Apple Likes to Watch: ‘Terms of Service’ Author Jacob Silverman on Internet Surveillance


With Apple’s “Spring Forward” preview this week, we got a glimpse of their latest and greatest innovation: the Apple Watch. While it’s a splashy product, it didn’t quite receive the typical “gamechanger” reviews with the Washington Post suggesting that “the Apple Watch should get dumber” to BuzzFeed’s litany of pieces on the pros (it can replace your FitBit and Jawbone, helping you get so fit, it’s going to change everything) and minuses (it sure can track your every move). It’s the last point that’s perhaps the most troubling. To get a clearer picture of what the Apple Watch means for the future of “wearable computing,” we talked to Jacob Silverman, the author of this month’s provocative and troubling Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, set for release on March 17.

Silverman calls the Apple Watch part of a “troubling commoditizing of the self, pushed on people in the name of self-improvement and empowerment.” There’s a false populism running throughout tech, whether it’s the idea that social media is democratic or that crowd funding is equitable (when with the latter, it’s a game that only Amanda Palmer can win). With wearable tech, it means that companies can buy and harvest your personal information, and this could affect things like health insurance and car insurance. At the end of the day, “you’re surrendering a lot of control and autonomy.”

The Apple mythos is an important part of their product debuts, Silverman notes. “It’s pretty absurd that we have all these people showing up to this stage show and all these journalists are part of the arrangement. Even by simply being there, chronicling the event, and tweeting about it, they’re part of the publicity apparatus. That’s not to disparage those journalists, but it’s also why you see them adding some criticism or irony to their reports, because they’re complicit.”

In the one BuzzFeed post that wasn’t completely thrilled with the Apple Watch’s debut, writer Charlie Warzel worried about what the watch will mean: “But right now, I can’t seem to get past the worry that Apple’s Next Best And Brightest Thing is designed for a future that I don’t particularly want to inhabit. A pingy, buzzy, always visible, always on future that I’ll have to enter begrudgingly.” Yet he’s not looking at the bigger picture beyond the watch’s relationship with the individual self.

Silverman thinks that we’re blinded by Apple, who are very good at entering a product category and “one-upping [other companies], saying our version is the gold standard. They are good at making people want that object.” The Apple Watch will “make these devices seem essential, and it’s a beachhead for wearable computing where you’re going to get information about people.”

Yet it’s hard to figure out just how to survive when Apple, as a symbol of the tech industry and its leader, has inveigled its way into our lives in a variety of fashions. “I don’t think the question is what do people need or not need,” Silverman said. “How do we make the social media platforms and technologies that people are embedded in more human? How can it respect people’s privacy and personal autonomy?” They’re major philosophical questions that are, en masse, ignored by the latest reporting on the Apple Watch — yet they may be the important ones to be asking, when it comes to the price of innovation.