Politics & Policy


Does the invention of the Apple Watch impede the class struggle?

This description of Mercedes’ car that needs no driver sounds quite amazing: no windows, no wheel to grip with rage, no car in front of you whose backside teems with poorly reasoned bumper stickers. Watch the news on the 3D HD projector, listen to Bruckner, vape an e-smoke, order an espresso from the small machine set into the dashboard. It’s cool. Did I say cool? I meant a machine designed to run over poor people. Figuratively speaking. From the worried, napkin-twisting article:

Mercedes’ vision of the future . . . is the wealth bubble incarnate. It’s easy to forget there are housing projects, homeless people on the street, shelters, food desserts, etc. when you literally never have to see them. Not even in passing.

The author means “food deserts,” parts of town where there aren’t any groceries selling fresh vegetables. It is never easy to forget there are food desserts. But the point’s a good one: If your car doesn’t have a window, it is difficult to see housing projects, and this means the millionaire class will abandon philanthropy entirely, convinced that the lower orders were gathered up in a rapture.

It’s so different today. Every morning an executive in a $100,000 car is driving through the housing projects, when suddenly he really, you know, looks around for once, and understands. Like the hero of Metropolis, he clasps his hands to his breast and cries out with his newfound solidarity with the toiling and the idle. Half of these guys pull over, toss someone the keys, and take the bus the rest of the way. So if you put them in cars where they can’t look out, they will never develop social conscience. Also, all personal jets should have glass bottoms and fly at a maximum altitude of 750 feet.

Cars have always provided distance and protection from the wider world, but Benz’s F 015 takes it to a whole new level. Yes, it’s just a concept. But this is what a radically unequal world could look like in 15 years.

As opposed to a radically unequal world in which the dude in the back is checking his mail on his phone and never looks up. How to prevent this “radically unequal” world is the question, and you suspect the answer is taxes; however many arrows the progressives believe stuff their quiver, they always managed to pull out the one that empowers the state to relieve people of their property.

Perhaps a progressive tax based on the opacity of the window glass. Perhaps a transponder that told the IRS the windows had been set to TRANSPARENT as the vehicle passed a convenience store that did not stock lettuce.

You suspect the author is aggrieved by the Apple Watch that costs $10,000, because it is covered with gold, presumably smelted with miners’ tears and paraded around poor neighborhoods in a bulletproof clear-plastic box so everyone knows what their betters can afford. I wouldn’t buy one, but people who purchase 76th-floor condos in New York so they have a place to rest during the semi-annual shopping trip will probably get one for the kids, because other parents in their circle probably will. You know how cruel kids can be: My dad said you can’t afford a gold watch because Putin is going to fire your dad and you’ll be poor and he’ll be dead.

The rest of us can do with the basic Apple Watch, just the way many people will go with the stripped-down driverless car when it’s affordable. What’s that, you say? You don’t want an Apple Watch?

Let’s talk about that.

People seem obliged to offer substantial, reasoned arguments why they don’t want one — and that seems proof that Apple’s cultural position is enormous. I mean, imagine it’s 1956, and Kelvinator just brought out the new Fido-Matic Fridge that automatically extrudes moist dog food into a bowl at preset intervals. The press wouldn’t say boo. The Today show wouldn’t do a live report from people queued up at the Kelvinator store. There wouldn’t be bitter battles in the letters-to-the-editor section about Kelvinator fanboys falling for the latest gimmick, and besides Frigidaire did that last year.

But Apple invents something, and the world is riven into two camps. Those who desire, and those who decline. The former group is regarded with less interest than the latter, since those who want the Watch are assumed to be devotees of Apple who would pay $199 for a white plastic brick used to prop open doors.

The people who don’t want them — ah, they’re the ones who make for good copy. They’re the rebels now. If I were a New York Times editor, the day the Watch was released I’d run a lifestyle-section story about men in Brooklyn with carefully curated beards who repair 1950s watches, and how this attention to the craft — nay, the art — of timepieces stands as a Contrast, and perhaps a Rebuke, to the overcomplicated Watch the sheep are lining up to get.

