Future Ennui

As we march onwards towards wearables and alerts on our wrists, we're no longer shocked by technological progress, but rather exhausted by it.

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It’s been seven years since the first launch of the iPhone. Before that, smartphones were a curiosity, mostly an affectation of would-be executives—Blackberry and Treo and so forth. Not even a decade ago, they were wild and feral. Today, smartphones are fully domesticated. Tigers made kittens, which we now pet ceaselessly. Over two-thirds of Americans own them, and they have become the primary form of computing.

But along with that domestication comes the inescapability of docility. Have you not accepted your smartphone’s reign over you, rather than lamenting it? Stroking our glass screens is just what we do now, even if it also feels sinful. The hope and promise of new computer technology has given way to the malaise of living with it.

Shifts in technology are also shifts in culture and custom. And these shifts have become more frequent and more rapid over time. Before 2007, one of the most substantial technological shifts in daily life was probably the World Wide Web, which was already commercialized by the mid-1990s and mainstream by 2000. Before that? The personal computer, perhaps, which took from about 1977 until 1993 or so to become a staple of both home and business life. First we computerized work, then we computerized home and social life, then we condensed and transferred that life to our pockets. With the newly announced Apple Watch, now the company wants to condense it even further and have you wear it on your wrist.

Change is exciting, but it can also be exhausting. And for the first time in a long time, reactions to the Apple Watch reveal seem to underscore exhaustion as much as excitement. But even these skeptical replies question the watch's implementation, rather than express lethargy at the prospect of living in the world it might bestow on us.

Some have accused Apple of failing to explain the purpose of their new wearable. The wristwatch connoisseur Benjamin Clymer calls it a “market leader in a category nobody asked for.” Apple veteran Ben Thompson rejoins Cook for failing to explain “why the Apple Watch existed, or what need it is supposed to fill.” Felix Salmon agrees, observing that Apple “has always been the company which makes products for real people, rather than gadgets for geeks,” before lamenting that the Apple Watch falls into the latter category.

“Apple hasn’t solved the basic smartwatch dilemma,” Salmon writes. But the dilemma he’s worried about proves to be a banal detail: “Smart watches use up far more energy than dumb watches.” He later admits that Apple might solve the battery and heft problems in a couple generations, but “I’m not holding my breath.” Salmon reacts to the Apple Watch’s design and engineering failings, rather than lamenting the more mundane afflictions of being subjected to wrist-sized emails in addition to desktop and pocket-sized ones. We’re rearranging icons on the Titanic.

After the Apple keynote, The Onion joked about the real product Apple had unveiled—a “brief, fleeting moment of excitement.” But like so much satire these days, it’s not really a joke. As Dan Frommer recently suggested, the Apple keynote is no less a product than are its phones and tablets. Apple is in the business of introducing big things as much as it is in the business of designing, manufacturing, distributing, and supporting them. In part, they have to be: Apple’s massive valuation, revenues, and past successes have only increased the street’s expectations for the company. In a world of so-called disruptive innovation, a company like Apple is expected to manufacture market-defining hit after hit.

Indeed, business is another context we often use to avoid engaging with our technological weariness. We talk about how Apple’s CEO Tim Cook must steer the tech giant into new waters—such as wearables—to ensure a fresh supply of desire, customers, and revenue. But the exigency of big business has an impact on our ordinary lives. It’s easy to cite the negative effects of a business environment focused on quarterly profits above all else, including maintaining job stability and paying into the federal or municipal tax base. In the case of Apple, something else is going on, too. In addition to an economic burden, the urgency of technological innovation has become so habitual that we have become resigned to it. Wearables might not be perfect yet, we conclude, but they will happen. They already have.

I’m less interested in accepting wearables given the right technological conditions as I am prospectively exhausted at the idea of dealing with that future’s existence. Just think about it. All those people staring at their watches in the parking structure, in the elevator. Tapping and stroking them, nearly spilling their coffee as they swivel their hands to spin the watch’s tiny crown control.

A whole new tech cliché convention: the zoned-out smartwatch early adopter staring into his outstretched arm, like an inert judoka at the ready. The inevitable thinkpieces turned non-fiction trade books about “wrist shrift” or some similarly punsome quip on the promise-and-danger of wearables.

The variegated buzzes of so many variable “haptic engine” vibrations, sending notices of emails arriving from a boss or a spammer or obscene images received from a Facebook friend. The terrible battery life Salmon worries about, and the necessity of purchasing a new $400 wristwatch every couple years, along with an equally expensive smartphone with which to mate it.

The emergence of a new, laborious media creation and consumption ecosystem built for glancing. The rise of the “glancicle,” which will replace the listicle. The PR emails and the B2B adverts and the business consulting conference promotions all asking, is your brand glance-aware?

These are mundane future grievances, but they are also likely ones. Unlike its competitor Google, with its eyeglass wearables and delivery drones and autonomous cars, Apple’s products are reasonable and expected—prosaic even, despite their refined design. Google’s future is truly science fictional, whereas Apple’s is mostly foreseeable. You can imagine wearing Apple Watch, in no small part because you remember thinking that you could imagine carrying Apple’s iPhone—and then you did, and now you always do.

Technology moves fast, but its speed now slows us down. A torpor has descended, the weariness of having lived this change before—or one similar enough, anyway—and all too recently. The future isn’t even here yet, and it’s already exhausted us in advance.

It’s a far cry from “future shock,” Alvin Toffler’s 1970 term for the post-industrial sensation that too much change happens in too short a time. Where once the loss of familiar institutions and practices produced a shock, now it produces something more tepid and routine. The planned obsolescence that coaxes us to replace our iPhone 5 with an iPhone 6 is no longer disquieting, but just expected. I have to have one has become Of course I’ll get one. The idea that we might willingly reinvent social practice around wristwatch computers less than a decade after reforming it for smartphones is no longer surprising, but predictable. We’ve heard this story before; we know how it ends.

Future shock is over. Apple Watch reveals that we suffer a new affliction: future ennui. The excitement of a novel technology (or anything, really) has been replaced—or at least dampened—by the anguish of knowing its future burden. This listlessness might yet prove even worse than blind boosterism or cynical naysaying. Where the trauma of future shock could at least light a fire under its sufferers, future ennui exudes the viscous languor of indifferent acceptance. It doesn’t really matter that the Apple Watch doesn’t seem necessary, no more than the iPhone once didn’t too. Increasingly, change is not revolutionary, to use a word Apple has made banal, but presaged.

Our lassitude will probably be great for the companies like Apple, who have worn us down with the constancy of their pestering. The poet Charles Baudelaire called ennui the worst sin, the one that could “swallow the world in a yawn.” As Apple Watch leads the suppuration of a new era of wearables, who has energy left to object? Who has the leisure for revolution, as we keep up with our social media timelines and emails and home thermostats and heart monitors?

When one is enervated by future ennui, there’s no vigor left even to ask if this future is one we even want. And even if we ask, lethargy will likely curtail our answers. No matter, though: Soon enough only a wrist’s glance worth of ideas will matter anyway.