The faint din over the hype for the Apple Watch has consistently centered on whether anyone would want a smartwatch to begin with. Rival products like the Samsung Gear have been disasters, and polls show smartwatch customers are mostly a small minority of white guys in their 20s. The wearables industry as a whole has an uncertain future, though fitness trackers remain wildly popular.
Outside of helping us lose the pounds so many other gadgets help us gain, wearables are yet to prove they can sustain the versatility of use that made smartphones “the next big thing.” As the Verge notes, the true purpose of the Apple Watch is simply to show how much of a nag an iPhone can be. However, an unlikely innovator is doing a test-run for how wearables will truly change our culture, our economy, and the way we interact with our devices and each other.
As Wired reports, Disney World is gambling $1 billion on MagicBands, simple wristbands that can serve as parkgoers wallets, roomkeys, and tickets. Using Near Field Communication (NFC), the wearables are synchronized with the customer’s credit card information much like Apple Pay or Android Pay. Should parkgoers dine at one of Disney's many theme restaurants, the hostess will already know their name and their food will already be ordered; they won't ever even have to think about the bill.
The Wired report details how much “friction” the bands remove from the process of spending money; while that may be true, the MagicBands might also represent a future that is not simply alienating but expensive, wherein consumerist addictions are enabled by conveniences surpassing that of your Amazon cart. Disney’s aim with MagicBands is not to make the lives of customers easier; it’s to cut the few remaining ties between a fool and his money.
As the Wall Street Journal reported just before Christmas, the Internet has generally rid the retail market of impulse shoppers by making them more wary of the next value and strategic in their purchases. Online shoppers, however, tend to be far more susceptible to oniomania, or shopping addiction, due to the ease with which anyone can spend a small fortune with a few clicks. The easier it is to spend money, the more money people will spend.
This is a particularly worrying trend when compared to the crushing levels of debt many Americans owe to the credit cards we’re expected to link to our devices. Credit card debt went up again in 2014, with the average home with at least one credit card owing over $15,000. Although the rates of mortgage and student debt far surpass that owed to credit cards, credit card debt typically comes at a much higher interest rate while rarely being used to buy anything that will appreciate in value like a home or an education. Despite this, cash will likely be replaced by credit and debit methods in the coming decades.
Silicon Valley has known this for some time; the entire purpose of PayPal was to streamline the way in which we spend money. Now mobile cashier services like Square and Intuit are empowering small companies with the same verification capabilities of larger businesses, meaning even bodegas and family-owned shops are helping to kill off cash.
It’s that instantaneous spending that Disney is hoping to improve upon with MagicBands, and it’s a dangerous idea that will likely follow wearables into the real, non-Disney controlled world. With the likely inclusion of Apple Pay on the forthcoming Apple Watch, the app may prove the most popular feature of the device for its users, as the service has been threatening to hit the mainstream since its introduction last September. Much like Disney World, the worlds of dining, retail, and even finance stand to be expensive, streamlined factories designed to take your money while you barely notice. Disney and those soon to follow hope to replicate the addictive nature of freemium games in the real world.
Disney’s example makes it astonishingly believable that your host and waiter will be replaced with screens indicating your table number with your food freshly cooked and waiting for you when you arrive. Location indicators could let the restaurant know if you’ve been stuck in traffic and use history could let the busboys know whether they should expect a tip. Your wearable wallet will soak in the costs of your dinner before you’ve even thought about ordering that Mudslide—and it might even know enough to order it for you. It’s like Uber, but for a soul-crushingly plasticine world designed by what Richard Brautigan calls “machines of ever loving grace.”
Except that promised grace is not the shared benefit of buying a Fitbit to help you lead a healthier lifestyle. What the future of wearables will mean for most people is the same invasive, data-hungry nature we’ve come to expect from smartphones combined with the ever-desperate need by retailers to free us of our cash. Our surveillance economy has finally tied together the ways in which we’re lured into spending our money with devices that actively spend our money for us.
This will be a particularly bizarre merger in Apple’s case. The Apple Watch has models priced at over $17,000 that have zero extra functionality when compared to the basic $349 model. It has the same battery life, the same storage, even the same screen. Much like the functional difference between a Rolex and a Casio is nil to most people, a five-figure Apple Watch is merely a status symbol.
However, unlike a Rolex or a Porsche, an Apple Watch is also a method of spending even more money than its owner has already purged on the device itself. It’s the pinnacle of rich boy attention-grabbing. It enables its owner to show off how much money she’s willing to spend while spending even more money. For the average person, wearable payment systems will make going broke easier. For the elite, it will only give their money a louder voice.
This is not to say there will be no benefit to consumers—imagine gliding past the ticket office at a concert and simply waltzing through the exit, no line or hassle. The same instant service that has made apps like Uber, TaskRabbit, and Instacart so successful could be brought to all manner of destinations and stores, but every dollar spent on convenience is really advertising and gimmickry, yet another one of the company's successful sales pitches. While that might be fine for some, it’s likely money you don’t even have.
Photo via Janitors/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)