Intimacy/Intrusion: Apple Watch and the Problem with Pseudopresence

When the Apple Watch was announced back in September, I was considering writing a lengthy screed railing against Apple’s use of the term “intimate” when demonstrating the new method of communication that the device affords. At the time, I was morally outraged, assuming that the only true moments of intimacy could be had in face-to-face interactions, prioritizing the sense of sight above all others. When I began outlining my argument, I realized the fallacy of the assumption, and it became apparent to me that the Apple Watch, though still not “intimate” to my mind, heralds a breakthrough in telehaptic communication and increases accessibility for the blind and deaf.

Telecommunications might be broadly categorized into telegraphy, telephony, and telehaptics.* Each of these categories favors one of the senses through which meaning is conveyed—sight, hearing, and touch, respectively.** Because of this, each method of communication excludes a certain set of the population, namely the blind and deaf. Telehaptic communication excludes neither group, and I am interested to see the ways in which the Apple Watch might be used to augment or replace current assistive technologies.

Regardless of the Watch's status as an assistive device, however, it is still far from intimate. In each of the previously listed categories of communication, it is the “tele-” that precludes intimacy, and common decency tells us that delivering important messages in person is more courteous than to do so from afar. So what did Apple mean when it touted its new communications device as “intimate”? Perhaps that the Apple Watch, through its use of touchscreens coupled with haptic feedback motors, presents a means of communication that is prelinguistic. Apple blogger Shawn Blanc might have put it better, stating that “there is a purity and childlikeness to this Watch-only communication method that I am absolutely intrigued by.” Again, I assert that the “tele-” prevents the Watch from attaining either purity or childlikeness, though “childlike” might be nearer the mark than “intimate.” Or better yet, “infantile.”

Telecommunications technologies allow the sender and recipient to enjoy each other’s pseudopresence, a being there without being there. Not quite present yet not quite absent, pseudopresence distorts absence by creating the potential for an “always there.” In The Telephone Book, Avital Ronell asks, “What does it mean to answer the telephone, to make oneself answerable to it in a situation whose gestural syntax already means yes, even if the affirmation should find itself followed by a question mark: Yes?” If you have a phone and someone has your number, you are always-already there.*** The exchange of contact information is the establishment of a new pseudopresence, a new voice to be heard at any time.

Curiously, the development of telecommunications technologies and the development of a human’s linguistic faculties are the reverse of each other. The ability to send written word arrived before the ability to send spoken word, which in turn arrived before the ability to send touch. We feel and touch before we hear or speak, or read or write.

In a painfully heteronormative TV spot titled “Us”, Apple presents use cases for their new telehaptic prosthesis. A flirtatious tap on the wrist (as flirtatious as a tap on the wrist can be) is sent from one end of a table to another. The table is clearly too big to reach across, and God forbid the flirter get up and walk two feet toward the flirtee. Or perhaps the use of this new device presents some kind of unspoken etiquette-breakage that enhances the gesture’s flirtatiousness. Don’t ask me, I’m not a flirt scientist. The video closes with a heartbeat of a loved one transmitted to the wrist of a man alone in a hotel room. Cut to the words “THE WATCH IS HERE.” And if you have one, you and everyone you know will always be HERE.

I don’t think I’ll be getting an Apple Watch. Give me a sweater that lets me send and receive hugs. Or on second thought, don’t. I kind of hate sweaters.

* Videotelephony is a bastard to be considered at a later date. Get over it.
** As far as I know, there are no gustatory or olfactory languages. And even if there are, there are not, to my knowledge, tele-gustatory or tele-olfactory devices. If these do exist, please contact me right away.
*** As if Caller ID actually matters. You can ignore someone right to their face.