February 2016

Gadget boy

By David Feela

Last month I suggested in this newspaper that the only wristwatch a person ever needed to own was a vintage mechanical timepiece. Since that time, and perhaps because the gods were setting their watches by me, I received a first-generation Pebble smartwatch for the holidays, purchased from an area thrift store for $25. I feel like such an anachronism.

Pebble is one of the early smartwatches that gained traction in the 2013 marketplace. Within a year, consumers purchased a million of them, but as is the case with many techy electronic gadgets, the Pebble line quickly updated its options. The Pebble Round actually looks like a normal watch, not like mine, a device reminiscent of the one Dick Tracy wore in those cartoons. Still, I feel lucky that in two short years I may have acquired my first collectible smartwatch without having to wait the usual quarter century.

Think of me then as a time traveler, an omega rather than a beta tester, reporting on the performance of a relatively new product that people are already discarding. The watch came in its original box. It had hardly been worn. When I opened the package I felt the excitement and curiosity of trying to figure out how it worked. The manufacturer did not produce a paper instruction manual, so I relied on the internet to figure out how my new/used toy operated.

One thing I quickly learned is that smartwatches are designed to be fiddled with by the user. You don’t just strap these watches on in the morning and glance occasionally to check the hour. They lend themselves to button- pushing, wrist-shaking, selecting, and unselecting. Hundreds of downloadable watch faces are available at the Pebble internet site and I’ve been trying them out, switching from one, then back to another, deleting what I don’t like and constantly scrutinizing the face. It’s addictive. If this continues, I may be forced to wear my dumb watch once a week for a little downtime.

I’m still getting used to the unpredictable vibration that ripples against my skin when the watch wants to tell me something of seeming importance. It vibrates when app updates are loaded, when incoming messages are received, and when my fitness app reminds me that I’ve been sitting on my ass too long. It’s a curious sensation, as if someone keeps nudging me and saying, Hey!

Since smartwatches use screens instead of dials, being able to read the watch face under low-light conditions creates a new challenge. I have memorized which button to push so a backlit screen is visible, or I can snap my wrist for a few seconds of illumination, but inevitably I forget to put on my reading glasses and the watch flickers like a firefly before it dims and returns to an illegible hibernation. I could adjust the settings to increase the duration of the backlighting, but then the battery drains more quickly and I’m faced with the possibility of wearing a powerless piece of plastic.

The difficulty of squinting to read the hour is not exclusive to smartwatches. As early as 1917, a work force made up almost exclusively of women was employed to delicately brush radioluminescent paint on the hands of clocks and watch dials so many vintage timepieces would appear more visible. Unfortunately, those women licked the tips of their brushes in order to shape their bristles to a point. Instead of glowing smiles, they developed various radium-induced bone diseases and deformities.

Thankfully, by the 1930s this occupational hazard was eliminated with the introduction of phosphorescent paints. Comparatively, smartwatches are safer, unless users consider the third world conflict materials that go into the production of all our electronics: the tin, tantalum, and tungsten which have been referred to as the “new blood diamonds” that our insatiable desire for technologies has spawned. Screen resolution is today’s version of swallowing pixels instead of poisons.

I admit I’m part of the problem, an electronic gadget freak, always curious about the next innovation. I wouldn’t be surprised if the half-life of our culture’s obsession with all things electronic far exceeds the mere 1,600 years of radium-226, a drop in the pond long after my little Pebble smartwatch will have made its ripple and turned relic.

David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist, and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See his works at http://feelasophy.weebly.com/.