What I Like Is Looking At My Phone

The other day I was thinking about the dawning of The Age of Smart Watches, and trying to answer a skeptical friend’s “why?” Why do people think they want such a thing?  Or, at least, why do companies think that people want such a thing? I ran through the usual suspects: the wrist is a convenient place to put always-on health sensors, it’s a place where (unlike your face) it’s already socially acceptable to wear some kind of gadget, it can give you feedback (or directions) without requiring you to wear headphones or look at a screen, etc.

I thought my big finish would win her over: smart watches will help people to stop being Phone Jerks. People know it’s obnoxious to keeping pulling out their phone to check on some alert, you see, and a smart watch will let them deal with those interruptions quickly and unobtrusively! Years from now we’ll look back on this whole embarrassing Age of Smart Phones as just an impolite blip in history.

She didn’t buy it, though, and rightly so. And the reason why is the same reason why I’m so happy that my wife and I never bought a video baby monitor.

A Brief Digression On Video Baby Monitors

If you haven’t looked into the list of accessories considered near-mandatory for baby-raising lately, you might be surprised at how common a home infant sleep surveillance setup is. The only downsides usually mentioned are cost, complexity/fiddliness, and the potential for some hacker to spy on your little one. The advantage boils down to: you can quickly and silently verify that your baby is still breathing! That’s no joke, and in addition to solving those paranoid “…a little too quiet…” moments, this benefit is even an important part of some sleep training schemes.

Fortunately, we found some advice online that described the greatest downside of a video monitor: that you will never be able to look away. What’s billed as a way to quickly soothe those sudden, irrational worries instead becomes its own necessity; as soon as the way you know your baby is safe is by watching her on a video screen, you must always watch your baby on a video screen. Of course, new parents love to just look at their infants. Once you have one (a video monitor, that is), I’m sure that most of the time it just feels nice, and comforting, to watch a live stream of your infant sleeping.

Remember BlackBerry?

If that example feels more tangential than parallel, consider that eons ago, Blackberry devices, Palm Pilots, and other proto-smartphones were the heroes we were counting on to liberate us from our desktop email clients—go ahead, leave at 5:00 tonight, be with your family, and if something important comes up, you’ll know! It didn’t take long for experience to complicate such promises; a cursory Google turns up warnings as early as 2001 that, “your work hours suddenly are extended from finite to infinite.

Just as we were right to be skeptical of the benefits of parental voyeurism and email gadgets, we should be skeptical of claims that smart watches will do anything but increase the amount of time we spend staring at screens. Because the truth is, we like playing with our gadgets. I don’t have notifications turned on for emails, and I generally keep clear of Facebook, but I have my Twitter feed crafted to ensure that whenever I need to look at my phone for a moment, there’s something waiting for me. Sure, I enjoy the thinkfluencers and whatever else, but if Twitter closed tomorrow I’d just find something else, because what I like is looking at my phone.

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