Counting Wristwatches at the SNCR Conference

Note: this post is from Jun ’07. We’re reposting because J references it in Reading Virtual Minds Volume II: Experience and Expectation.

I spent some time last week at the SNCR Symposium and Awards Gala at Harvard U in Cambridge, MA. One thing that always happens at these meetings is that the Researchers (I’m one) get to prognosticate about what’s coming down the pike re social media, new communications, the ‘net and such.

I think I was the only one with an actual cellphone, no camera, no internet, no media, no music, no twittering on the go.

Thankfully, my Ludditehood is still intact.

Questions investigated in a roundtable format included the future of print, who’s getting their news online, who’s getting their news mobline (online mobile), what’s the latest technology that will emerge and what will fade, …

Very interesting stuff.

analog wristwatchAnd it’s meetings like this that hammer into me the different set of filters I work with. I sat, watched and listened to my extremely intelligent and knowledgeable brethren and sistren and inwardly smiled. I was counting the number of net-savvy, on the edge, knowing the future people who were still wearing wristwatches. In fact, analog wristwatches. Not digital, and maybe quartz driven, but with analog faces.

There is a asymptotic ceiling to how much information the human mind can respond to from any interface. Cognitive theorists know this, and until we evolve further (and in the necessary direction) that asymptote is getting exponentially nearer (mathematicians grimace when I write or say things like that).

The wristwatch has survived for a very long time because of four simple design rules:

1) It is simple to use,

2) The information it presents is immediately actionable,

3) It is a wearable interface that doesn’t interfere with other routine daily functions and

4) It economically puts power into a large populations hands (or wrists).

I’ve been telling people for a long time that for all the latest technologies provide, not a lot of them will last. Remember when everyone had to have a digital watch? Do you know that record players are now considered the must-haves because the sound quality is (supposedly) so much better? Technology is wonderful and only when its benefits outweigh its detriments. Personal technologies are wonderful and won’t last unless they (as I said at a previous SNCR symposium and reference again in rule #4 above) put more power into people’s hands.

Mobile devices don’t quite live up to that promise. Yet. I know there are devices close to Dick Tracy’s watchphone. I understand that they’re not simple to use. Shucks. Lost on rule #1 above and require more power to use than they economically provide on a psycho-identity level (see Reading Virtual Minds Volume I: Science and History for more on this) so rule #4 is gone, too.

Bummer, dude.

I’m told that wristwatches are greatly on the decline with the young. They prefer to learn the time from their mobile devices. This means one of their hands is always going to be busy mobiling. One hand to hold the device, maybe another to push some button.

This is why digital watches faded. You needed two hands. If not to activate the display, then to light it. Not easy, economical power.

I also know that people purchase watches as they age. Perhaps to keep track of how little time they have left.

And I know that analog watches will catch on as we start to travel at light-like speeds. A little known fact from relativity; analog internals are the only timepieces that keep correct local time regardless of relativistic frame.

Maybe as people grow older they want to know the correct time at the Black Hole Bar&Grill?

So I performed a completely unscientific study

Anyway, I went from the SNCR meeting to the MIT MediaLab and then a walk from said MediaLab back to Harvard Square. I was counting wristwatches as I went along. Specifically on my walk back. About twice per block I would stop someone and say, “Excuse me, I need to get to Harvard Square by (some time). Can you give me directions and let me know if you think I’ll make it?

It was that last part that had the gold in it, so to write. It encouraged people to check their time to determine if I would be on time.

Generally true, there were fewer watches on the young than on the aged (one teenage Honduran gentleman had a most beautiful watch with Catholic symbolism on the band and face. Never saw anything like it and he was quite proud of it). Very true, watches existed on axes of age, gender and income level with income level driving down the age factor significantly. Amazingly true, younger people without watches showed you the time on their mobile devices rather than tell you the time.

Fascinating, that last part. The device is the truth, not the individual controlling the device.

I’ve seen this phenomenon before. In a bar. A couple of people were debating a sports issue, one fellow looked something up on his iPhone and presented the search result as the final arbiter of the truth.

The only problem was that I was sitting with some people who populated the site that was being iPhoned. We were talking about how unreliable their information was.

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