By Martin Vogel
Simon Western has ruined my eager anticipation of the Apple Watch (launching late next month, pre-orders from 10th April). In a profound and reflective piece, he discusses how the Watch (as opposed to the humble watch) represents the latest and most decisive step towards the creation of a neurotic age.
Key to this argument is the insight that technology is not simply an appendage to human life but changes what it is to be human. As Simon Western says, we are so affectively attached to the brands and products of the technology companies that they become a part of our emotional, physical and cognitive being. Apple is foremost in facilitating this attachment – with its celebrated competence in combining the disciplines of arts, humanities, science and technology in the service of the development of products to die for. But it is far from alone, as exemplified by the signal obssessions of our day: monitoring of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or email; the pre-eminence of collecting selfies above experiencing life; or the quantifying of one’s lifestyle.
It’s the last of these that Simon Western highlights in relation to the Apple Watch. As it shifts technology from something to which we reach to something which becomes a part of us, it is able not simply to monitor our heart rate and physical activity but prod us (literally) when we need to shake up our sedentary lifestyles. This transition, in Western’s assessment, is central to the creation of an age of neurosis:
“Apple and other hi-tech companies no-longer just interpret our needs and provide product solutions; they create an ever-increasing neediness, a dependency and a regressed state of being, with a heightened obsessive anxiety. When we can no-longer decide for ourselves that our back aches and we need to stand up, we are in serious trouble. Whist Apple claim this watch will be a great benefit to health, putting us more in control of our own health and well-being which is clearly a good thing, this watch at the same time helps produce the neurotic age, and will surely increase mental health and social problems. For those with obsessional, neurotic or paranoid traits, this technology is a nightmare, as it amplifies their anxiety-ridden behaviour. For others and young people in particular, it actually produces the neurotic age, shifting normality towards being obsessional, regressed, slightly paranoid about health matters, losing contact with others, being liked and constantly monitoring ourselves and our relationships.”
Western links this development in our culture directly to the corporate cultures of the technology companies – citing a recent interview by Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook:
“We’re always paranoid. We live paranoid. And we always want the very best product. And so if we’re not beating someone else we’re trying to beat the thing that we have currently shipping… Everybody here lives on edge.”
The technology then to which we are affectively attached is designed and modelled by people whose modus operandi is obsession and besting oneself. They create products for the rest of us in their own image so that, as Western puts it, “living on the edge (of neurosis and falling apart) becomes the new normal.”
The implications of this fusion of work and non-work culture is particularly interesting to me. The potential for the Apple Watch to engage my motivation to keep fit and healthy in new ways is more or less the only reason I’m looking forward to purchasing one. And this characteristic of the Watch could even be construed as subversive of managerialism insofar as it encourages desk-bound employees to seize control of their lives and take breaks according to their own biorhythms rather than the dictates of their employers.
But the quantifying of one’s life has potentially insidious effects on the ability to contest work cultures that have long since ceased to recognise the boundaries between work and personal concerns. As people become inured to monitoring the measurables of their own life and pushing its limits, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine challenging the imposition of this mindset onto working life. The scope for a qualitative judgment about the good organisation and the limits of what employers can demand in return for a wage become inconceivable.
The thing about the quote from Tim Cook’s interview is that, while it may be ok for leaders to make choices on their own behalf that push their limits to the edge (although I would question this), it carries an implication that it’s also ok for leaders to co-opt their employees into this dynamic.
The diffusion of quantifying everything into the general culture casts an aura of cool over managerialism. It becomes the normative way we not only work but live our lives, which in turn reinforces the normative culture of the workplace. But there’s so much evidence now that there are better ways to run organisations.
So when Simon Western says of the technological obsessiveness of the workplace that “it really is not ethical or cool to run an organisation this way,” one can only add that nor is it effective.