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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

October 4, 2014 at 8:00 PM

Don’t spoil the smartwatch: A better direction for our most personal device

(Image: Apple)

(Image: Apple)

The watch my husband’s grandmother gave him has a blue face, a silver metal band, and very little time left.

There’s a good chance, some people think, that Apple’s new “smartwatch” will help end the 500-year reign of the mechanical timepiece when it’s released next year, strapping to our wrists the 24/7 digital universe that’s already taken over our laptops, tablets and phones.

It’s the latest conquest in a new manifest destiny. Remember that from history class? Manifest Destiny was the widely held belief that American settlers were destined to occupy the whole continent.

Technological manifest destiny holds that our entire digital toolbox is destined to occupy whatever new territory brings it closer to people.

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 6.22.06 PM

Like my wrist.

But even if texting and reading from a watch is fun and interesting, I don’t want to give those functions such valuable new real estate just because I can.

My reason goes back to my husband’s bare-bones watch.

It’s tough to think of a simpler device that’s done more to change who we are than this ancient configuration of gears and sprockets.

Nothing feels more natural to us than splicing time into measurable chunks. But it wasn’t until the 14th century, when monks looked for ways to pray at regular intervals, that anyone even tried to do it.

The monks’ scheduled church bells spread a new value to towns and cities — punctuality. Then clocks appeared on street corners, in buildings, in pockets. In the 1600s, the mathematician Blaise Pascal became the first person we know of to tie a time-telling device to his wrist.

The watch became an intimate, constant reminder that time was passing. It spawned an ethic that changed everything, from the pace of our progress to how we chose to live every day: personal productivity.

AppleWatchApps

The clock “translated a natural phenomenon” — time — “into an artificial and intellectual conception of that phenomenon,” to borrow the words of thinker Nicholas Carr. And it changed the world, simple as that.

Today, tech manifest destiny — and some convenient word play — suggests we populate the smartwatch with as much information and connectivity as the smartphone. Because hey, the closer, the better. Right?

You can text on Apple Watch. Download apps. See your photos. You can check your calendar. Get your tweets. Read an email you respond to on your phone.

“All watches tell time,” goes one Apple pitch. “This one helps you make the most of it.”

Yeah, yeah. I figured as much.

But what if instead of allowing the creep of personal-productivity tools that — let’s admit — are hard enough to manage on our phones, we get a little more thoughtful?

What if we insist that the watch’s replacement not do it all, but only what it does best?

The Apple Watch actually already includes the kinds of features I’m talking about. As does the Pebble Watch, a simpler competitor with more personality, and, more narrowly, a growing family of wearable trackers like the FitBit and the Jawbone.

These features do for our well being what the watch did for time — make it measurable. They track sleep, activity, heart rate. Soon, maybe calorie intake. Energy. Mood.

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 6.26.52 PM

Imagine being able to plan how you run yourself with as much precision as how you run your day.

Isn’t an ethic of self-improvement, not personal productivity, the one that could use the biggest boost these days?

You’ll notice I’m not talking about invention here as much as focus. Why crowd the watch’s successor with demanding features that work fine elsewhere when a simple, novel set of self-measurement tools could take us to more exciting places?

I know, I know. “Less is more” doesn’t get very far in tech circles. And it’s not like overstuffing the smartwatch is going to hurt sales. Just the opposite, probably. Technology’s more, more, more mandate puts a premium on do-it-all devices, even when all they do is overwhelm us.

But managing my productivity and communications tools from my phone — a device I can set down as easily as I pick it up — seems close enough for me, for now, thanks.

If I’m going to strap technology to my wrist, I’d better love every minute.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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