Requiem for Days Long Past

It seems more and more these days, and especially over the last week or two in particular — perhaps in conjunction with the rise of the smartwatch as a general topic of discussion — people have begun yearning for the lifestyle of yesteryear when watches fulfilled the single, uncomplicated need of telling time, running errands entailed a trip to the local grocery store, and sometimes you just had to shovel through four feet of snow to get to the driveway. Although I can’t say that I look forward to every one of those tasks every single day, there is something to be said for a lifestyle less reliant on technology.

The problem I see in every single article discussion the perceived value proposition of a smartwatch is the limited scope with which we have to think about such a hypothetical product. With very few exceptions, everyone assumes such a device will operate almost solely based on audio input, and serve up minor notifications while fulfilling computing tasks of arguable import; most of the work, as the generally-accepted theory goes, will remain solely for the smartphone. In assessing this belief, it is useful to pause and examine the evolution of the supposed smartwatch’s companion device, the smartphone, pre- and post-iPhone revolution:

At the dawn of the smartphone, back before the term had entered the common vernacular, phones made voice calls. Even taking into account the devices that had the fringe benefit of serving as a relay for short text messages if you happened to be in your teens or early twenties, these served but two purposes. Today, just a short seven years later, these formerly nondescript accessories have evolved into the one-stop shop for every computational need. In fact, some have even gone so far as to completely replace their owner’s need for any other computer; thankfully, Apple started offering in-store device setup in response. Ten years ago — nay, even eight — no one could have predicted that less than a decade would pass before pocketable phones had more power than the day’s supercomputers. Point is, though, that even at the brink of the smartphone revolution, no one could have foreseen the remarkable innovations ahead, and how that increase in computational capability would radically alter the face of this category. It would be foolish to ignore that corollary here when evaluating the notion of a smartwatch.

Now, that said, although I remain hopeful that a wrist-worn device will rock our collective world, I happen to fall more in line with Shawn’s opinion that even in an age of connected watches, there remains a place for bespoke mechanical wristwatches that do nothing more than tell the time. From a past article of mine titled Earning It:

“I have prematurely reached a point in my life where I no longer want to settle for anything: I want to eat good food, watch good movies, listen to good music, and — most of all — I want great gear. Whereas it takes most people a lifetime to reach this point, I have somehow managed to get here after just nineteen short years. With regards to technology, that means an iPhone as the always-on computer in my pocket, a MacBook Pro in my backpack, and an iPad to replace the gargantuan Calculus textbook I would otherwise have had to carry around.”

The broader sentiment I expressed in that piece applies here as well: although I hesitate to so publicly proclaim this without seeing what the competition has to offer, five years down the road I see myself wearing the very attractive Seiko watch Shawn Blanc pointed out in his article Dumb rather than something much more technically advanced; the former appeals to me in ways the latter could never. And although that is an admittedly two-way street, my previous tendencies and inclinations lead me to believe that I will opt for Old Faithful rather than a more modern contraption.

If other recent articles are to be believed, Shawn Blanc and I are not the only ones with a soft spot for technology and methodologies brought into existence by “the old guard”: Nick Bilton wrote an article for The New York Times titled Staying Home, Connected to the World where he painted a picture of a possible future in which current trends in technology and today’s youth progressed to a point where leaving one’s home ceased to be necessary for anything. Josh Ginter added his own two-cents in a similar post, Turns Out You Never Have to Leave Your Front Door, which sent me down this rabbit hole in the first place.

Many recognize an impending future even more reliant on technology, but it seems that as it continues its incessant march onwards, getting closer and closer with each breakthrough, more people are becoming less excited about it. At what point does it all become too much? I have hesitantly drawn a line in the sand at watches doing more than providing me easy access to the time; for others, this line will come at different places on the same continuum. That location will ultimately inform the capabilities of every single piece of future technology though, from smartwatch to smart ring even more than the engineering and manufacturing capability of the companies that manufacture these devices. At some point, it will all become too much.