The wristwatch is a precursor of smartphone addiction—and possibly its cure

Time to rethink the role of watches, and smartphones, in our lives?
Time to rethink the role of watches, and smartphones, in our lives?
Image: Reuters/Denis Balibouse
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As a young girl, I eyed the slim form draped elegantly over my grandmother’s wrist and sighed with envy. That’s not to say I needed shiny gold links; any watch would have been fine. In the 1980s, wearing one—or sporting the tan lines indicating its temporary absence—signified adulthood: places to be, people to see. The bareness of my own forearm broadcast unimportance, irrelevance even.

According to Alexis McCrossen, author of Marking Modern Times, our nation felt similarly in the century following its birth, installing city clocks in an attempt to establish authority. Citizens took note. When the clocks were reset—a necessity thanks to the imprecision of large, cumbersome works—those nicknamed “clockwatchers” gathered in the street to reconcile their pocket watches. Often prominently displayed with a vest clip and chain, these chronometers were “signs of success in the colonial metropole,” McCrossen says, and “connoted gentility after the Revolution too.”

How times have changed. These days children debate whether to wear their Frozen watch or their Cars one, while adult wrists in San Francisco largely go unencumbered. Except, of course, for the ones bearing Apple or Fitbit watches, mini-computers strapped to those for whom a pocketed cell phone feels too distant. Statistics provided by the Federal Customs Administration show Swiss Watch export sales steeply decreasing, and a New York Post headline even declared, “Smartphones are killing the watch industry.”

My own tale both charts the course and suggests cause for cheer among executives at Swatch and Casio. Held up against the history of time, it calls into question the sense that my problems, and America’s, are novel.

I bought my first real watch in college. As Y2K approached, the desktop screens in UC Berkeley’s computer lab perpetually disagreed with each other as well as the campus’s many wall-mounted clocks. My first cell phone had arrived by then, but finding it and flipping it open took time. That left a high-quality wristwatch (set after calling POP-CORN) and a slight tilt of the arm as my best bet for avoiding the mortification of arriving at lecture even a minute late.

I wasn’t the first to come to this conclusion. For centuries, people attended only to what McCrossen calls “natural time,” the rising and setting of the sun. During the colonial period, bells ringing “at the opening and closing of markets as well as to bring townspeople to church services” governed time as a matter of occasion, rather than measure, she writes. During the 1800s, however, jewelers and watchmakers used astronomy to determine numerical time. The result was a shift to clock time, including ringing bells and flashing lights to indicate the hour. But each town used its own local time, and different clocks within the same city displayed discrepant versions of it.

Though there’s evidence of frustration with this state of affairs, it didn’t become untenable until two changes around the time of the Civil War. Railroads enabled passengers, mail, and goods to travel quickly between localities for the first time. According to the California State Railroad Museum, “The Union Pacific [once] used six different times on its route between Omaha and Salt Lake City.” On November 18, 1883, “the day of two noons,” the railroads instituted “railroad time,” which effectively meant people had to keep track of that as well as multiple local times. Meanwhile, mechanical improvements like brass works flooded the market with accurate and affordable timepieces, finally making possible the precision aspired to by clockwatchers. National policymakers responded, and by the 1890s standard time was born.

Though Americans inched toward “modern time discipline,” most people’s lives still didn’t rely upon immediate access to accurate time. Military maneuvers, however, increasingly did. Soldiers in the Anglo-Boer War and World War I “were among the first to strap watches to their arms,” McCrossen reports. Upon returning home, they popularized the “bracelet watch” among civilians. By the 1940s this trend, plus innovations like “self-winding,” meant that pocket watches—which could only be wound with keys, lost seconds, and were affected by changes in temperature and humidity—had become outmoded.

The watch I wore in college did too. My future husband replaced it with a silver Bulova with opalescent pink face, perfect for a young professional hoping to appear both feminine and competent (as much as such a thing is possible in the law). For two years it withstood bits of salad dropped as I shoveled sustenance over a keyboard, glinted in the dim lighting of Boston’s finest restaurants, and waited patiently upon the bathroom counter during showers.

Then I became a stay-at-home mother and iPhone devotee at once. Rising with the baby who rose with the sun, I treasured the lifeline that tethered me to the world outside her cries and displayed the time with one touch. A watch—particularly one that couldn’t withstand repeated assault by wet laundry and rounds of bottle washing—seemed useless. Mine sat next to the kitchen sink for a few weeks before being stowed in a jewelry box, now more ornament than instrument.

