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Why the Apple Watch should get dumber

Members of the media and Apple guests get to review the new Apple Watch in the demo room after the Apple event on Monday, March 9, 2015, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

"We believe Apple Watch will quickly become integral to your day."

That was Apple chief executive Tim Cook this week, trying to sell his company's latest gadget to the world. No doubt Apple will sell millions of these devices, and Cook's prediction will probably come true for those who buy them. But whether the Apple Watch becomes integral in a way that actually helps us live — rather than sucking us in — is the big question.

From the values reflected in the watch's design, I'm not confident.

This isn't some crotchety grumbling about The Way We Live Now. The Apple Watch is a reflection of a larger cultural anxiety: We worry that Google is making us stupid. We worry that social media is turning us into robots. We worry about becoming addicted to our smartphones. All that "nervous phone-glancing," as the technology writer Clive Thompson puts it, particularly during off-work hours, may be "one of the growing labor issues of our time." This is about why the Apple Watch even exists — whether we really need it, if it'll radically change what it means to compute — or whether it'll lead to more of the same.

As we speak, we're surrounded by screens. Their seemingly sole purpose is to demand your immediate attention. Our physical existence has become mediated by a string of digital interruptions, a constant barrage of notifications that just won't leave us alone. Some you can turn off, but others mix promotional alerts with genuine information, making it impossible to quit.

Even when our phones aren't buzzing with new updates, there's the temptation to check anyway — just to be sure we haven't missed anything, or perhaps simply because we're bored. Two-thirds of Americans last year told the Pew Research Center that they "find themselves checking their phone for messages, alerts, or calls — even when they don’t notice their phone ringing or vibrating." It's the distractions now that are punctuated by periods of quiet, not the the other way around.

Apple is pitching the Watch as a technology that will reduce the costs of living in this attention-based economy. And there are costs: Research shows that we waste as much as 10 minutes of productivity every time we drop everything for an e-mail, according to the Wall Street Journal. But when you've got Apple's smartwatch, you won't have to dig your phone out every time a new message arrives. Just check your wrist.

Perhaps on a watch, the siren song of Uberfacetwitmapsagram will be harder to resist. And peering at your smartwatch may be incrementally less obtrusive than whipping out your phone. But it doesn't do much to actually break the culture of distraction that plagues us all. That's partly because Apple is currently stuck between two related, but ultimately competing, priorities.

One is about staying power. The watch will be considered a success if Apple can persuade people to use their watches more than their phones. Indeed, talking to Apple employees who'd tested the device, Techcrunch concluded: "It seems certain that the Apple Watch will shortly be the primary way you access your iPhone during the day." If we all wake up a few years from now and realize we've moved much of our mobile computing to the wrist, that'll be a sign the smartwatch has truly come into its own. And the Apple Watch would get much of the credit for kickstarting it all.

The other priority is primarily financial -- namely, to be successful, the watch should generate as much revenue as possible. To that end, Apple and its shareholders have an interest in keeping our eyes glued to the watch. This is why the touchscreen feature is so important. Apple makes much of its money from apps. And how do the apps prosper? As with the iPhone, it's when you get hooked into coming back. Again. And again. And again.

If we wake up a few years from now and realize we've just traded one attention-taking device for another, that won't be a win for consumers. It won't be a win for the watch. And frankly, it won't be much of a win for Apple, either.

Remember that Apple's best products help us rethink our relationship to technology. They don't just add to the existing conversation. They transform the whole thing altogether — pushing parts of it forward here, altering the context of it there.

The Apple Watch doesn't feel like one of these transcendent products yet. It feels like one more data point, one more piece of evidence, one more battleground in the tired argument over how technology is — or isn't — turning us into slavish addicts waiting for the next hit of notification-fueled endorphins.

If there's a way out of this dilemma for Apple, it's to look back for inspiration. In 1995, Mark Weiser, the chief technology officer of Xerox PARC, wrote an essay on what he called "calm computing" — the notion that technology might be designed to live discreetly at the fringes of our attention, coming to the fore only when it is absolutely necessary.

Computers — not to mention pagers, cellphones and "the World-Wide-Web" — live almost permanently at the fore, Weiser argued. When digital technology calls, it commands your full attention. Think about responding to e-mail: It requires your eyes, your hands and your brain. That's what makes texting and driving so deadly. It's why, despite all anecdotal evidence to the contrary, multitasking is ruinously bad for us.

Calm computing, by contrast, deemphasizes technology — not to the point of being useless, but so that it isn't interruptive.

"There is no less technology involved in a comfortable pair of shoes, in a fine writing pen, or in delivering the New York Times on a Sunday morning, than in a home PC," Weiser wrote. "We must learn to design for the periphery so that we can most fully command technology without being dominated by it."

Some of today's biggest technology companies are beginning to warm to the idea, or to something like it. Last year, Google's Eric Schmidt said he believes the Internet will soon "disappear" — which is another way of saying the Internet, by virtue of being embedded in tons of connected devices, will recede into the background.

In the same context, Apple and other device makers now have an opportunity to revolutionize our relationship with technology all over again. And that's by building their next devices around Weiser's theory of calm computing.

What would a calm smartwatch look like? I've written before about how the Apple Watch's battery-draining Retina display inherently undermines its potential as a connected device. Doing away with the screen would not only free up battery power for the accelerometer, heartbeat sensor, gyroscope and wireless chips; it would also counteract the watch's propensity to slip into the forefront of your attention.

Wearables demand a whole new approach to designing tech. With that in mind, I'm issuing a challenge to the smartest smartwatch makers in the land. Yes, build us a device that can remotely unlock doors, conduct mobile payments and control our smart thermostats. But do it in a way that draws lessons from the unobtrusive timepieces of old.