Anyone who’s lived with a dog knows that each has its own peculiar way of waking you up in the morning. Some will leap on to your chest and stare into your eyes while others will bark anxiously from the living room. Pulling on your clothes, fumbling for the keys and the leash, you curse the names you gave them. But you love them all the same.
By contrast, alarm clocks are oppressive and unlovable, in part because they’re so impersonal. The promotional materials for the new Apple Watch propose that the gadget might change that. Built with something that the company calls a “Taptic Engine,” the watch “taps you on the wrist whenever you receive an alert or notification.” This copy implicitly proposes that in contrast to the alarming klaxons of old, the Apple Watch will rouse us with something more like a gentle caress.
Here, taptic puns on haptic, a word that refers to the sense of touch. It’s most often used in the context of haptic feedback, in which devices physically acknowledge user interaction. Technologists have incorporated these systems into their designs for generations, from the vibrations of videogame controllers to the slight tremors that some phones’ virtual keyboards produce as you type. In this sense, the Apple Watch isn’t proffering anything truly revolutionary.
Apple does, however, offer something new when it promises that its watch’s haptic technology will “present time in a more personal way.” At the most obvious level, the company means that users will be able to personalize the watch, but it also slyly suggests that it will have a personality of its own. The description of the Taptic Engine’s friendly taps comes just a few short paragraphs after Apple explains how the user interacts with the watch by tapping. In other words, the watch manipulates us in the same way we manipulate it, much as dogs become masters when they wake us for their walks.
Apple has always worked to imbue its devices with the illusion of personality, most often through syntactical sleight of hand. When Steve Jobs would introduce new gadgets during his ballyhooed keynotes, he would almost always present them without the definite article—that is, he would describe them without using the word the. “This is [all in] one device,” he announced as he paced the stage in 2007, enumerating a range of features, “and we are calling it iPhone.” He had done much the same when he showed the iPod to the public six years before, telling the audience that his company had a revolutionary new product, “and that product is called iPod.”
Even in Jobs’ absence, the pattern holds: In 2014, as a visibly uncomfortable Tim Cook began to narrate what he called “the next chapter in Apple’s story” he explained, “Apple Watch is the most personal device we’ve ever created.” It is “personal,” perhaps, because it is simply “Apple Watch” and not “the Apple Watch.” In the absence of the definite article, the names Apple gives its products feel as if they apply to individuals rather than widely available consumer commodities.
If I introduce you to the terrific cat I live with, I’ll tell you, “This is Behemoth,” rather than “This is the Behemoth.” Likewise, in 2007 when Jobs declared, “you’ll agree we have reinvented the phone,” he was clearly talking about a class of things—phones. But when, moments later, he turned to “an Internet communications device that’s part of iPhone,” he was describing a facet of a character, like someone telling you why their dog is the best. Jobs—and Apple in his stead—exploited this quirk of language to make the company’s devices seem more like new friends than consumer goods.
Notably, as time passed—and as each of the devices became common—Jobs would grow more casual in his language. Preparing to demonstrate the iPhone in 2007, he gestured offhandedly to “the iPod” and “the amazing new iPod shuffle. Similarly, in 2010, he would speak of “the iPhone” and “the great iPhone 3GS.” Having made their way into consumers’ hands—and woven themselves into the texture of those consumers’ worlds—Jobs’ devices were already familiar. Consequently, he no longer had to make the case that they were special and individual. But at first he had to convince his audience to make room in their lives, and he did so by implying that the devices might become part of their families.
Today, this strange implication of congenial personhood underwrites Apple’s declaration that “alerts” from its watch “aren’t just immediate. They’re intimate.” This is not the first time Apple has spoken of intimacy. When Jobs premiered the iPad in 2010—one of the few exceptions to the no-definite-articles-on-initial-presentation rule—he claimed that using it was “so much more intimate than [using] a laptop.” In promoting its watch, Apple has doubled down on this vocabulary: It doesn’t just offer an intimate experience, as the iPad supposedly would. Instead, it suggests, we’ll get intimate with it, presumably coming to know and love it in the process.
But that intimacy may not always be welcome. As Cook laid out the device’s features last September, photos of people wearing it appeared on the screen behind him. Except for the watches that adorn their subjects’ wrists, these images resembled stock photos, which is say they were supposed to be innocuous. Nevertheless, one of them—a couple going in for a kiss—left me surprisingly uncomfortable. It wasn’t that I felt I was intruding on the moment—I’ve shrugged off plenty of images like this one before—but that the gadget itself seemed to be. And that’s why it unnerved me. The watch wasn’t just mediating the couple’s intimacy, it was part of it.
For me, at least, Apple had too successfully brought its new device to life. Everyone loves their pets, and though we may begrudgingly adore them when they wake us in their various ways, there are times when they just don’t belong in the room.