That data on your wrist…

This is a throwback post that originally appeared on Medium in 2014. 

Notes from a watch geek

Wearing a watch is a ritual that has little to do with the metrics of time but everything to do with its politics.

If I have to leave the house without my watch, I feel deeply unsettled and a little bit naked. But it’s also a kind of ritual object, like the rosary beads or holy cards or scapulars that I grew up with as a Catholic.

Watches, and wall clocks too, show a devotion to “keeping” time, to isolating key metrics to improve performance. Wearing a watch is first a practical way of “keeping track of time”- glancing at my watch while I’m riding my bike somewhere or when I’m at the playground with my kid. And it’s true, when you’re in a casino or a bar there’s rarely a clock within eyesight.

I have several watches — the one I wear most frequently is a rose gold Nixon that my husband bought me as a gift, after I’d left my Seiko 5 (which had a day and date dial, a feature I loved) on the deck of the pool after swimming laps (another practical use for a discrete and sturdy timepiece: clocking intervals). A designer I met commented on the Nixon, “It’s all branding and design, no engineering”.

I also have a “ladies-style” Seiko I bought from a pawn shop in panic when I couldn’t find the Nixon for a few days, and a few vintage automatic (meaning, they have to be wound regularly) watches that I bought off of Ebay or in thrift stores, one made by Sandoz (a Swiss company perhaps more famous now for manufacturing LSD). Still, wearing an unreliable watch feels better than wearing none at all.

I bought my ex-husband a watch as a gift several years ago, because it bothered me that he didn’t wear one. (Yes, this is a Homer Simpson move). A rare 80’s Casio basketball game watch, I bought it from an online store in Japan that sells only old digital watches and boomboxes. I read about it on Nerd Watch.  “I have a clock on my phone”, he said. I sighed.

My friend Anne demurred on a diamond ring when she got engaged a few years ago. “I just want a fancy fucking watch” she said. She and her now-husband went to Cartier, and both got said fancy fucking watches. The Tank watch, with the sapphire knob and smooth black leather band, lends way more gentlewomanly gravitas than a carat solitaire would.

Watches are often juxtapositions of fancy and practical. If only I had a compendium of rap references to watches! They can also be extremely cheap, like the novelty watches you used to get in Cereal Boxes. They can be a fancy kind of cheap, like the Swatches my older cousins had. You can easily do an against-the-grain consumer assessment of watches, in evaluating them on their components and performance. Check out Wallet Friendly Watch Forum and tell me you don’t want to go digging through your older relatives’ dressers. As I reminded everyone after I saw “Hugo”, clocks are cool.

Watches are a ubiquitous intersection of engineering, data, design, and the semiotics of branding. They’re computational devices, fundamentally. But what will the iWatch do, really, that will change all of this?

The wristwatch itself is a relatively new invention. Wristwatches were first manufactured on the large scale around the turn of the twentieth century — its early adopters were working women in the industrial age. Just think about all those garment and mill workers, rushing to get to factory jobs. City life, and industrial work, demands a certain type of connectedness that time has facilitated.

Only after World War I did men start to wear watches on their wrists, doing so was a sign of modernity, military status, and constant connectedness.

Who can separate the metaphor of the gold watch on retirement from the ideology of the Company Man? Now, of course, the idea of keeping a job for 40 years, and of course, keeping to the predictable rhythms of white collar life, seems as implausible as the idea that one needs a distinct time piece.

A watch is a ubiquitous computing device, and like many others that have come after it, is one that has take such a firm position in everyday life that one rarely thinks about how they got there. At some point someone made an engineering decision about everything I touch, but I know little about how or when they were made.

Do I want an Apple Watch? No, not right now. For one, it probably will fit oddly- I would wager that it’s not designed enough at this point to be really wearable. I also tell myself that I’m done with buying consumer electronics without a thought their supply chain, and this makes me highly disinclined to buy any more Apple products. (Though my 2011 Mac Book Pro is literally on her last leg, and I’ll have to replace her with another Mac OS device just to run Omnigraffle.)

And really, I’ll only start wearing a smart watch when I know other people who wear one, like with the Fitbit or Fuel Band. Besides, even when I wore a Fuel Band, I still wore my watch.