This column first appeared in the January 19, 2020 PRINT edition of The Vindicator and Tribune-Chronicle newspapers:
Star Trek Capt. James T. Kirk had amazing technology at his fingertips.
Cloaking devices and holodecks were cool, but they didn’t seem nearly as cool and accessible for my little 9-year-old brain as the wrist communicator.
I wanted that wrist communicator, but we didn’t have much money for toys. So like most kids, I improvised by drawing a band around my wrist that resembled Captain Kirk’s device.
To be fair, I didn’t jump on the Star Trek fan train until the first movies were produced in the late 1970s and ’80s. Wrist communicators weren’t really a “thing” in the TV series.
Diehard Trekkies (aka, “real” Star Trek fans) wax poetic about flip-phone-like communicators used by Kirk and crew. Those were the stalwart Starfleet communication devices.
They were also the creative precursor to the modern day smartphone.
Like other Star Trek tech, it’s easy to point to those early images and think, “Wow, that really looks like (fill-in-the-blank)…” technology that we use today.
This is absolutely true of the wrist communicator.
In science fiction lore, wrist tech predates 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” Clearly, authors and artists have been thinking for a long time about what this device would look like or do.
Even famous comic book detective Dick Tracy sported a two-way radio on his wrist.
Fast-forward to 2019, and it seems the wrist communicator has found a real life home in our technology toolbox.
Last week, the Pew Research Center reported that one-in-five U.S. adults wear a smart watch or wearable fitness tracker.
Or at least they say they do.
That last part is important. While it’s interesting to learn that more of us are using devices on a regular basis, most say they’re using wrist tech to track fitness goals.
It’s also important to note that Pew collected this data last summer and not last week, right after the start of the New Year, when many people launch new fitness and weight loss goals.
Some people may have received new wrist tech for the holidays. So, if Pew had collected this data on Jan. 1, their results may have been skewed a bit higher (as in, more than one-in-five saying they regularly use these devices).
Pew’s research also revealed some limitations people have to adopting this tech.
“As is true with many other forms of digital technology, use of these devices varies substantially by socioeconomic factors,” said Emily Vogels, Pew research associate.
“Around three-in-ten Americans living in households earning $75,000 or more a year (31 percent) say they wear a smart watch or fitness tracker on a regular basis, compared with 12 percent of those whose annual household income falls below $30,000.”
Vogels also noted differences in terms of educational background. College graduates adopt wrist devices at higher rates than those who have a high school education or less.
Pew’s study focused on adoption of this tech or fitness, so it’s still unclear how many are actually using their wrist devices to communicate–with other human beings.
While we create and adopt tech from our science fiction past, it’s clear that we have yet to see its full potential. But based on our use of these new technologies, we’re getting closer to using it in way that would make Captain Kirk proud.
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is special assistant to the provost and professor of communication in the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA where he also directs the graduate program in professional communication. He researches and writes on a variety of topics including communication technologies, relationships, and sports (with an emphasis on fandom). His work has appeared in Mahoning Matters as well as The Vindicator and Tribune-Chronicle newspapers.