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A Short History of Gadget Hate

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

(Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

If smartwatches become an object of public scorn, there will be plenty of precedent. Wearable technology has been upsetting people for years. Let’s start in the 19th century …

The watch itself. 
Glancing at even a “dumb” analog watch in midconversation can annoy others. As Cecil B. Hartley counseled in his 1875 tome The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness: “It is ill-bred to put on an air of weariness during a long speech from another person and quite as rude to look at a watch.”

(Such conduct can also be career-limiting if done on television; think of President George H.W. Bush checking his watch during a 1992 town-hall debate.)

The Walkman. 
The makers of Sony’s portable music device were sufficiently worried about it being seen as antisocial that they shipped the debut model with two headphone jacks. And then people got angry about the music being played on these things, as seen in philosophy professor Allan Bloom’s tirade against the Walkman in his 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind:

“Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. … A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents.”

(That 13-year-old boy would now be a 40-year-old man, so if he’s ever going to wreck the American republic as Bloom predicted, he’d best get on with it.)

The cellphone. 
Hearing other people’s phone conversations can be annoying, so much that Amtrak tried designating one car on some trains as a no-phone-calls “Quiet Car” in 2000 and now offers Quiet Cars on six lines

In 2003, New York City enacted a ban on phone use in theaters over Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s veto. Nineteen months later, Councilman Philip Reed, the sponsor of that bill, told The New York Times that it was unenforceable in practice but still worked to “embolden the community.”

Individual theaters don’t need a law to kick out offending phone users — as one art-house cinema did when it publicly banned Madonna from the premises after she kept on texting during a screening of 12 Years a Slave.

I agree that too-loud phone conversations are annoying. In 2003 the design firm IDEO came up with a novel solution: a “social mobile” prototype that, as described by The Economist, “gives its user a mild electric shock, depending on how loudly the person at the other end is speaking. This encourages both parties to speak more quietly, otherwise the mild tingling becomes an unpleasant jolt.”

If a phone manufacturer can figure out a way to amplify this electroshock therapy when people insist on using phones in public restrooms, I’m all for it.

The iPod. 
If being able to listen to a 50-minute tape on a Walkman could make you antisocial, how about having a thousand songs in your pocket? Apple’s music player and its iconic white headphones put a generation of people in their own musical worlds, and not everyone has been happy about that. For example, the organizers of many running races banned headphones, even if those rules have often been ignored in practice

But sometimes an MP3 player can help you shut out external noise. As etiquette expert Liz Wyse told the BBC in 2011: “An iPod is a brilliant thing on trains. Otherwise you’re forced to listen to people’s loud conversations on their mobile phones.”

Google Glass. 
This Saturday Night Live sketch says so much about Google’s experiment in voice-driven, face-mounted computing, doesn’t it?

Finally, smartwatches.
We are only now learning if smartwatches will eventually become as acceptable as standard wristwatches, or as intrusive as smart glasses.

Read More: Smartwatch Etiquette: We’re Making It Up as We Go.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.