Every year, Gallup polls Americans about their favorite industry, and it’s a beauty pageant that Silicon Valley rarely loses. In 2012, the results were even more lopsided than usual; a remarkable 73% of respondents gave computer Technology companies a positive rating, with the restaurant industry placing a distant second at 59%.
This lpopurality is both increasing, and increasingly visible. Tech has been booming for three decades, but it wasn’t until 2010’s The Social Network that Hollywood gave the industry big-screen treatment. In the '90s, flicks like Pirates of Silicon Valley were cannon fodder for cable networks. Today, it’s entirely natural that the Sundance Festival should close with a biopic about Steve Jobs, and that he should be performed by celebrity-actor-dude Ashton Kutcher.
"Geek Pride Day" has become a thing, and geek-chic glasses a national obsession. Justin Bieber regularly sports them, and so does Rihanna – who just replaced him as YouTube’s most-watched-person-ever. A Google search for "fake nerds" will convince you that, not only are they a problem, they’re an epidemic. The Wall Street Journal tells us that Ivy League graduates are choosing tech over finance, and nine months after leveraging Big Data into a huge electoral win, president Obama recently announced his intention to remake Washington in the tech industry’s image, “user-friendly” and “digitally accessible.”
If ever there was a time for wearable technology to go mainstream – for it to escape the social stigma of calculator watches and sci-fi fantasy – it would seem to be now. Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) made waves when it introduced Glass, a head-mounted quasi-smartphone. Rumors of an Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iWatch have circulated all year, and have been vindicated in recent weeks as the company moved to trademark the name. Sony (NYSE:SNE) released a smartwatch last year, Foxconn (TPE:2354) announced one last month, and both Google and Samsung (OTCMKTS:SSNLF) are reportedly working on devices of their own. Even Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) is looking to enter the market, so there’s little question that wearable tech has become fashionable among tech companies.
But what about consumers? Glass isn’t due for release until next year, and the Pebble smartwatch just hit stores last week. The only device to have so far tested the market – Sony’s Android-powered watch – barely made a dent. A poll taken by BiTE Interactive found that only one in 10 Americans said they would regularly wear Google’s headset, with nearly half fearing that it would be “socially awkward” or “irritating.” A columnist at Apple Insider summed up his experience using Glass as “a series of awkward encounters.”
Then there are privacy issues. The New York Times has been persistently critical of Glass’ video-recording capability, and when the University of London performed a survey of UK citizens, it found that a majority of them expressed serious privacy concerns. There’s a broad and understandable fear that as technology makes it easier for everything to be recorded, nothing will go unnoticed. Little mistakes and embarrassments are a fact of life, and we depend upon our peers, employers, and law enforcers not finding out about them. Ignorance is one of the great social lubricants, and when people walk around with cameras strapped to their faces, the result can be friction.
But there’s an even larger stumbling block for tech fashion. Smartphones have already put computing in our pockets – so what’s the advantage of wearing it on our sleeves? Today’s smartwatches draw their functionality from nearby smartphones, which is a nice way of saying that they’re essentially nonfunctional. Their great purpose is to eliminate the one- to two seconds spent reaching for a handset, a problem that few are likely to care about. With the smartphone market moving towards larger screens and greater functionality, there’s questionable value in having a small, inferior display strapped to your wrist.
On the other hand, Google has pitched Glass as a personal digital assistant: ask it questions, delegate it tasks, have notifications streamed to your eyeball. Once again, your smartphone can do most of this, and BiTE found that consumers were more interested in Glass’ hands-free photography and video – the same capabilities that have raised so much angst.
A feature common to all of these devices – and maybe the defining characteristic of wearable computing – is that you can’t easily put them away. This is intended to be a perk, but it could also be viewed as a bug. After all, smartphones share many of the same drawbacks. They feature cameras that might be used indiscreetly. They can be a social nuisance, interrupting conversations, movies, and mealtimes. They blur the line between public and private, and demand our attention at all hours. But they can also be put away when the situation – or our sanity – demands it.
In any event, the problems with wearable tech run deeper than fashion, and they extend to other innovations coming out of Silicon Valley. For instance, social media has connected us, but it’s also changed the ways in which we connect. We friend or de-friend, like or un-like; communication has become binary and commoditized. Privacy has simply become a code word for the larger social problem of incorporating all of this technology into our daily lives – a problem we haven’t yet solved, and one that tech companies, awash in accolades, have mostly ignored. With wearable computing, the industry is liable to find that popularity isn’t everything.