Wearing My Head on My Sleeve
Who Watches the Watch-Watchers?
For the last six months I’ve been wearing a smartwatch every day and I can honestly say that it’s changed my life. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s made me a better person.
Hyperbole? That’s easy for you to say from your ivory Mind Palaces.
On the 3rd of November 2014 I breathlessly unboxed yet another parcel that had been wearily schlepped up the steps to my front door by the postman. To be fair, I get pretty excited about any parcel that arrives (see below), but this one was different because this one, I knew, would change everything. Since that day, my phone has been on silent, but I haven’t missed a call or text yet. That, however, is pretty much beside the point.
What’s in the box?
Seriously, what's in the Box?
I have a bad memory. And I mean Memento bad. Well, no, I don’t really mean Memento bad, but I have a pretty apocalyptically bad short to medium-term memory. You know when you walk into a room and can’t remember why you went in? That. Every day. Do you know why I get so excited about every parcel that drops through the door or that, even better, I sign for? Because most of the time I have literally no idea what it is. Every unboxing is my birthday (although these days it generally turns out to be nappies or something with which to repair something around the house, now that I’m suddenly a grown-up and all).
Now please understand that as far as I know this isn’t a medical condition. I have no problem with long-term memory or the acquisition of any amount of pointless trivia. I have been to see a doctor about it, but was told in no uncertain terms that “You don’t remember because you don’t really care.” Which I did not find terribly reassuring (although I was later told that the doctor in question was a locum (temp), out of retirement because they were short-staffed that day and that I should “probably take anything he said with a pinch of salt”.).
The thing is that I do care. About from being impractical, constantly forgetting things can be deeply socially awkward. I once sat in a pub with some friends for three hours before my friend’s wife remarked “So did you notice that fact that I’ve become heavily pregnant since the last time we all met or did you just think I’d got fat?”. I’d just sort of assumed that we’d already talked about it. I also missed a friend’s wedding by exactly 24 hours (the venue was lovely though) because I’d forgotten the date and then forgotten to check the invitation. I didn’t want to get into it there and then, but the fact is that I’ve had to train myself not to ask people too many questions, because the chances are that I’ve already asked them, or that they’ve already told me before. And I have discovered when while seeming obtuse or unobservant is slightly annoying to other people, asking them the same thing over and over (or introducing yourself to them four times as I did with one now-friend) just makes you come over as slightly mad.
Now, one of these things I know we’ve talked about...
But outside of social situations there are just a lot of things to remember and so, day to day, this means that I have tended to spend a lot of time chanting reminder to myself like one-sided catechisms. Forgetting a friend’s (well, all your friends’) birthdays is embarrassing, but forgetting to get the washing out of the machine, or deadlines for work, or to go to work at all (I forgot which day my holiday ended on. Twice.) can be more of a practical problem. It gets me into trouble and annoys other people (especially when you miss their weddings), which then makes me feel bad and it takes up an inordinate amount of my time. Showers in the morning are meant to be relaxing, or at least invigorating, but are less so when spent constantly chanting:
“Post that letter and say happy birthday to Dave post that letter and say happy birthday to Dave post that letter and say happy birthday to Dave post that letter and say happy birthday to Dave post that letter and say happy birthday to Dave”.
As a morning person, my morning shower is sometimes where I do my best thinking, or remember important tasks for the day as my brain comes back online, but the stress of trying to keep it all in mind until I can do something about it often means that I might as well be bathing in cortisol. And that’s just to remind me to find a piece of paper and write it down when I get out of the shower. Remembering to look at the paper later on is another thing entirely (I get through a lot of post-its). In fact, in an ironic aside, while writing this piece I had to change trains at the point of writing down the previous chant and found myself having to chant it from platforms 12 to 14 at Clapham Junction so that I could remember to write it down here when I got on the next train. When I try to think about how much of my life (in days, weeks or even months) I must have spent continuously repeating simple tasks to myself, accompanied by the agonising dread of feeling them slip away as I get distracted by something as simple as getting my door key from my pocket or saying hello to somebody, it genuinely scares and depresses me. It’s got to be in the top 10 of my daily activities pie chart.
Life before my watch was full of chants and agonising dread of what I'd already forgotten
Or at least it was. With my little personal reminder service I’ve been getting my life back one chant (and several minutes a day) at a time.
