I am a child of the future. When I was young the future was going to be great! In fact every few years they held World’s Fairs to tell us about the future (and show us quaint glimpses of distant peoples and big corporations).
One of the perennial staples of this future was the Picturephone. (Notice, only one uppercase letter in the name, we were more tasteful then.)
AT&T spent many millions of dollars on it, and it failed. They persisted, but it failed.
I did once get to try a real Picturephone. There was a bank in downtown Minneapolis that had a fancy corner spot with a very early model ATM. In addition to the ATM, there was an AT&T Picturephone on which one could talk to a human teller, and I tried it out. The teller was very nice, I could see her, she could see me, it was cool. We didn’t have much to talk about, so it was a short conversation.
Now it is here. Yes, it has been here for awhile (Skype, for example) but I mostly never got around to making video phone calls because it was not really that compelling. That was one of AT&T’s problems: Cool at it was, was a Picturephone really good for anything? Good enough to justify the bother and expense? No, it was not even worth the desk space. Certainly not worth the confusion. And don’t even think about the toll charges that would have been necessary circa 1970.
But this morning I was doing a video chat between Boston and Los Angeles, in living color, on speaker (itself something from the future), and my mind was blown away to contemplate it.
Nexus 7 Tablet
The goll-darn future was finally sitting on my kitchen table!
For a geezer like me, who was raised on the future, to compare the promise with the reality, was stunning.
Amazing quality, easy to use, and free. That last part, free, is a really big point. No, a Nexus 7 is not free, nor are the wifi access points in my house (need more than one, need good coverage at home!), nor the DSL service to connect me to the internet. It all costs a lot, but this infrastructure is there for other reasons. Doing video calls is just a side-feature, so it gets to ride along for free. I might go for months before I have occasion to make another video call, so it is a good thing I don’t need to use video chatting as the justification for all this expense.
The Future Isn’t What it Used To Be
So much of The Future that was shown at all those World’s Fairs was technically doable, but somehow not practical and stubbornly resistant to becoming reality. Consider the robots that would soon clean our houses. Now, 40+ years after the heyday of The Future, the best we have along these lines is the Roomba!? The Future has resisted happening.
Yet, that doesn’t mean the world hasn’t changed over these years.
The World’s Fairs had computers, but they were oddly off to the side. Something to marvel at, but outside of business and science, not obviously useful.
I remember as a teenager learning about early hobby computers and realizing that a computer was a universal machine that could do anything! Well, anything that had to do with well defined logical operations, but still, what else is there!? (I was a geek.)
Industrial vs Information Age
The clichés about how the information age changed the world are true. (Does anyone still remember the “information age”?) But the way it changed the world wasn’t by just using electronics to build new single-purpose appliances, that was an industrial age perspective. No, it was by taking advantage of the universal properties of storing, transforming, and transporting information. (Miniaturization, plunging costs and power consumption, and increased speed were also important.)
Consider the cell phone. It started out as a carphone. Your house had a phone line, your work had a phone line, so for fancy people, why not get a phone “line” installed in between, in your car? Cool! But, powerful as that was, it wasn’t worth it for most people. Over a few years (thanks to miniaturization et al) the phones shrunk until they could fit in a purse or even pocket. They became less specialized (more general purpose) and so more compelling. People, not locations, started to have phone numbers. It was big. But kind of only the warm-up act.
Enter the “smartphone”. By putting a powerful computer in your pocket instead of just a telephone, things really change. Yes, my Galaxy Nexus is an impressive “phone”.
I use it constantly. But I hardly ever talk on it.
What do I use it for? Everything! Well, Twitter, but lots of other stuff, too.
It is a “transistor radio”, camera, weather station, pocketwatch, newspaper, shelf of paperback books, atlas and world-wide street map, impressive reference library, wire-service news printer, stock ticker and trading terminal, calculator, flashlight, compass, artificial horizon (really: fly your small plane in bad weather), “cassette player”, calendar, address book, chess set, somewhat odd TV set, mail order catalog, bus and plane schedule, airplane arrival screen, GPS receiver (for you time travelers from 1970: “GPS” is a really fancy version of LORAN or Omega; it uses satellites!), constellation/sky map, dictionary, notepad, magazine rack, (small screen) movie player, video recorder, audio recorder, restaurant directory and reservation making machine, credit card, real estate directory, alarm clock, and more.
It does e-mail. And, as long as I have it with me anyway, it will do video calls.
But sometimes I go for days without actually talking on this “telephone” of mine.
It is the general-purpose nature of this device that makes it compelling. Most of the things it can do would not be worth putting my pocket, not alone, but the fact that it can do all that stuff, all from the same pocket, that is what makes it worth it.
The teenage geek in me was right, computers can do anything, particularly if you give them really cool sensors and many, many billions of dollars worth of support infrastructure, installed all around the world.
Before we all forget about the “information age”, stop to realize it happened, it is here. No, you didn’t get a flying car (probably not a pony either), but an astounding change has come over our lives and I think it is damn cool.