Wristwatches and knowing your neighbors; so out they’re in?

November 19, 2014 at 9:55 AM Leave a comment

I recently gave my daughter an old watch I found while cleaning out a drawer. It was a plain-looking Bulova, with a small face and a black strap.   “Cool!” she said. “You know, it’s so convenient, just looking at your wrist when you want to know the time, rather than reaching for your phone.”

Whether you find that funny or not depends on your generation. In my generation, we find that ironic and humorous, because it seems so obvious.   But for my daughter’s generation, it’s a novel thought. Everything old is new again.

It occurs to me that geographically-based communities might be similar, so retro that they become cool again. The great American obsession with mobility as a measure of status seems to be waning for my daughter’s generation. I was sitting next to a flight attendant “deadheading” on a flight back to Denver recently, and she lamented that the glamor days of air travel are long gone. She missed the days when people dressed up to fly, replaced now by folks in shorts and flip-flops. For my generation like so many before it, transportation implied luxury, the more exotic the better.

I also recently stayed at a resort that had a car museum on site, and an exclusive car club where members could store their expensive toys in an arid climate. I would bet that most members are older (as are many of the cars!). But for my daughter’s generation, many don’t intend to own a car, and getting a driver’s license, once a rite of passage for the American Graffiti generation, is now simply a hassle reluctantly undertaken.   Car2Go and Uber will do just fine, thanks, until driverless Google cars come around!

What does this have to do with health? The car was once a symbol of independence, and the ability to control one’s own time. But as it became commonplace, the downsides of that device have come to light. Many in their 20s are viewing it as a commodity, to be consumed as needed, and not more than that.

Similarly, the Internet allowed us to find others by interest and worldview, irrespective of geography.  Once association was limited by an inability to travel; that faded with cars and planes. Then that trend accelerated with the ability to exchange information, even form community, without having to be in the same place.  How cool!  Today Skype and similar applications link us to others around the world, allowing us to see strife in the Middle East up close, and visit with our loved ones around the globe daily if we so choose. For a while, it seemed to me that geography was becoming irrelevant.

But the recent literature around health tells us that geography, when it comes to health, is anything but irrelevant. Indeed, one of the raging debates in my wonkosphere is whether to pay differently and/or to have different quality standards by neighborhood. The social determinants of health seem to be greatly influenced by what others around us are doing. Those with healthy lifestyles tend to seek out others with healthy lifestyles, and vice versa. Who you hang out with is more and more recognized as a large influence on behaviors, including those that affect health.

So maybe the geographic community, once so passé in the uber-mobile American society, maybe, just maybe, it’s making a comeback, like that old Bulova watch. Once thought to be obsolete, maybe it’s cool again to have neighborhoods where people know each other. Once the novelty of instant communication wears off and becomes something of a hassle like owning a car (I think I’m already there), maybe we’ll realize again that one of the best things for us is knowing the people next door.   The studies certainly seem to imply this. It may turn out that in the end that gadgets are cool, but ultimately we crave those things that just work: the time on our wrist, or communities where we say hi to one another on our morning walk.

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