A moment of digital wristwatch nostalgia

Posted on 18 Apr 2011 02:24

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One of the fun parts of growing up in the 1970s and 1980s was the development of wristwatch culture. Wristwatches were one of the last great bursts of popular modernism before the end of the Cold War ushered in an irreversible turn toward postmodern aesthetics and values.

It seems faintly ridiculous now, but there was an era when digital watches were an object of real cultural significance. Early LED watches in the 1970s were a radical statement of high technology—bringing the digital revolution into the intimate personal sphere. They were a fashion statement for the hip but sophisticated man (watches then, just as now, were overwhelmingly a guy thing) and they were very expensive. As LEDs became cheaper, they became more popular, and the transition to LCD triggered a stampede of mass consumer wristwatch culture. My own first watch was a Star Wars LED watch, which I'm sure I got for my birthday in 1978. I owned at least a dozen digital watches over the following decade, most of which were increasingly elaborate specimens of the Casio or Armitron variety. My father, big nerd that he was, had even more exotic examples of Citizens and Seikos.

I think for many people, these objects represented an accessible means to dismiss the recent past as boring and obsolete, and therefore irrelevant. A lot of baggage accumulated in the 1950s and 60s that people wanted to put behind them. It was Morning in America. Digital watches helped us bury the lumbering old institutional modernism of the Space Age with the liberating new modernism of the Computer Age. Away from an Old Europe and toward a New Japan. Technology would still save us, but now it was all about the personal. These things corresponded with the development of other consumer digital technology like video games and personal computers. It was all new and it all reinforced a new common culture of technological renaissance.

If all this sounds improbable, understand that watches played an equivalent role in consumer culture as mobile phones do today. I'm sure we'll look back on our preoccupation with elaborate phones with similar smirking amusement some day.

By the early-to-mid 80s, complex multi-function watches became the dominant form. Alarms and chronographs were a baseline of functionality. Better models had monthly calendars, multiple time zones, thermometers, computer interfaces, and all manner of obscure features, finally culminating in the infamous video game and calculator watches that became the stereotype of 1980s geekery.

But in the mid-80s two other trends appeared that would prove disruptive to wristwatch evolution. New hybrid analog/digital designs seemed to introduce a renewed sophistication to popular watch aesthetics. You could have the classic elegance of an analog dial and complex modern functionality all at the same time. It seemed to be an admission that style still mattered and that the ancient art of the timepiece delivered beauty most convincingly. The other trend was the emergence of Swatch and the idea of the plastic disposable fashion watch. In contrast to the increasingly sterile black plastic attitude of Japanese watches, Swatch represented the frivolity and carefully cultivated shallowness of 80s teen culture (Bueller…Bueller…). The Swatch and ana-digi trends lasted a few years in a typical fashion arc, but the end result was both a return to more traditional watch design and a decline of interest in watches in general.

Late 1980s and early 1990s cultures broadly turned away from technology and modernity as a source of inspiration for fashion. The digital watch, once savior, itself became an object of anachronistic scorn. The Grunge era kicked the neon Hair Rockers out of school. A creeping neo-urbanism and the decadent nostalgia of the Baby Boomers became the new animating forces of cultural expression, until slowly a new technological utopia of the Internet Age began to take root with the approach of the New Millenium…


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