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Monday, February 26, 2007

Of Digital Watches and Velcro Shoes

(First posted to Sudden Technology 08-14-06)

Shoes and watches? The common aspect is fashion versus function - one of my favorite topics. Technology advances in fits and starts. Every now and then human nature perverts the technology, and society at large fails to gain the benefit.

Here's how it happens.

Certain technical discoveries are definite, verifiable advancements. They are simply better ways of doing things. The old ways can't be defended on any objective basis. Any attempt is simple rationalization.

On introduction, these advancements get a lot of attention, but then go through a period of being ignored. It's as if cultural inertia requires it to "pay it's dues" in some way.

Or is it a perverse backlash because of how well the new way works? No. It's about price. Social acceptance seems to have an inverse correlation with the cost of the technology. As long as it's expensive, it's cool. In any case, this reticence is driven by what I consider an illogical human behavior - fashion.

The digital watch is one good example. Hewlett Packard introduced the HP-01 digital watch in 1977 and it got lots of press. OK, at six ounces and $650, it didn't sell very well, but it DID get people thinking about new ways of keeping time. Soon digital watches were FAR more accurate, reliable, smaller, lighter and cheaper than analog watches.

Cheaper was the death knell. At first digital watches were cool. But that didn't last long. Once their price fell below that of analog watches, they weren't cool any more.

Watches are no longer a matter of function. They had become a medium of fashion. And "cheap" flies in the face of fashion. When you couldn't use a digital watch to show off how much money you had, you had to find a watch that did. Humans are such strange creatures.

To be fair, in the last few years more of the expensive watches have added little digital versions on the analog face - talk about wasted complexity!

In any case, soon there were $6 digital watches in blister packs at WalMart. Even the better, more functional ones were rarely seen on an adult wrist. If you DO see one, you know you've found a true geek. I wore one for years until I got the watch function in my pedometer.

OK, there was some argument about it being easier to read hands than numbers at a glance, but the argument doesn't stand up considering the typical cryptic analog watch dial. The truth is, digital just isn't cool anymore. It doesn't cost enough.

The same thing happened with Velcro shoes. When they were first introduced, I was amazed at the advancement. Here were laces you could literally apply during those groggy first moments after waking - and still get a perfect fit. Not only that, they were simpler, lighter and didn't come lose - and that was no small advancement.

At the time I was training and running marathons. Until then I my laces would come lose at least once during any long run. I've even had strings come lose when DOUBLE-KNOTTED!

So when Velcro came along, I was in heaven. They were a little more expensive at first, but I didn't care. They were worth it. I had several pair. Technology is WONDERFUL!

Then the price fell. They were quicker and cheaper to make. Velcro was no longer cool. What was worse, they became hard to find. For a while the only Velcro shoes available were from Sears. They were all white and looked like some kind of medical shoes.

The best running shoes also dropped Velcro. Or if they used Velcro at all, it was some useless extra-weight over-strap. This was frustrating. I like good shoes for running because of the hours of pounding my feet take. Velcro was relegated to cheap shoes with poor support. I was forced to go back to old-fashion laces. I actually thought about sewing on Velcro but never got around to it - good one-off design can be VERY expensive.

Finally Sears dropped the white Velcro shoes and I had to resort to the bottom shelf at WalMart, where you can still get Velcro shoes - for $9.87; which is of course the problem. Still, this is better than nothing. I use them for short walks and around the house. But it's a rare geek indeed to follow MY fashion.

Velcro shoes became SO unfashionable, my wife (now ex - could THIS have been a factor?) was embarrassed to be seen with me. Since the Velcro tabs were SO easy to deal with, it seems these shoes had become identified with little old ladies in nursing homes. This was taboo as far as fashion is concerned.

Cause for divorce or not, here it was again. Technology perverted by fashion because of some herding aspect of human behavior. One certainly wouldn't want to be associated with an old lady who couldn't tie her shoes.

Except for me. I'm still no slave to fashion. Besides, someone has to carry the torch until the best of technology finds it's widest distribution. You can tie (and re-tie) old-fashion shoe laces all you want.

I'll continue to wear my nursing home shoes and pedometer digital watch.

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