In the rare moments I didn’t have my phone at my fingertips, not having the time didn’t bother me anymore. At first I’d resisted “mom time,” fuming when friends arrived late citing dirty diapers or long naps. Totally foreseeable, I internally retorted, build in a buffer for Christ’s sake. Then convenience seduced, and I joined the hordes who’ve let the ability to text a quick update or apology slowly degrade their commitment to punctuality like a stream eating away at its own bed. Time had become a matter of occasion for me once again, synchronicity nonessential.

When my second baby arrived, I noticed that clocks too had come full circle. McCrossen says most early American clocks—grandfathers for the well-to-do and smaller mantle-style ones for the rest—were so inaccurate that while they proliferated, their purpose was largely decorative. Now their descendants, the wall clocks that were essential during my childhood, had migrated from the electronics section of Target back to the home décor one.

When I needed the time I used my phone for it. I used my phone for pretty much everything, actually. I opened apps for grocery shopping, and—when I’d left that until too late—ordering meals. I took pictures of the kids and texted them to their father and grandparents. I checked our digital calendar for medical appointments and playdates. I answered urgent emails about our taxes. Of course I noticed the “rabbit hole phenomenon”—how I’d pull out my screen to do one of these things and end up satisfying my fingers’ itch to tap a separate icon—but the little jaunts seemed inevitable and harmless, the modern analog of forgetting to unload my grocery cart while perusing the tabloids.

By the time my third child began to take her first steps, however, I’d gotten in the habit of not just carrying my phone from room to room but continually repositioning it to sit on the nearest surface. I’d touch the screen to check the time, and several minutes later emerge from the virtual vortex to see myself as if from above: my son on his fourth “Mommy, can we please build trains” and me rendered deaf, dumb, and then abruptly angry with him for wrenching back my awareness. At night, after being awoken to freshen soiled sheets or help the memory of a bad dream fade, I’d illuminate the screen to see how much potential sleep remained. A quick swipe had me reading one article about a toddler’s tragic death, then another to clear up a few remaining questions, and two hours later I’d enter the next day exhausted—a state which rendered me even less able to resist my smartphone’s siren call.

In Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang describes how modern Americans let the capacity of our technological devices shape our days, rather than putting technology in service of the lives we want to live. Mine had become one spent passively slipping away or even seeking out a hit of connectivity, a feeling that I was needed elsewhere to slice through the cacophony of noise and need that is three young children.

It’s a modern problem, but it isn’t new. In the nineteenth century, McCrossen relates, “the mechanical timepiece was portrayed as the ultimate busybody, driving people to nervous exhaustion, entering into their very psyches, and remaking them into watches or clocks.” Timothy Shay Arthur’s The Punctual Man, published in 1853, tells of a man obsessed with the time who repeatedly “drew forth his watch for another consultation.” It moralizes, “So little do men and women profit by the experiences of life when they react upon constitutional weaknesses … confirmed by long habit.”

Sounds an awful lot like the mom I recently overheard asking her Snapchat-obsessed daughter, “Are you checking that thing just to check it?” In addition to calling out compulsion, she also undoubtedly eschewed what McCrossen calls “the withering of certain aspects of social decorum.” Such accusations mirror those once leveled at the watch. One midcentury observer said, “The action of looking at the time is perceived as a serious infringement of the most elementary conventions of polite society.” Some say US president George H.W. Bush’s time-check at the first town hall debate in 1992 is what cost him reelection.

Neither extremist nor Luddite, this year I gave myself the birthday gift of a small, digital step toward the person I’d like to be. A soft plastic band encircles my radius and ulna, its black central display emblazoned with “Timex” and “Ironman” in silver writing, “water-resistant” etched on the back. It isn’t pretty, but now when I check the time, I don’t lose any.

A watch used to signify connection to a larger, busier world, an alluring proposition for one hemmed in by youth. Today it’s quite the opposite. My watch gives me a freedom borne of focus, privacy, and contemplation. My phone still lurks, enabling me to escape in search of information and emotion from afar as needed, but my watch wards against habitual departures.

In 1839, Edgar Allan Poe satirized clockwatchers in his short story The Devil in the Belfry. In the Dutch town of Vondervotteimittiss (wonder what time it is), “the pride and wonder of the village” is a great clock, “And this is the object to which [all] eyes … are turned.” Questioning its accuracy is considered “heretical” by the townspeople, and when “half a second of noon … [t]he bell was about to strike, … it was a matter of absolute and pre-eminent necessity that every body should look well at his watch.”

Especially now that my children are in school with bells in the morning and fees incurred by the minute for late pick-up, I’m as much a slave to the time as those Poe ridiculed. Yet I too am raging against the machine, fighting back against a life dictated by technological innovation rather than intention.

Henry Ford predicted that “pocket watches would go the way of the buggy and the whip, and maybe today so are wristwatches,” McCrossen writes. But perhaps they shouldn’t.