A New Wrinkle in Time

With the decline of the wristwatch, will time become just another app?

Who wears a wristwatch anymore? Although luxury mechanical watches remain status symbols, time may be running out for the clock you wear. For a generation with smart phones and other networked devices readily at hand, the utility of the classic timepiece is unclear. “The Beloit College Mindset List,” a much-cited annual index of the rapid pace of cultural drift in the digital age, observes that members of the college class of 2014 are so unfamiliar with the wristwatch that “they’ve never recognized that pointing to their wrists was a request for the time of day.” Yup, that’s your wrist, old-timer. Touch of arthritis?

Westerners have long been keenly interested in horology, as David Landes, an economic historian, points out in Revolution in Time, his landmark study of the development of timekeeping technology. It wasn’t the advent of clocks that forced us to fret over the hours; our obsession with time was fully in force when monks first began to say their matins, keeping track of the hours out of strict religious obligation. By the 18th century, secular time had acquired the pressure of routine that would rule its modern mode. Tristram Shandy’s father, waiting interminably for the birth of his son, bemoans the “computations of time” that segment life into “minutes, hours, weeks, and months” and despairs “of clocks (I wish there were not a clock in the kingdom).” Shandy’s father fretted that, by their constant tolling of the hours, clocks would overshadow the personal, innate sense of time—ever flexible, ever dependent upon mood and sociability.

His worries notwithstanding, generations chose to indenture themselves to the clock’s efficient mastery, welcoming centuries of development of chrono-mechanical technology: from verge-and-foliot escapements to balance wheels and tourbillons, stackfreeds and fusees to jewel bearings and the piezoelectric effect. The miniaturization of the clock into the watch was key to early globalization’s navigational and communication infrastructure. The watch was not just jewelry, but a marker of the early 20th century’s obsession with making sure that everything—from steamships to infantry charges—ran on time.

Now, in turning to mobile electronic devices and the networked time they keep, perhaps we seek a retooling of the messy, unsegmented sense of time celebrated in Laurence Sterne’s novel. In the 1900s, we told time using a device dedicated to the simple display of the hour, minute, and second. Not so with the watch’s networked offspring. Hundreds of time-related apps are available for the iPhone, from old-fashioned clock emulators to kitchen timers to tools to help keep meetings from running over.

LookBackMaps, a San Francisco Web development company, has created an iPhone mapping app that lets the user overlay historical photographs of places onto the iPhone’s camera view, combining past and present in a single picture—crowding wagons and horses, cobblestones and ghostly pedestrians into modern cityscapes. Everywhere online, time comes loose from its moorings: Google combines books from all eras into one big book; YouTube brings motion pictures from the early 20th century into dialogue with today’s viral videos.

Such displays of time on mobile devices go beyond the ticktock of the grandfather clock and the insistent pulse of the wristwatch, no longer pointing at one moment but indicating all the hours at once. Our lives, too, are more fluid now; our careers move in fits and starts; our childhoods and twilight years are of indeterminate length. As Tristram Shandy’s father knew, it is experience—of tools, of society, of kids growing up—that ultimately governs our perception of time. For us, the smart phone’s broad spectrum of time apps seems apropos.

Watchmakers will continue to develop new “complications,” the term used to describe “apps” on mechanical timepieces. (One $625,000 model will play you Tchaikovsky on a built-in drum set and keyboards.) But matched against the almost infinite possibilities of the smart phone, the watch seems likely to slowly go the way of the sundial, the factory whistle, and other quaint measures. And with it, the particular conception of time as a stream implacably flowing toward some end may well become just one temporal computation among many.