Masters of one of the world’s most revered forms of analog craftsmanship take on the smartwatch. ... Swiss watchmaking emerged from a radically different background, one rooted in meticulous manual labor. The industry got its start in the 16th century after John Calvin persuaded the City Council in Geneva to impose sumptuary laws banning jewelry, and the city’s skilled jewelers joined forces with the makers of pocket watches instead. Later, French Catholics chased Protestant Huguenots out of their country; many of these French exiles happened to be watchmakers, and they settled in Switzerland. In the mountains of the Jura region, they encountered local farmers who spent half the year indoors and idle and who turned out to be extremely patient and detail-oriented. The émigrés hired them to spend their winters hand-polishing tiny metal components for the “movements,” the watch’s spring-driven inner workings. ... By the 20th century, Swiss watches had become famous for their reliability and complexity. They are also marvels of energy efficiency, because dozens or even hundreds of components depend on tiny wound springs for power. Each new “complication” — say, a calendar that advances the date with a satisfying snap at midnight — demanded a new set of gears and more energy, thus requiring ever more clever compensations. A mechanical watch is both a dance with and a fight against physics.
Ten years ago, high tech observers complained that the nation didn’t have enough bold innovators. There were, of course, wildly profitable high tech firms, but they rarely took creative risks and mostly just mimicked Silicon Valley: Baidu was a replica of Google, Tencent a copy of Yahoo, JD a version of Amazon. Young Chinese coders had programming chops that were second to none, but they lacked the drive of a Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. The West Coast mantra—fail fast, fail often, the better to find a hit product—seemed alien, even dangerous, to youths schooled in an educational system that focused on rote memorization and punished mistakes. Graduates craved jobs at big, solid firms. The goal was stability: Urban China had only recently emerged from decades of poverty, and much of the countryside was still waiting its turn to do so. Better to keep your head down and stay safe. ... That attitude is vanishing now. It’s been swept aside by a surge in prosperity, bringing with it a new level of confidence and boldness in the country’s young urban techies. ... higher education soared sevenfold: 7 million graduated college this year. The result is a generation both creative and comfortable with risk-taking. ... Anyone with a promising idea and some experience can find money. Venture capitalists pumped a record $15.5 billion into Chinese startups last year, so entrepreneurs are being showered in funding, as well as crucial advice and mentoring from millionaire angels. ... Even the Chinese government—which has a wary attitude toward online expression and runs a vast digital censorship apparatus—has launched a $6.5 billion fund for startups.
Since its release seven years ago, Minecraft has become a global sensation, captivating a generation of children. There are over 100 million registered players, and it’s now the third-best-selling video game in history, after Tetris and Wii Sports. In 2014, Microsoft bought Minecraft — and Mojang, the Swedish game studio behind it — for $2.5 billion. ... There have been blockbuster games before, of course. But as Jordan’s experience suggests — and as parents peering over their children’s shoulders sense — Minecraft is a different sort of phenomenon. ... For one thing, it doesn’t really feel like a game. It’s more like a destination, a technical tool, a cultural scene, or all three put together: a place where kids engineer complex machines, shoot videos of their escapades that they post on YouTube, make art and set up servers, online versions of the game where they can hang out with friends. It’s a world of trial and error and constant discovery, stuffed with byzantine secrets, obscure text commands and hidden recipes. And it runs completely counter to most modern computing trends. ... Minecraft culture is a throwback to the heady early days of the digital age. In the late ’70s and ’80s, the arrival of personal computers like the Commodore 64 gave rise to the first generation of kids fluent in computation. They learned to program in Basic, to write software that they swapped excitedly with their peers. It was a playful renaissance that eerily parallels the embrace of Minecraft by today’s youth. ... Today it costs $27 and sells 10,000 copies a day. (It’s still popular across all age groups; according to Microsoft, the average player is between 28 and 29, and women make up nearly 40 percent of all players.)