Digital Watch

  Jerome Shea       November 8, 2009      Weekend Wonk

Last week, after my watch fell into the boiling spaghetti water (don’t ask), I guessed that I would need a new one soon. Although it did dry out enough to begin working again, it began to get very creative in its time-telling. When the sun had just come up but my watch told me it was 1:47, I went shopping as soon as I could. And a surprise was waiting for me. I liked my old digital watch, but except for the chintzy $3.99 models I couldn’t find a new one. Almost all the watches these days are the old “analogue” jobs, the ones with the traditional clock face and hands. This seemed strange, because digital watches were very popular back when I bought my old one, and they seemed to fit right in with all our other space-age-themed stuff. In fact, I thought they would soon displace analogue watches entirely. And because they worked so dependably, it must have been people’s feelings about them that caused this reversal. I have a hunch that the watchmakers have gone back to the old style because they saw that people were becoming nostalgic, and, maybe more, because they saw that people got a bit scared of, or resentful about, the precise time-telling of digital watches.

Certainly people do crave the old sometimes. The future is exciting, but it is also unnerving, just the way any foreign country can be. (Not for naught did Shakespeare call it “that undiscovered country.”) A new thing by definition is novel, and people can take only so much novelty; they crave the old guideposts, the old anchors (and isn’t this the appeal of “retro” styling?). Breweries, for example, have realized this, so that many of them make this sort of pitch: “Old Gutbuster, our special bourbon. Granddaddy Hicks told us never to change the recipe, and we haven’t. We still age Gutbuster patiently in old oaken vats just like Granddaddy did back in 18 and 84.” “Traditional” is a favorite word of advertisers, and they often extol things made “the old fashioned way.” So perhaps the watch people sensed that the space age was exciting at Cape Canaveral but that on our wrists we wanted a connection to the familiar past.

I also suspect that people got unnerved when they saw the time as 2:43 or 5:29. Such a precise time as 2:43 seems to rub our noses in time’s importance these days. At the least it makes time seem more important than we would like to see it and reminds us that we are often slaves to time. Although our old-style watches might actually read “2:43,” we would glance at them quickly and see the time as “quarter to three.” We knew how to put time in its place, to be cavalier about it, to be master of it.

Small doses of nostalgia can be good for us. When we go into the future, as we must, it’s good to take a bit of the past with us, like a toddler’s security blanket. But it’s even more important that we put time in its place. It’s important that we don’t have these blinking gizmos on our wrists anymore, because it’s important that we don’t get so frantic about time as did that poor white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. I thought about these things as I was making my choice at my local K-Mart. Maybe I went too far, because I walked out with a wind-up pocket watch. But I can stuff the darned thing out of sight where it won’t badger me, and when I really need the past I can press this watch (that my grandfather might have owned) up against my ear and listen to it tick.

I may have saved myself.

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