Freed from my chants, I have more time to inflict my various enthusiasms on people and am free to bask in the dread of other things
I'd forget my own head if it wasn't constantly monitored by a head-locating app
Enter the smartwatch. In many ways it doesn’t do anything that my phone couldn’t do already and, before that, my thousands of post-its and notes written on my hand (and up my wrist, during particularly busy times in the past). The difference is that, apart from the case of the notes taken on my wrist at busy times, it’s right there on my wrist. I could have any number of notes written on paper, or even on my phone, but I’d only forget to look at them, or look at them and then forget them as soon as I put them away, unless I held them in my hand so that I was reminded to look: “Oh! Why am I still holding my phone? Wait! I had a thing to remember!”. Now, even if I do forget the reminder seconds after I receive it (and that does still happen), I can see the tell-tale notification in the corner of the screen every time I look at my watch. Or I discover that Past Me (you know, that guy from five minutes ago) thoughtfully dismissed the reminder, but snoozed it, knowing that I was about to get on a train and would probably forget, but would have time to look as soon as Present Me had found a seat and… Wait, what’s buzzing? Oh! Right! Yeah! Thanks Past Me!
Should I need these crutches, or a fancy watch to replace them? No. But do I? Absolutely.
Reactions from friends and relatives on the subject of my latest shiny toy have been mixed to say the least. Some have ooh-ed and ahh-ed (or sighed), but some have registered genuine sadness, concern or even a whiff of techno-contempt.
Surely, they say, I should try just remembering things anyway and ask me what's wrong with just concentrating on remembering them. In many ways I absolutely agree, but they (ironically) forget that until I had digital reminders I just used to miss stuff. Constantly. I'd miss birthdays, events, dinners. I missed the first day of school that time (as a teacher, not a pupil) and that wedding (in an earlier draft of this piece I went on to explain about both of these in detail again, because I’d forgotten that I’d already done that), and any number of birthdays and missed bin-days and wet-washing days, etc., etc. I know I shouldn't have forgotten. I'm sure I could have consulted the relevant piece of paper to check the dates and times of these various important (or just necessary) events. But I forgot to, so I missed them. The thing is that our brains are wired to fixate on when things go wrong, not when they go right. We don’t tend notice when people remember things and do things on time, it just bothers us when they don’t.
Hey, are you cheating at your life again?
So what do we care about more? The knowledge, the action, the sentiment or the ability to coordinate all three? Is relying on Facebook to remind me about birthdays in time to send a message somehow cheating because I haven't remembered it with my brain? Does my sentiment not count if the reminder was outsourced or a message popped up to remind me? In that way does it mean less when our parents, partners or friends remind us about a birthday, wedding or event? Or does it only count as cheating if a computer does it? Is life a big memory test that we should be allowed to fail in order to somehow teach us something (that some of us would forget anyway)? Should we be remembering things “properly” because it’s character-forming?
Of course there is plenty of evidence that keeping an active mind can help to stave off the decline of old age. There are activities we can perform (such as chess, studying trivia and possibly “brain-training”) and tricks we can learn (such as the Mind Palace) to train and develop our capacity to remember, but the science behind it is currently inconclusive at best. Even the well-documented enlarged hippocampus (the brain’s main centre for long-term, short-term and spatial memory) of London cabbies is something that can't yet be proved to be more a matter of "nurture" through training over the nature of having had a good memory in the first place (and then deciding to become a cabbie). It is, however, pretty firmly established fact that the mind is a “muscle” that we must keep active if we want it to last well into our old age, but does it need to be dates and chores that need to provide this stimulation? I feel that my mind is free to work much harder and push further now that it’s not being shackled and demeaned by the drudgery of endlessly trying to retain short-term trivialities. My memory per se, as evidenced by my absorption (and, sadly for friends and loved-ones, regurgitation) of trivia and subject-knowledge, was never the problem; rather it is the memory for procedural and ephemeral things that seems to be the weaker element. And besides, it’s equally well-established science that a constant bath of cortisol, brought on by anxiety and stress, is bad for our physical and mental health and indeed might actually stunt the growth of the hippocampus. Conversely, being freed from such worries can actually boost our general health.
“‘Connection lost?!’ Well how am I meant to remember the shopping now?”
[image: Warner Bros]
We accept that people have differing abilities in all areas physical and mental. We don't blame people for being tall or short or colourblind. We are thankfully long past the days of curing short sight by telling children to squint harder. In teaching, we now accept that there are different sorts of learners, including visual, auditory and “kinaesthetic” (hands-on). Am I outsourcing my mind to my device or am I simply provided with a new way to have visual reminders and remember better? Earlier today I set a reminder to insert a quote, that I thought of even earlier, into this blog. Predicting that I'd probably be on the train at 4:45 and would have settled down enough to write (having inevitably had to run for the 4:26) I set the reminder for 4:45 but ended up remembering to write it anyway, seeing the note on my watch screen in my mind's eye. At 4:43.
