Stylish and practical, the wrist watch is the most popular tech wearable in history. And while many of us may have gotten into the habit of checking our phones for the time these days, watches endure as an important accessory. In recent years, tech companies have taken the humble watch and turned it into a mini smartphone. They’ve made them powerful and attractive, appealing to our modern taste for convenience and information access. And if you’re like me, you’ve hovered over the store displays or flashy websites, curious and tempted. You certainly may want one. But do you need one?
First, a little history. Watches have stood the test of time, no pun intended! Portable timepieces have been around since at least the 16th century, some of the earliest varieties being worn more as fashionable jewelry than accurate time keepers. As styles changed in the 17th century, men preferred to keep watches safe from the elements in pockets, and the traditional smooth and flat pocket watch emerged and flourished. Innovation in design and manufacture continued into the 19th and 20th centuries. While watches worn on the wrist or arm were initially marketed to women as bracelets, the “wristlet” watch eventually became popular with men in war-time because they were quicker to access than pocket watches. After World War II wrist watches reached mass popularity and enjoyed great success throughout the 20th century.
When I don a watch these days, I put on my grandfather’s 1960s Seiko 66-840 manual winding watch. All it tells me is the time of day, and only if I remember to wind it up in the morning. It doesn’t require a battery or need charged at night. It won’t monitor my heart rate or coach me through breathing exercises. It won’t play music or tell me which direction I’m going. I can’t buy things with it or check my email. For any of those tasks, I have a smartphone. I don’t need my watch to do anything for me except tell me the time of day. That’s it. That’s the extent of my relationship with my watch. And I’m quite happy with that.
Here are three reasons you may want to skip the smartwatch too.
First, you don’t need to put a digital screen on your body. We’re just now beginning to do the research on how our smartphones are changing us and why we should keep them in check. The last thing we need is a mini smartphone on our body bringing the deluge of data we swim through every day ever closer to our physical self. We also need to consider the long-term effects of electromagnetic radiation from smartwatches and other wearable tech, especially smartwatches with built in cellular chips. And when it comes to blue light – the type of visible light emitted by our digital screens – having a smartwatch so close at hand could increase our exposure, causing sleep problems and negative affects on our eye health over time.
Second, a smartwatch won’t help you keep your tech in check. We have to stay boss over the tech tools we choose to have in our lives, lest they take hold and cause distraction, isolation, or addiction. That email, text, or alert is already reaching you on your smartphone. Why would you need it on your wrist too? Sure, smartwatches can monitor your heart rate or detect a fall, but we already have gadgets for that if it’s really needed. Most cardio machines can do the heart rate thing and give you stats galore on your workouts. Our phones can tell us how far we’ve run. You want music? Put a CD or the radio on, or pull out your phone and hit play. It’s so easy to get to any song ever recorded these days. We are spoiled. And we want that ability on our body as well?
In his book Utopia is Creepy, Nicholas Carr discusses what happens when tech gadgets formalize the informal in life: “Many personal apps and gadgets have the effect, or at least the intended effect, of formalizing informal activities. Once you strap on a Fitbit, you transform what might have been a pleasant walk in the park into a program of physical therapy.” Certain things in life may be best kept informal, like checking the time, taking a walk, driving, keeping a journal, or jotting down your thoughts about something. When a gadget or app formalizes the informal, you sacrifice simplicity.
Third, make a powerful statement by wearing a watch that isn’t a smartwatch. Let’s not forget that watches began as fashion statements centuries ago. They were conversation starters, eye-catchers, works of craftsmanship and artistry. Your watch can compliment your outfit and help you stand out as someone who values your own time and that of others. What does a smartwatch say about its wearer? That a person doesn’t know where to draw the line between convenience and effort? That at any moment that person could divert their attention to their wrist instead of the people around them? Could it suggest a weakness for hype? A blurring of the here and the somewhere else? Make sure your timepiece reflects positively on you and is an expression of your values and character, not just your personality.
How you tell the time each day is up to you. Only you can examine your unique set of circumstances and decide what tech is appropriate for you. In the end, the most important thing is not how you track the time you have in a day but what you do with those precious waking hours!
This post was originally published in the May 2020 newsletter of The Technoskeptic magazine. The magazine and its related podcast offer intelligent technology criticism. Learn more at thetechnoskeptic.com.