Apple to have a problem and many are predicting that, to protect their valuation, the only way forward will be to steal a march on Google and Samsung and do something special with 'wearable tech' market, perhaps by taking Google's 'Glass' or the 'FitBit Force' health band and giving them the Johnny Ive makeover.

So bankers worried about Apple's stock price could serve to change the game on wearable technology. This, as I've outlined above, comes with serious concerns that we need to reflect on now.

In a previous post here I explained how all technologies works to 'enframe', to fundamentally change the way we view the world and interact with it and one another. The invention of the power loom in the late 18th century is a good example. It vastly improved the efficiency and quality of cloth produced, and slashed the price of fabric - but in doing so also ruined people's lives and left scores of skilled people either unemployed, or economically excluded as they pursued 'old' ways.

So the question we need to ask of wearable technology is, as with the power loom, what wider socioeconomic effects it might bring with it. Those who made the looms had an easy sell: these machines will save you money, and with wearable tech the economics will be similarly clear - the drive to efficiency will see people put under huge pressure to wear such devices or be excluded from savings. Those who do refuse to use them could find themselves excluded from 'normal' society, lacking proper access to healthcare or insurance.

In other words, it could be easy to put an 'iWatch' on, or Google 'Glass', but far far harder to take them off again. Not because their functionality will be necessarily addictive, but because the economic models they lead us into are bound by the logic of consumer capital and will insist that, in order to enjoy savings, we must keep wearing them. Companies like Apple and Google will, as ever, sell them to us on the promise of what benefits they can deliver us, but this always masks the deeper question of what benefits these devices deliver back to companies in return. Our personal data, our minute by minute location, the state of our health, the food and drink we are consuming all harvested and sold on to advertisers - is this the world we want to live in? Perhaps it is, but we must have the intelligence and wisdom to make conscious choices, and not have them made for us by anxious investors.

There were those who fought against the introduction of power looms. These 'Luddites' have since given their names to any who dare resist the incessant march of technology. But their message was not anti-progress, simply that not all that is possible is desirable, and that any advances should be considered in terms of cost to social structures and relationships.

Unfortunately, with Apple desperate to keep its stock valuation high, and with no further everyday products to 'ace', it may find itself unable to resist moving into wearable technology and thus advancing it towards pernicious ubiquity.

As I have written here before, we must decide if this is the future we want. If that means standing in tradition with Luddites, then hand me a hammer and give me a loom to smash, or a pair of pliers and a hipster's Glass to crack.