Most of friends and family haven’t particularly noticed, of course. But I have. I’ve noticed how much less I’m annoying people by forgetting things. I remember birthdays and social engagements. I reply to messages and emails and even remember to water the plants or hang up the washing rather than leaving it in the machine. People rarely notice the absence of a problem, but I can tell you that my far-lower resting heart rate sure does (thanks to my watch tracking its gradual fall over the last few months). In an episode of Futurama that struck me deeply (and which I am sure I have often quoted, although I can’t remember), Bender the robot finds himself face to “face” with God. When asked how it’s possible to change anything without making things worse, God replies: “If you do things just right, nobody will notice you did anything at all.” They just won’t get pissed off about you forgetting to do it.
At least Donald Pleasance could remember where he'd left the pin. I'd probably step on it a week later.
Take a Letter
Of course I’m not alone in outsourcing my working memory and reminders so that I can concentrate on more important things. Those people in positions of sufficient power and wealth can use (and always have used) the services of a secretary or PA to take notes, remind them of important things and generally take the micromanagement out of processes that don't necessarily need it. The fact that we don't all have one is down to the economics of employment, not because it wouldn't be useful now and then. It's not like I'm abrogating responsibility for remembering things, in fact I'm taking active steps to make sure that I do.
Many might point out at this stage (if you weren’t already shouting it at your screen several paragraphs ago) that for some time I have been in possession of a mobile phone that was also “smart” and perfectly capable of taking and giving reminders It’s just that it was in my pocket (or sometimes another room) and sometimes even the distance between pocket and arm is a little too far (or too antisocial) to be acted upon quickly in a memory-requiring pinch. And of course once that moment has passed, it’s dust in the wind, taking the memory of the task with it. Although few remember it now, the original tablet and palm computers, now replaced by our smartphones, were called PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants). Of course the problem was that at the time they were more or less just digital Filofaxes, still consigned to a bag or coat pocket. Now, however, the day of the PDA has arrived (or is at least at hand, so to speak). And indeed, since acquiring my new wrist-mounted PA, the number of mundane things for which I have set Reminders has shot up.
|The future’s been around for ages|
But so has the number of things I've actually got done. More importantly it has also massively cut down on the stress of missing things or constantly re-reminding myself about them so that I don’t forget. I hate worrying about what I need to remember, when what I should be worrying about is the things themselves (and then getting them done and having a cup of tea and a biscuit to congratulate myself). I’ve even started using it for planning well ahead, and yesterday set myself a reminder for the end of next March to give me enough time to set up for some sort of hilarious April Fools scheme that I thought up (and no, I have no idea what it was now and only remembered to write about it here because I also set myself a reminder to remind me to write about it here today).
My smartwatch and this generation of smartwatches in general, is far from the first. Back in 2008 I bought myself a “video watch” on import from China, which enabled me to watch half an episode of Family Guy (look, it was 2008), which I’d downloaded on to it using a cable, before the battery died. Permanently. Back in the mists of time, fictional comic-book detective Dick Tracy famously had a clever video watch (debuting in 1946) that he could talk into to summon back-up at the climax of one of his capers. What’s different about the rise of Android Wear watches such as my catchily-named LG G-Watch R, or the recently-released Apple Watch is that the smartwatch has finally become of practical utility rather than pure novelty. When I first started wearing my watch I didn’t see another soul sporting one for more than three months. Since then I tend to see about one person a fortnight, with whom I share the conspiratorial (and slightly shamed) nod that is the secret handshake of the Early Adopter. Sure, the battery only lasts a couple of days between charges (and I charge it every day anyway, just to be sure), but seeing as I took my old watch off every night to put it by my bed, dropping it on to its charging pad by my bed is no sacrifice.
The main barrier, to come back to our fictional detective, is that no matter how practical it is, and to an extent no matter how ubiquitous it becomes, everybody looks like a Dick when they talk into their wrist on a quiet train or at a supermarket checkout. Even with my new companion on my wrist I have managed to forget a few things because I have felt too socially awkward to start talking to my watch in order to set a reminder (although to be fair in most such situations I can use my phone to silently (and achingly slowly, it now seems) take a note. But as the next generation of Apple Watch and Android Wear devices begins to roll out, with better batteries and software, lower prices for the previous models and ultimately possibly the capability to ditch the actual phone, I think that the trend for wearables (whether watch, bracelet, necklace or some such) will continue to grow and develop. Already, with the Apple Watch and recently-updated Android Wear watches now being able to connect via Wifi to their host phone even if it’s miles away, the smartphone is on the road to becoming more of a hub & processing centre for hefty jobs. Unlike ambitious projects such as Google Glass and Microsoft’s augmented reality specs, which more obviously change our personal experience at the expense of our appearance, the point (and likely success) of wearables is their relative invisibility. Sure, I’ve got into quite a few conversations with curious people when they see the screen flash (or hear me talking to it), but that’s only until the novelty wears off. To me it’s already just a (life-changing) tool. Or, in fact, an item of clothing.
"Um, remind me to follow Pinkie the Stabber back to his hideout when I get to Clapham Junction."
