So the Apple Watch has hit Britain’s high street – we can all now breathe a collective sigh of relief. Most of you probably couldn’t help but take notice of the countless functions it boasts. The watch reportedly monitors your heart rate, sleep, blood pressure and even tells you when you need to get up and move. Perhaps it is only after the marketing hype that we can actually bring our thinking to bear. Dr Western has written an interesting article on the impact of the Apple Watch, and it got me to thinking…
It’s not what the Apple Watch does that’s important
so much as what it doesn’t do.
Let me explain. How we see our world is largely dependent on the phenomena we choose to observe. Our knowledge base, which recognises science as the definition of objectivity, requires at its heart the scientist (read human) to generate a hypothesis. In other words, where we choose to shine our torches dictates what we illuminate. In this sense, our ability to understand and construct our world is defined and limited by the questions we ask. What we come to understand as ‘the truth’ and as ‘the reality’ is in fact not as universal and transcendent as we might have initially imagined.
Ironically, it is the passing of time that allows us to decant the manner in which technology has been adopted as a metaphor for understanding our lives. Descartes likened the human body to a machine in 1648, and as the years passed, and with the invention of the computer, people began to understand the brains function as a series of inputs, processes and outputs. We live in an age of technology and have all experienced the power of technology, together with our insatiable and unquestioning thirst for it. Such conditions lay the ground for an extremely powerful and pervasive technology narrative.
So what’s my point? Well, going back to the Apple Watch, I restate the importance of understanding what the Apple Watch does not do. On their website, Apple claims to offer a watch that gives you a ‘complete picture of your all-day activity’ – one that provides unparalleled accuracy to within 50 milliseconds of the definitive global time standard! The Apple Watch packs some serious wearable, and therefore personal, technology that interrogates our biological signatures and provides us with feedback. In doing so, the data, and the questions that the technology asks, shape the way we come to understand our current condition.
What differentiates us from machines is our ability to experience feelings – and this is essentially where the Apple Watch’s ability to understand our current condition falls short. Perhaps technology just struggles to measure feelings, or perhaps feelings are a blind spot to the people that design the technology.
Now you can accuse me of being a typical Psychologist, over-emphasising the importance of feeeeelings… but I can say definitively that every single client I have ever worked with sought my help as a response to difficulties involving feelings. And very often the genesis and maintenance of such difficulties are the result of what we call ‘experiential avoidance’ of dreaded feelings. So, in plain terms, I am saying that more often than not, my job as a Psychologist is to help people identify and face their feelings in order to learn to use them as a tool that guides their behaviours in a manner which, over time, has the potential to produce a life of intrinsic value and meaning.
My concern is, that in overlooking the importance of feelings, technology has the power to redefine our experience of being human and our understanding of our own internal states. The mass of ‘personalised’ data that the Apple Watch provides its wearers never fully manages to describe their internal state. And it is this unsated experience held within the ‘data’ – that unconscious worry that something is missing – that expresses itself in neurotic obsession. The obsession to more fully collect smaller and smaller units of data turns us ever inwards, shining a light on measurable, but indirect, and arguable arbitrary phenomena. Phenomena whose inability to accurately represent our internal state leads us to redouble our efforts as we lose sight of the fact that WE ARE ACTUALLY OK! If we buy into technology excitedly, applying it unthinkingly, we run the risk of living our life through a poor substitute of reality – a limited but powerful metaphor.
You may not have an Apple Watch, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the depersonalising effects of technology have in some way left you untouched.
Email usage is the most common form of communication in the business space (The Radacati Group), with surveys reporting people shying away from face to face and telephone interface in favour of emails. In some sense a lack of real-time, face to face contact provides an element of security and control – questions in emails can be researched, avoiding dreaded feelings of being exposed for not knowing your stuff. Unfortunately this perpetuates two myths that are never really confronted in the avoidance of real life meetings: that everyone knows everything at any given time, and that anxiety is something to be feared and avoided – something that I cannot handle. Each opportunity for anxiety avoidance feeds the fear.
Not knowing is the start-off point for any form of learning and discovery!
Apart from the occasional emoticon usage, emails tend to strip away emotional content, which people argue is perfect for business needs. It is at this point that we need to stop and realise that feelings are not an evolutionary accident. They are the software that have ensured human survival, from the basic family unit to the most complex societies. Ok, so we could also point out that a lot of destruction has taken place in the name of feelings, but it is my argument that war represents the inability to tolerate difficult feelings required in the service of empathy, discharging unpleasant feelings through the ‘doing’ of violence. History teaches us the destructive processes that are unleashed in the face of dehumanising contexts. From the catastrophic war camps to Prince Harry’s relatively recent comments on his experience of war being similar to that of playing a console game.
Short term avoidance of the risk of face to face contact can expose the workforce to longer term feelings of isolation, mistrust and paranoia. In a recent consultation with senior executives from a large company, it became apparent that emails were being used like target precision drone attacks. They bemoaned their experiences of receiving pointed emails, whose destructive impact were multiplied by a recent trend in copying in ‘the world and their dogs’. Much suspicion too lay on the ‘felt’ over use of Bcc, blind carbon copying practices. In talking about their experiences and sharing their feelings with one another, senders and receivers were able to acknowledge the human consequences, serving to moderate any future over-reliance on electronic vitriol. That said, you wouldn’t believe the resistance experienced in getting them all in the same room and getting them to open up about these difficulties!