Wristwatches and clocks that can predict when you’ll die became quite popular last yearThere’s a Swedish wristwatch called Tikker that retails for $59.99.  The Tikker is also known as “The Death Watch”.

https://mytikker.com/collections/tikker
The Death Watch © 2017, Tikker Watch

The Tikker was designed by a cheerful Swede called Fredrik Colting and it operates like a digital life expectancy chart, but it’s on your wrist.  Before starting the watch you calculate your life expectancy using the usual questions (exercise, weight, smoking, drinking, cancer, age of parents at death, how often you read Psychology Today, and so on).  You feed the result of the questionnaire into the watch and it calculates how long you’ve got before you take the trip up Boot Hill.  The advertisement for the timer explains, “the top row of the watch's digital display shows years, months and days, while the second row counts down hours, minutes and seconds. The bottom row shows the local time.”

Why would anyone market such a strange wristband? Fredrik Colting observes, “The occurrence of death is no surprise to anyone, but in our modern society we rarely talk about it. I think that if we were more aware of our own expiration I'm sure we'd make better choices while we are alive.”  Tell that to Woody Allen.

Later in 2016 a bedside version of Tikker, that was called “28”, went, if not viral, at least onto the market.   Taking its name from the 28,000 days that are, approximately, the number of days in the average human life span of 76 years, the simple task of “28” is audibly to remind you, as you wake, how many of your 28,000 are still waiting.  Marketed by a crowd sourced Californian company called Seize The Day, for $49 this alarming alarm will remind you each morning that you're letting your life slip away. 

“28” and “The Death Watch” aim respond not just to death but also to the tendency of most sensible humans to procrastinate.  Fredrik Colting believes such timewasting can best be remedied by a shot of reality – or mortality. The clock will cure us, I mean me especially, of this pointless squandering of time.

There’s nothing new under the sun.  I am not referring here to my penchant for procrastination, but to the appearance of a similar timepiece in ancient Rome where I earn my living.  It shows up in the Roman novel, the Satyricon, by Petronius. At the beginning of\n the central section of this novel, called Trimalchio’s Banquet, we learn that, in the millionaire Trimalchio’s dining room, you’ll find a clock (maybe a water-clock).  It tells how much life Trimalchio has left and presumably urges him to get going.  To emphasize the point, next to the water clock, is a well-dressed trumpeter who lets forth timely horn blasts which notify the millionaire how much remains of his thirty years, four months and two days.

What a difference a year can make.  I thought that this strange enthusiasm for cognitive clocks would end with “28” and the “the Death Watch”.  But that isn’t the case.  On Feb 7, 2017 it was reported in the The Times that a research team from the MIT used a wristband – something that looks and acts a bit like an Apple Watch – and built in sensors to record the wearer’s “heart rate, blood pressure, blood flow, temperature and movement.” The wristwatch even made “audio recordings to analyze pitch, energy levels and vocabulary.”  This clever item, a psychological Fitbit you could say, noted the wearer’s speech, hesitations, monotone delivery, fidgeting, and even when the wristwatch was brought up close to the wearer’s face.  The MIT team reckoned that these signals can “differentiate between happy, sad and neutral, but some versions could also tell whether your delivery is boring or awkward.” 

Job interviews or dates could benefit from this sort of information.  Provided that the watch did not bark out “you are being very boring now”.  I believe that this clever little instrument buzzes or vibrates if you are becoming gloomy or boring.  I hope it does this quietly.  A buzz could ruin a date.

It could ruin things in other ways too.  The MIT designers claim, “the consequences of misreading emotional intent can be severe, particularly in high-stakes social situations such as salary negotiations or job interviews.”  Maybe the watch might help in a “high-stakes social situation”.  On the other hand, empathetic people, who are often good at dates and interviews and pay rises, have a tendency to accommodate their speech, their gestures and even their vocabulary to their audience.  Put them in front of a very boring person or a very boring audience, and they’re liable to tone down their delivery to the same level.  They might set off the MIT wristwatch for entirely the wrong reason. I wonder if the MIT team can build this into their algorithm?

But maybe I am underestimating the sophistication of the MIT watch.  The designers suggest that “For those afflicted by chronic social disabilities such as Asperger’s syndrome [or autism], the inability to read subtle cues can lead to a variety of negative consequences, from social isolation to depression.”  The designers insist that the watch “could help people with conditions such as autism who have difficulty reading emotional cues.”   It might go the other way as well of course. 

Am I being too pessimistic in thinking that Tikker, “28” and the MIT watch (and Trimalchio’s water-clock) won’t do much for procrastination and for being a bore?  Here’s another possibility.  What if the MIT watch and the Tikker were networked?  They could be linked up to your Tinder account and usefully pass on your monthly rating for how boring or unboring you’ve been.  This information might be as sexually vital for potential mates as a photo.  Just imagine if you could get a rating of “only 10% boring for July” on your Tinder account. Perhaps you could do the same things with you responses to Tikker.  Here you’d have a cast-iron way of displaying your firm character: you really do know how to make the most out of a day.

About the Author

Peter Toohey

Peter Toohey, Ph.D., is a professor of classics at the University of Calgary, Canada, and the author of Jealousy and Boredom: A Lively History.

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