Cyberspace, both as word and as vision, entered the popular lexicon through William Gibson’s 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. But as it turns out, Gibson wasn’t interested in the Internet until he started buying watches on Ebay. In a 1999 Wired article, he details his compulsive addiction to bidding for vintage mechanical watches—what Gibson calls “fine fossils of a predigital age.” Little did Gibson know that thirty years after Neuromancer, watches and cyberspace would fuse—not only because it is now commonplace to buy watches online, but also thanks to “smart watches” set to become the latest portal into cyberspace.
That smart watches might usher in the next wave of techno-gadgetry should come as no surprise. Watches have long been low-hanging fruit for the fantasy coupling of networks, bodies, and objects, now known as ubiquitous computing (ubicomp) or the Internet of Things (IoT). For centuries, the wristwatch has been the only widespread wearable technology (besides glasses, which are also in the process of becoming “smart”). Mark Weiser’s article The Computer of the 21st century, which is often credited with spearheading the field of ubiquitous computing, begins with the sentence: “The most profound technologies are those that disappear.” Watches are deeply familiar, pervasive and essential to daily life, and as such the perfect instance of that adage. When someone stops to ask if you have the time, the answer comes automatically. Andy Clark calls the act “one of the most characteristic movements of the modern world.” With the watch, technology disappears; what we see is the time. Watches, Clark writes, are the most “humble examples of cyborg technology” symbolizing the inevitable transition to technological transparency.