Part of the appeal of wearable devices, beyond their functional role as a portable PA, is their relative unnoticeability. Just as keyboards, after their 200 year run, may ultimately turn out to be an historical stepping stone, as more of our devices are controlled by voice, gesture and ultimately by thought, the modern disdain for “iPhone zombies”, as they were known a few years ago, walking along with a phone permanently in hand or in front of face, might soon seem as quaint as people sending and receiving telegrams via a physical messenger carrying a message from the local office. A glance at the wrist, while a distraction of sorts, is a grand step up from the antisocial journey of phone from pocket/bag to hand to face and back, very often with nothing to show for it, given how often that vibration or message tone reveals yet more spam or some sort of hilarious but not reply-necessitating emoji. With the ability to receive, assess and (usually) dismiss the barrage of alerts that we now receive on a daily basis, this is our PA screening our visitors before we need to get out from behind the big desk to greet them. I haven’t looked at a spam email on my phone in months.
An exciting opportunity, you say. I’ll be sure to let him know.
But perhaps for me one of the most important things about it, and why such devices attract such scorn from others, is that it represents another step towards integrating the above technologies ever more seamlessly into our lives. Recently going back to re-read The Player of Games, a novel by Iain M. Banks published in 1988 but set many thousands of years in the future, I was struck by a particular passage that had slipped by me a decade or two ago as general sci-fi chat, but which is now becoming very recognisable in our daily lives.
‘Stories set in the Culture in which Things Went Wrong tended to start with humans losing or forgetting or deliberately leaving behind their terminal. It was a conventional opening, the equivalent of straying off the path in the wild woods in one age, or a car breaking down at night on a lonely road in another. A terminal, in the shape of a ring, button, bracelet or pen or whatever, was your link with everybody and everything else in the Culture. With a terminal, you were never more than a question or a shout away from almost anything you wanted to know, or almost any help you could possibly need.’
Safe and sound
[image: Drew Struzan / Universal Pictures]
That is already how most of us feel about our mobile phones. It worries us if friends or loved ones are uncontactable for more than a few hours at a time and schools that ban pupils from keeping phones with them in class (not even something that people might have considered fifteen years ago) regularly receive complaints from parents that this represents a breach of their rights and could even be dangerous. And indeed, as in Banks’ story, our stories have had to find ways to separate their protagonists or victims from their mobile devices in the first act, whether through its loss, destruction or technological fudge (loss of signal, global power loss, EMP blast etc.). Because with a mobile device we truly are “never more than a question or a shout away”.
In fact, the only thing that we haven’t yet arrived at in that sentence is the part about “a ring, button, bracelet or pen or whatever.” I also recently rediscovered the Usborne World of the Future (1979), which helped to shape my optimistic, technophile worldview in so many ways. It predicted, in 1979, that by the year 2000, along with holding the Olympics on the Moon (complete with a long-overdue 14m high-jump), we would be communicating with one another using our “risto” devices, through which we could call loved-ones and summon help in emergencies. Of course it still thought that we’d work from home by “Xeroxing” hand-written notes to video-fax to one another, but the “risto”, only fifteen years too late, is finally a reality.
What about the ability to 'Like' Facebook posts?
[image: Usborne Book of the Future - A Trip In Time to the Year 200 and Beyond, by Kenneth Gatland & David Jefferis]
So perhaps one day, once we’ve had these devices plumbed directly into our optic nerves (and devil take the awkwardness of the upgrades) and powered by our heartbeats, we’ll be able to look back, with perfect and condescending recall on the days when our forebears grubbed around with their puny biological memories (although I’d imagine that our technology would look a lot less obvious than a headphone jack in the back of the neck) and dreamed of the technological leaps that I espouse that might help them to remember and organise the daily struggles of their hopelessly disorganised lives. We’ll smile at the youthful naiveté of Iain M. Banks' vision of a world in which we could be separated from our embracing digital bubble, which protects, enriches and coddles us into a safe and carefree life, from which we might have no escape, having gleefully sold our inner lives to The Man. Or perhaps The Machine. Or perhaps our robot overlords will chortle (for surely this is a sign of intelligence) about how we voluntarily surrendered even our inner experiences and personal narratives to the Google, Apple and Microsoft server-farms that were their forebears, even as they crush the last unaugmented biological life under their digital jackboots.
But the next time I manage to remember (by hook or digital crook) to buy some salad on my way home, rather than wandering obliviously past the shops in my usual, stargazing daze, it’ll all be worth it. The machines won’t appreciate salad anyway.
The “risto”, as imagined in the Usborne World of the Future, 1979
[image: Usborne Book of the Future - A Trip In Time to the Year 200 and Beyond, by Kenneth Gatland & David Jefferis]
Android Wear example features, 2015