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Misinterpreting Douglas Adams: Digital watches were a pretty neat idea.

My first watch was digital. I was probably nine or ten, and the watch was a black Casio with a dashed line around the face in alternating green and blue. My brother and I would race to find each other whenever we noticed the hour was about to change, so that we could watch the watch digits all change at once. Needless to say, the changes from 9:59:59 to 10:00:00 and 12:59:59 to 1:00:00 were especially thrilling[⁉︎].

I’d learnt how to read an analogue clock, of course, but not fluently. To me, reading an analogue clock was akin to reading Roman numerals: a quirky, difficult system from long ago. Some analogue clocks even had the hours in Roman numerals. Some had no numbers at all. Some such watches only seemed to exist to give men a socially acceptable way to wear bracelets. Telling time was clearly not a priority.

So when I read in the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy that humans were “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea,” I naturally assumed it was because intelligent life forms had invented them so long ago that digital watches had about as much chance of being described as a ‘neat idea’ as the wheel. Digital watches are too simple an invention for anyone to find interesting. These days, almost everything has a digital clock built in, so the most important thing about a digital watch is a strong strap to keep it conveniently on the wrist.

A Casio digital watch displaying Sunday, 3 August, at 13:37:59 daylight savings time, set against a backdrop of The Ultimate Hitchhikers' GuideA few digital watches and a grudge against fragile watch straps and lost pins later, I moved to Switzerland, and when my watch strap broke or fell off I felt obliged to check out some of the famous Swiss watches. I was baffled by the evidence that not only did humans still think digital watches were a pretty neat idea, they also still thought analogue ones were. The only Swiss digital watches with good straps I could find had skeuomorphic round faces, or lacked such basic features as seconds, dates, or a light. I get it: the Swiss are proud of how precise they can be with tiny gears. But it’s the third millennium; get with the timepieces!

As Swiss innovations go, I prefer milk chocolate and Velcro. I found a Casio dealer and bought a solar-powered, waterproof, digital watch that synchronises daily with an atomic clock using radio waves and has a well-attached metal strap. It will stay on my wrist and display precisely the right time in plain digits, indefinitely with no intervention whatsoever, for less than the price of a piece of Swiss jewellery that doesn’t even have numbers on it. A fall onto concrete gave it some sparkly cracks in one corner, but it is still waterproof and functional many years and no battery changes or time adjustments later.

Unhappy with the hypothesis that most of the human race was more concerned with adding respectability to their diamond bracelets than with locating themselves in spacetime, I had to eventually accept that there was something people liked about analogue watches. Just as there must be something great about shoelaces that keeps Earthbound people using them even after the invention of Velcro, and even though Back to the Future fans know that by 2015 we shouldn’t still be tying them.

The thought crept up on me that maybe Douglas Adams didn’t like digital watches at all. Maybe he didn’t think they were ever a pretty neat idea. I thought about this for a few years, gradually becoming less and less sure that my initial interpretation was the correct one. Eventually, I looked it up:

So there you have it. Douglas Adams liked pie charts. I like pie charts too, but after the first glance I will look for the labels with exact percentages, and be frustrated if they aren’t there. For me, a word can be worth a thousand pictures, and a number can be worth a poorly-defined number of words.

As he says, digital watches have improved since then. I don’t need to put down my suitcase to press a button on my watch, unless it’s either dark and I need to turn the watch light on, or it’s recently been dark and the watch turned off its display to save power. In fact, my suitcase has four wheels (wheels! Now, aren’t they a neat idea?) so I never have to pick it up to begin with; I just give it a push occasionally while I stroll along, reading the time like a frood.

Reader participation alert:

Did you interpret the statement about digital watches the same way I did? If not, how did you interpret it, and how did it mesh with your own opinion on digital watches?

[⁉︎] If you think you’ve grown out of such primitive excitement, try watching the hour change on this clock made of planks of wood and rearranged manually by construction workers. The website only delivers one image at a time, now, so you’d have to refresh a lot to get a video effect there, but they sell an iOS app which will show you video, the Lite version of which has the transition from 9:59 to 10:00.

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