This picture came to mind while reading a recent New York Times article about how smart phones are pushing digital cameras to pasture. I’m not exactly sure how I made the jump from smart-phones to Dick Tracy watches, but I’ll try to sort it out here.
The thing about the Dick Tracy two-way communicator (basically, a phone) watch is not necessarily the device itself, but what the device represents. Introduced in 1946, the device represents a forward-thinking concept: an on-the-go phone, conveniently incorporated into one of the most important pieces of a person’s wardrobe: the watch.
It’s the incorporation (read: “convergence”) of the phone to the watch that’s interesting. It underscores the importance of time to wartime (and post-war) America.
Neil Postman notes that with each dominant technology comes the bias that shapes all other technologies around it. With the watch-phone, we imagined technologies (and, in a sense, society) through the lens of time.
What are some of the biases of time? Punctuality is rewarded, tardiness is punished (or worse, “rude”). We show up on time not for our sake, but for the sake of those waiting on us. As part of a community, we need to make the most of our time. Making sure things happen on time is the purpose for doing them in the first place.
Time, though, is a two-edged sword, since we can become slaves to time. Technology giveth and technology taketh away (Postman, again).
Now, fast-forward to today’s convergence technology: the smart-phone. Not only is it a camera, it is also a watch. Not many people I know wear a watch anymore. So what are the biases of the smart-phone? We’re still sorting them out, but ease and convenience come to mind. It is also an individualistic device in a way that is distinctly different from the watch-phone.
Time is not as important as being able to be contacted, since time (the watch) is incorporated into a dominant device (the phone). Time is a casualty to social/individual concerns.
The Dick Tracy view America has flipped: instead of our devices linked to time, our time is linked to devices. And that, indeed, is a two-edged sword.