“It’s just an honest thing,” the watch-repair guy (Josh, I’m guessing) would say. “You hold it to your ear, you hear it tick. It manifests time in a real way. The delicacy of the movement — it’s almost intimate, to have a machine on your wrist with such precise detail, devoted to just one thing. The time.”

Yeah yeah. Go have a sarsaparilla, hipster. Look: You don’t want an Apple Watch, you don’t. But reject it for the right reasons — and that’s not because it’s another screen that takes you away from dealing with humanity, because that’s not what it is. To understand what this thing will become, there’s one thing you need to understand:

It’s not a watch.

It sits where watches sit, and in its resting mode it shows the time, but it’s not as if Apple said, “Hey, let’s make a timepiece! Get on that. Also, after you’re done, figure out what else it could do.” It’s a personal servant that tells the time when nothing else is going on. It is Dick Tracy’s two-way radio, and a telegraph, and portal to whatever music you want to hear, and a telephone, and your wallet, and a remote control. The last item has the most potential, and will create new paradigms — to use that awful word — that we’ll get used to and accept without much trouble, because it will simply replace a bunch of devices.

Today: I drive up to the house, I push the button for the garage door. I walk up the tunnel, I unlock the door with a key. I go in the family room, I turn on the fireplace with another remote control. I turn on the radio with the remote, change the channel with a button.

A year from now: I drive up to the house, the garage door just . . . opens. I walk up the tunnel, the door unlocks because it knows I’m there. I go to the family room and wave my hand, the fireplace starts. I wave at the radio, it comes on; I tap my wrist, the station changes.

Same situation, same outcome, but it’s all presence and gestures. It’s not that the old way was so onerous. It’s that the new way is just easier. If you think that’s wrong, then you should want to winch the garage door open by hand, turn a combination lock on the door, start the fire with paper and kindling, and let the radio warm up for a while before you turn the knob to your station. Why, in my day you had to work at getting in the house. Kids today, they’ve no idea what it was like to saw a rectangle in the side of the house to go indoors.

I’m sure you can do any of these things with a smartphone today. But the prime flaw in that sentence: “with a smartphone.” It is easier to pull out your keys and open a door than get out your phone, unlock it, thumb the app, hit the button. And hit it again because the app is one of those insecure, needy things that ask you to rate them, and you had to dismiss the screen. I JUST WANT TO GET IN THE HOUSE.

Smartphones command your attention; they suck you in, provide you with so many other things to do or see or check or post or scroll. The thing on your wrist is for doing and dismissing.

I suspect the first Watch will have its kludgy factors, and underperform here and there, but I remember the first iPod: brick-thick with physical buttons. Now all my music sits on a wafer that beams music to wireless headphones and operates by gestures. The first iPhone had a smeary camera and slow Internet; now I have a device as thick as three slices of carpaccio that takes HD video and tosses all my thoughts and pictures into the Cloud, and lets me pay for my groceries with a thumbprint.

Those devices refined their original purpose. The Watch is different, because telling time is not the function. Saving time is the function. The sixth generation of the Watch will not be a better timepiece. It will be a better servant. Ten years ago the idea of carrying around a smartphone that does all the things it does today wasn’t a dream, because we could imagine such things and they didn’t seem preposterous. Now we’re at the point where it’s perfectly reasonable to assume we’ll walk out to the garage, get in the car, and tap WORK on the Watch, and the car will take us there while we sit with our feet on the dash smoking a cheroot.

And this will be bad, because some people will still have to manually operate their cars and wind their old watches. There is, of course, a solution — neat, just, and egalitarian. Everyone walks. And the government hands out sundials. It’s equal! Which must mean it’s progress.

— James Lileks is a columnist for National Review Online.


The Latest