Posted by: jgurner | August 18, 2010

Who Watches the Wrist Watch?

In this year’s Beloit College mindset list, that list that supposedly helps professors get a bit of a glimpse into the way incoming freshmen think, there was one interesting tidbit that caught my eye. Two actually: One was about Beavis and Butthead leading to the Fall of Western Civilization, but that’s a different story.

No, the one that I really found kind of interesting was the fact that most of the kids coming in as freshmen this year have never worn a wrist watch.

Now, it may not seem like a big thing, but, as a child of the 80s, it seems as though something important is being lost. Seriously, growing up, a wrist watch was a big deal, not really because I needed to know at a glance what time it was. I didn’t have that kind of schedule, unlike a lot of kids today. No, a wrist watch was a status symbol, especially in the early days of the digital watch.

I assume you can still go to Wal-Mart and for just a small amount of money, probably less than $10, you can get a relatively heavy feature laden digital watch. Not just the time, but the date, stop watch, maybe different time zones, etc. All things that became pretty standard for digital watches. Those of us of a certain age will remember back in the day when a digital wrist watch, one that only told the time in bright red LED numbers, was a considerable purchase. They were bulky and went through batteries like crazy, but it was like wearing the high tech future on your wrist.

Of course, the humble digital wrist watch evolved to do more things, even play a jaunty little tune when the alarm went off, or when you accidentally banged it against the desk in the middle of algebra and it went off and wouldn’t stop until you pried the back off and took out the battery. The end-all, be-all wrist watch to have in the ninth grade was, of course, one that played Dixie. Not all of Dixie, just the first eight beats. And, of course, they were the ones that were the worst about going off at random and not shutting off. Walking down the hall on any given day, you were likely to hear a class room disrupted by the sharp electronic tones emanating from someone’s wrist.

There were some who still either preferred the traditional watch or who couldn’t afford to wear $20-plus dollars on their wrist in the late 1970s and early 1980s. (Remember when $20 was a lot of money?) And, there were some who just didn’t wear a watch at all.

As for me, I usually had a watch, though, it wasn’t always on my wrist. Often, the plastic band would break, right at the hole where I fastened it, long before the watch gave out. At that point, it became a pocket watch. (I continued that practice, by the way, well into adulthood, much to the chagrin of my ex.)

By this time, of course, the red of the LED had been replaced by the calm, cool face of the LCD watch. And more and more buttons showed up on the side of the watch. The LED had the one button you pressed to light up the numbers, plus the recessed button you pressed to set the time. Addition buttons switched from the time to the date, set the alarm or operated the stop watch function, which was very handy when you had the contests in study hall to see who could hold their breath the longest.

While the digital watch was more fashion over function in high school, it became very important once I got into college. The fact that a watch could serve both as a means to let me know just exactly how late I was for class and as an alarm clock to be ignored was very convenient. Plus, college was where we all learned the trick of setting our watches a few minutes ahead, five or so, so we wouldn’t be quite so late to class. It was a very handy thing to do, especially with a band director who’s motto was “to be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late.”

Once I got out into the “real world,” the watch became even more important. There were schedules to be kept, deadlines to be met and appointments and meeting to get to. Plus, a glance at the watch and a worried “Oops I’m late for another appointment” look on my face was an easy way to get the guy complaining about the government stealth helicopters flying over his house and x-raying it to see how many guns he had out of my office. (An actual conversation, by the way.)

For the better part of three decades, the wrist of my left arm had watch tan lines, then, in 2004, everything changed.

First, I got out of the newspaper business and started in the liberry business. Suddenly, instead of running here and there trying to make it to this meeting or that interview or the other ball game, I just had one place to be and one time to be there. The need to really know what time it is became less and less. But, I still wore the watch, a fairly nice $15 affair with a number of buttons, most of which I never bothered to find out what they did. It was more out of habit than either necessity or fashion.

Then came the damnable cell phone.

We had gotten cell phones a couple of years before, but I never used mine or had it with me unless I was going way, way out of town. It was a bulky sucker, just slightly too big to fit comfortably into the pocket. But in the Fall of 2004, we swapped those monstrosities out for something much more svelte. Some more flip phonish. And guess what it had built into the face of it. An LCD screen that served as a clock.

It took a while, but after much goading, I began carrying the infernal device with me on a daily basis. (My whole dislike to telephones is a whole other matter, entirely.) And, for a while, I still wore my digital watch. But, eventually, it became not only redundant and unnecessary, it was one other thing to mess with in the mornings, so, it eventually went away.

So, for almost six years now, I’ve been wrist watchless. To put it in terms of the Beloit College list, that’s about a third of the age of the average freshman.

I guess, in a way, the wrist watch is just another victim of technology. Much like its predecessor, the pocket watch, it has succumbed to the limitation of its form rather than its function. Within just a foot or so of where I sit, there are a number of items which let me know the time. There’s my cell phone, the cordless phone, my computer, the Time Magazine AM/FM radio/clock, the Sports Illustrated weather gauge/clock (all with different times, of course.) The time telling function has become ubiquitous, built into just about everything with a microchip and an LCD screen.

In many ways, I don’t really miss my wrist watch. In adulthood, it almost became like a rope that tied me down or jerked me, often unwillingly, from place to place. The numbers on the face of the watch translated, often times, into a burdensome and busy schedule. But, in other ways, there is something lost with the passing of the wrist watch. A quick glance at the wrist to indicate that someone’s time is up or a quick couple of taps to the watch on your wrist to indicate someone need to hurry the hell up are much more effective than reaching into a pocket, purse, backpack or what ever and digging out the latest phone/computer/MP3 player/camera/GPS which just happens to tell the time as well.

Plus, from now on, we’ll have generation after generation who will no longer think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

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