There were many reasons to wear a watch, and it was never really about Time. With smart watches, or Apple Watch, that might change.
Everybody who knew me in my teens might have retained vivid memories about me being always late, never on time, notoriously. But that wasn’t because I didn’t wear a watch, usually, and therefore wouldn’t know the time. Back then, there were public clocks on every street corner, there were tower clocks, church clocks, city hall clocks, clocks on car dashboards, clocks in public squares, clocks in public buildings, clocks on storefronts, clocks at bus stops and railway stations, clocks in every classroom and in every office, and there was even a dedicated telephone number you could call that offered the “Time of Day” service (“At the third stroke, the time will be eight thirty-five and ten seconds”).
Everybody, including me, could pick up the time of the day whenever we wanted, just by looking around. So why did people wear watches? That was something I never really understood back then, but I didn’t exactly sit down and think about it either. As far as I remember, there were only two occasions that called for strapping a watch to my wrist—a more elegant model that matched the color of my cufflinks when I dressed up for a concert performance, and a more robust one for the grueling regional/short-haul time schedules that plagued me when I drove trucks for a living. Both watches had been presents, of course.
With digital devices in every pocket now, you still see public clocks at train stations and maybe some bus stops, but they’ve all but vanished from street corners and storefronts, and just turning your head to get the time of day won’t do. Then, without a watch on your wrist, you’ll have to check your phone. Now—pulling out your phone to check the time isn’t altogether convenient, but it’s not like you’re not pulling out your phone every ten seconds or so for quick-checks and check-ins on Twitter or Facebook or WhatsApp or FarmVille or FourSquare anyways. So pulling out your phone, on its own, wouldn’t be inconvenient enough to fall back to wearing a watch.
What it comes down to, and this isn’t really news, is that wearing a watch doesn’t have much if anything to do with not knowing the time or being able to check the time at one’s leisure. Once, a watch was a personal ornament, a piece of jewelry, a habit, an heirloom, a collector’s item, an indicator of class, income, and status, a conduit for memories and nostalgia, and an instrument of self-expression in general.
Now what about smart watches?
Or rather, what about Apple Watch?
With all its thrilling aspects of ever more potent convenience functions, hypersmart communication pathways, and vast reservoirs of as yet untapped killer features dangling before our noses, from intimate connectedness to health monitoring and fitness to moon phases and fun drawings, all within the looming promise of Apple’s brand new smart watch app environment à venir, it’s tempting to conclude that this new generation of “time pieces” won’t have much if anything to do with telling the time either.
But I think that conclusion is wrong. I think the smart watch, or Apple Watch, will connect us to Time more closely and more intimately than any generation of watches before, and in a way regular watches never could. It’s Not the Clock-Hand, Stupid—it’s about the constant awareness of time, of schedules, of past and future events, of the incessant demands of “now” that will not only be communicated visibly and audibly, but surreptitiously announced through discrete, vibrating signals close to our very arteries, up to and including the transmitted heartbeats from loved ones, picked up by sensors right from their arteries’ pulse at that very moment in time.
Time, of course, is malleable, flexible, and not everywhere the same. How directly, how strongly, and how intimately we connect to the passing of time has everything to do with awareness of time. Being aware of time, in turn, can mean the kind of awareness I have of news, for example, when reading a newspaper or listening to Walter Cronkite on tv; that’s like looking at my watch to check the time. Or it can mean the kind of awareness I have when social media messages stream at the edge of my consciousness in the background while I’m focussing on a task—an awareness we’ve come to call “ambient awareness.”
What a smart watch will do is strapping this ambient awareness to our wrists.
What it will give us, besides its funcionalities, is a 24/7/365 stream of time-related cues close to the edge of our consciousness, ready to be picked up and focused on and acted upon at any moment. Not every old smart watch will be capable of doing that, mind—only a great smart watch will be able to do that, a watch that’s neither too pushy nor too shy, that will perform its duty perfectly in a smooth and gradual and attractive fashion with just the right amount of edge to it to keep us aware, but without being distracting or disruptive, with an adaptive overall balance that will be all but addictive. And that, as we all know, is something Apple excels in. Of course, the Apple Watch as watch will be great too, with variations for nearly all tastes, wants, and needs, but that’s almost a no-brainer. I think what really matters, and what’s really new, is that we’re set on course for our own personal inclusion and extension of that ambient awareness, a kind of awareness many have struggled with since the advent of social media (and kept on struggling in the chokehold of that useless and misleading “information overload” paradigm). An inclusion and extension, moreover, that will be as close to us as it can get barring bodily incorporation.
That’s not just new, it’s exciting. I never really wanted to wear a watch and never really understood why I should. But this time, it’s different.
I’m so going to have one.