Credit: Robert Occhialini

Against the Clock

The invasion of the Apple Watch is imminent. While the technology future it heralds is exciting, some of our wrists are already spoken for.

I love technology—Apple technology in particular. Apple’s devices, and the apps and platforms and all the various and sundry media they make possible, have revolutionized my life. I have owned half a dozen Apple laptops, three iPods, two iPhones, and an iPad. I have an Apple TV. I want to buy an Apple Watch, too, and probably will.

But there is a problem. I already have a watch, a simple, un-smart watch, and I have an affection for it that is completely inappropriate for a piece of machinery. All those earlier devices—the laptops, the tablet, the phones—they didn’t require that I give up something in my life to make room. I have a cell phone, but also a landline. I have Apple TV, but also cable TV. Now, though, with the watch? I will have to make a very specific choice—I only have room on my wrist for one thing. Given the way technology increasingly tends to colonize our lives, it might not be much of a choice at all.

Let me tell you about my watch. It is an early-generation Seiko Kinetic, basically a self-winding watch that generates power and saves it in a battery. My father gave it to me in 1994, an early high-school graduation gift; it wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t luxury, either—maybe $100. Unlike later generations of Seiko Kinetics, which are clunky and blingy, mine is compact, minimalist, and surprisingly durable. Every seven or eight years the battery stops keeping a charge; I mail it to a Seiko dealer in north New Jersey for a tune up, and it comes back good as new.

I am not a watch head. I don’t know if this is a good watch, or a particularly valuable watch. There isn’t much information about it online. It doesn’t do anything other than tell time. But it does that one job beautifully, and simply. There are many beautiful, simple watches. This one is mine.

The Apple Watch won’t replace my Seiko anytime soon. The reviews have been polarized. Some love it, some hate it; many say it’s a niche product, an upscale techie accessory.

There are many beautiful, simple watches. This one is mine.

And yet, there is an inevitability about the Apple Watch. The apps on my iPhone are all being updated to work, in some way still unknown to me, with my Apple Watch-to-be. It has a Taptic Engine. I don’t quite know what a Taptic Engine is, but I have a feeling that pretty soon it will power my life. Like the iPhone, the Apple Watch will get better, and even more popular. Remember how clunky the first iPhone was? So thick and unwieldy! There was no App Store! Yet less than a decade later, smartphones aren’t just cool—they are necessary for taking part in mainstream life.

The other day I went to my barber, a 70-something Jewish refugee from Uzbekistan. He asked me to add my phone number to his Samsung smartphone, so he could text me his vacation days, in case I needed a trim on short notice. And that’s fantastic. Remember when the words “I’ll text you my vacation days” made no sense? It was what, 2003? And to hear them from a man who spent most of his life in Soviet Central Asia? Amazing. Yet I didn’t give it a second thought. Who would? That’s how deeply the smartphone has penetrated into our lives—it’s made texting so commonplace that now everyone does it, and talks about it, and punctuates with ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

All popular technology displaces something—how many people still use an SLR camera? When was the last time you saw someone reading a print newspaper on the subway? And yet, still, there’s something more intimately, uniquely invasive about a smartwatch. If you wear a watch, it’s a part of your body, almost, a device strapped to your arm all day, so that you don’t even think about it, but still know it’s already there. Now someone wants to replace it.

The Apple Watch demands that I choose sides: my beloved watch, or my beloved technology.

I’m just speaking for myself—there are probably people who felt the same way about typewriters being displaced by word processors, and others who lamented the slow passing of the VCR. Still, for the first time, I feel threatened by a technological development. My watch is part of my identity. But the Apple Watch demands that I choose sides: my beloved watch, or my beloved technology.

Here’s my fear: There may well come a day, not far from now, when smartwatches are so integral to everything we do, we will look back and ask how we ever got along without them. And watches like mine will be a thing of the past, like TV rabbit ears and carbon paper.

When I say I love technology, I don’t love all technology. I resisted getting a cell phone for years, and only gave in when all my friends had them, once it was awkward and inconvenient for me not to. The same thing will happen with smartwatches. I will decide I need a watch for work, the same way I think I need a smartphone now (even though, in all honesty, I probably don’t). Or all my friends will use some great app only available on a smartwatch, and I’ll be the Luddite for refusing to follow.

That’s the point: Whether it’s a watch or a cassette tape, the rapid onset of new, integrated technologies is forcing us not just to get in line, but sometimes to discard those parts of our lives that we might cherish, but that technological culture finds inconvenient. As technology becomes more pervasive, it doesn’t just provide cool little upgrades to our existing life, or introduce us to some great new device we never knew we needed. More often than we might appreciate, it also demands that we cut loose from those things that get in the way of the new, more tightly ordered future present.

The sweetly oppressive logic of new technology makes it easy for us to give up a lot of the things we don’t really care about—landlines, maybe, or word processors—only to find, one day, that we have to give up something we really love.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen