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10 May, 2012


My grandfathers' 100-year-old pocket watches and my wristwatch needing a new battery.  Are they all going the way of the sundail?
Several months ago my wristwatch stopped running.  All it needs is a $10 battery but I have procrastinated on getting a replacement and you know what?...After the first day without it on my wrist, I haven't really missed it.

I was thinking about that earlier today and realized that time just might be running out for "clocks" that we wear.  I spend a lot of time on my computer and it has a digital time display.  My smart phone tells me the time as does our several television sets.  Every room in our house has a digital clock of some kind.  Our kitchen actually has three time-telling devices, including the stove and microwave.  I turn on the ignition in my car and there it is -- the time of day flashing on the controls panel.

It is interesting to note that The Beloit College Mindset List, a much-cited annual index of the rapid pace of cultural drift in the digital age, observes that members of the college class of  2014 are so unfamiliar with the wristwatch that "they've never recognized that pointing to their wrists was a request for the time of day."

Westerners have long been keenly interested in horology, as David Landes, an economic historian, points out in Revolution in Time, a landmark study on the development of timekeeping technology.  "It wasn't the advent of clocks that forced us to fret over the hours; our obsession with time was fully in force when monks first began to say their matins, keeping track of the hours out of strict religious obligations."  By the 18th century, secular time had acquired the pressure of routine that would rule its modern mode.

Generations have indentured themselves to the clock's efficient mastery, welcoming centuries of development of chrono-mechanical technology.  The miniaturization of the clock into the watch was key to early globalization's navigational and communication infrastructure.  The watch was not just jewelry, but a marker of the early 20th century's obsession with making sure that everything -- from steamships and railways to infantry charges -- ran on time.

Now, in turning to mobile electronic devices and the networked time they keep, perhaps a retooling of the unsegmented sense of time makes a degree of sense.  In the 1900s, we told time using a device dedicated to the simple display of the hour, minute and second.  Not so with the watch's networked offspring.  Hundreds of time-related apps (an acronym or abbreviation for "applications, as in software") are available for the iPhone, from old-fashioned clock emulators to kitchen timers or tools to help keep meetings from running overtime.

The advancement has been incredible.  A San Francisco web company has created an iPhone mapping app that lets the user overlay historical photographs of places onto the iPhone's camera view, combining past and present in a single picture.  Everywhere on-line, time comes loose from its moorings:  Google combines books from all eras into one big book, YouTube brings motion pictures from the early 20th century into dialogue with today's viral videos.

Such displays of time on mobile devices go beyond the ticktock of the grandfather clock and the insistent pulse of the wristwatch, no longer pointing at one moment but indicating all the hours at once.  Our lives, too, are more fluid now; our careers move in fits and starts; our childhoods and twilight years are of indeterminate length.  For those of us in today's world it is experience -- of tools, of society, of kids growing up -- that ultimately governs our perception of time.  All of which gives application to the smart phone's broad spectrum of time.

There is a very real possibility of the watch as we know it slowly going the way of the sundial, the factory whistle, and other quaint measures.  Time, as they say, marches on...And it may well eventually become just one temporal computation among many.

I suppose that I'll eventually replace the battery in my watch, but it does not now have the urgency it would once have in my life.  I've got nothing but time.  I'm engulfed in it.

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