Sometimes it wakes me up: The email chime of my iPhone 5S, wringing liquid anxiety out of some reptilian part of my brain like a wet towel. During the day, at my job at Gizmodo, I write about the ways the ubiquitous Internet is changing our cities, buildings, and environment–at night, it feels like I’m living in the inverted, dystopian version of that future.
Maybe I’m a unique case. I’m sure many users are excited–enticed, even!–by those distinctive pings. Why else would so many companies be lining up to sell me devices that will go even further by delivering notifications as tactile alerts against my skin? There’s Ringly, a $195 ring that I can set up to buzz if someone, say, retweets me. Or Cuff, a hybrid bracelet/necklace that will buzz when an important call or text comes in from work. Never mind that I still have to pull out my phone to see who it is and/or if there’s been a horrible accident. The notifications will be swift, and they will be impossible to ignore.
The advent of “smart” jewelry says a lot about what we want from technology right now. Take the pitch videos: Women–almost invariably women–up at dawn in perfect apartments, having power lunches, sometimes dancing, shopping, in meetings, all weighed down by the insistent ringing of their smartphones. “These are fashion-savvy girls,” says the narrator in a video about a smart bracelet called MEMI. “And while they don’t want to be tethered to their phones all the time, we knew they’d never go for a big, black, bulky, techy device.”
Theoretically, smart jewelry limits the intrusion of alerts. But in reality, it does an even worse job of mitigating engagement than your phone. Think about it: At a meeting, you can glance down at a buzzing phone and see a number, a subject line, a text, without interacting. With smart jewelry, you have no idea who the call was from or what the email said–you have to pull out your phone and find out. And so instead of limiting our smartphone time, smart jewelry extends it. It tightens the cinch between us and our devices, and makes us even more available. We are like god, or maybe Santa: Always listening, always available, always reachable. It’s the tyranny of presence.
This is a fundamentally flawed form of interaction design. It obscures information it should reveal and does the opposite of what it claims. Of course, you could strap a tiny smartphone to your wrist, though even that plan has its flaws. But I refuse to believe that this is the future we’ve been imagining for ourselves, a future in which we willingly don collars and cuffs that send us gentle shocks when our boss emails or friends text.
The fact that these devices are so heavily gendered, so female, makes them even stranger. As Don Norman, the author of The Design of Everyday Things, so aptly put it in the MIT Technology Review a few years ago, “we are entering unknown territory, and much of what is being done is happening simply because it can be done.”
We all dream of pervasive connectivity. We all dream of interfaces so tangible they’re impossible to distinguish from the physical world. We want to believe that by embedding the Internet in every object we own, we’ll be better at it. We’ll answer emails without delay, we’ll text back, we’ll read more. But is wedging “smartness” into every last untouched moment of the day is really what we want? Or are we dumb to invite it in so unquestioningly?
More Essays On Overrated Design
It’s Time For The Minimalist Poster Trend To Die by John Brownlee
What Champions Of Urban Density Get Wrong by Inga Saffron
The Case Against Open Design Competitions by Kriston Capps
Hate Your Soulless Office Tower? Blame The Seagram Building by Martin C. Pedersen
No, Flat Design Won’t Save Your Garbage App by Adrian Covert
You’ve All Been Had, Keurig Coffee Is The Devil by Mark Wilson
Beats By Dre Isn’t Great Design, Just Great Marketing by Devin Liddell
Delightful Interaction Design Needs To Die by John Pavlus
The Thinkpad Is A Lasting, But Overrated, Design by Mark Wilson