Monday, April 9, 2012

Keeping Virtual Watch

So, I must admit that I've been slacking off a bit in the blogging department, having been experiencing something of a time famine of late.  I didn't make up that phrase, by the way, time famine has been out there for some time now, at least a few decades according to the Double-Tongued Dictionary

Funny how the concept of time famine seems to coincide, to some degree, with the new media revolution that began with the popularization of personal computing, followed by the widespread use of the internet.  You might also say that it correlates as well to information overload.  Add spatial dislocation to the mix, and we have 3 out of 4 horsemen.  As for the 4th, well, reports of the death of civilization may be premature, but by how much?  Time is always of the essence.

Certainly, suggestions of the demise of the wristwatch carry a certain weight, as that item of jewelry has gone from an almost absolute must-have for any fully functioning member of a modern, technological society, to an optional bit of ornamentation, and this has occurred in a relatively short period of time.  The watch has been obsolesced by the cell phone, and as McLuhan long ago observed, a technology that becomes obsolescent is often repurposed as an art form.  In this instance, the watch, whose main purpose was utilitarian (what good is a watch that doesn't work? who would wear a watch that's stopped, even if, as the joke goes, it would still be correct twice a day?), is now becoming purely cosmetic, a piece of jewelry no more functional than a necklace or earring.

True enough, watches have a long history of association with precious metals, sometimes gems, and yes, they have long been considered a fashion accessory.  But not necessarily so, after all, as watches might better be compared to shoes, and shirts and pants, viewed nearly as much as necessities, rather than options.  Their obsolescence, then, eliminates the cheap, purely functional variety, and leaves only the more pricey version as a status object.

All this was inspired by another example of augmented reality technology, in this instance applied by Tissot this past holiday season as a means of trying on watches without having to make the trip to a retail outlet.  Here, take a look:

Here's an on site demonstration, outside of a store in London:

and this one is outside of Harrod's:

And you can read more about it, and find out how to try it out for yourself in the comfort of your own home, over on the Tissot Reality webpage.

Of course, the irony is that the augmented reality technology is what is making everyone go wow, not the watches themselves.  While it's a great attention-getter, this use of AR ultimately calls into sharp contrast one of the most intriguing recent manifestations of the new media environment with one of the signature technologies of the old media environment, the mechanical timepiece.

Back in the 1930s, Lewis Mumford noted that the invention of the mechanical clock in the medieval monasteries of 13th century Europe constituted a giant step on the rode to mechanization, as the true function of the clock is to control and coordinate human activity.  As such, the clock was an early example of cybernetic technology (not to mention, the first mechanical device that produced nothing physical, just pure information, and the first form of automatic machinery, the first form of robotics and automation).  Jay David Bolter likewise points to the clock as a defining technology that was a vital forerunner to the modern computer. 

Personally, I always used to say that the watch was not about strapping time to our wrists, it was us in literal bondage to time.  I resisted wearing a watch in my youth, but then I grew up.  As Bob Dylan put it, ya gotta serve somebody, and Mumford noted that it was a natural progression from keeping time to serving time.  But in recent years there have been times when I didn't wear a watch because the battery was run down or the mechanism was broken, or I lost it, or just forgot to put it on, and frankly I hardly noticed its absence.  And there are many times now that I go out without my watch, and do not miss it one bit.

The mechanical clock has been obsolesced by digital displays run by computer chips and wired technologies, such as cable boxes and computer screens.  I don't know about you, but I find that the shift from Daylight Saving Time to Standard, and back again, no longer requires the kind of effort it once did in changing the time on clocks in every room—more and more they've been replaced by displays that automatically make the switch.

It follows that the wristwatch was obsolesced at the point that the computer became so miniaturized and mobile that we could carry it around with us wherever we go, that is, at the point that our cell phones evolved from being souped up walkie-talkies into tiny PCs, with entirely accurate time displays.  But from the start, the purpose of cell phones, and beepers before them, was very much the control and coordination of human activity.  As they evolved to carry out that function in increasingly more effective manner, the wristwatch became increasingly more redundant.

Tissot, then, may be trying to sell real watches through virtual imaging, but with the watch itself becoming virtual (virtualized?), my guess is, they'd better just watch out.

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