As technology changes, so do our means of communication; as they change, so do our relationships, and those relationships define who we are, how we live in society, and the culture we build around us.
A gross over-simplification, of course, but that seems to be the gist of the articles I have been reading recently. Tomorrow I will share some thoughts about my own experiences with the telephone, but for today, I would like to recommend this article from latest issue of The Wilson Quarterly. In “The Call of the Future,” Tom Vanderbilt compares the changes brought about by the telephone and by the Internet. If you have time, the whole article is worth reading!
Before probing into the future of voice telephony, and the idea that we find it ever easier to do without it, we need to ask a simpler question, one that turns out to be curiously relevant to current discussions of the impact and role of a communication technology such as the Internet in our lives: What was the telephone call?
When it is introduced, a new technology typically sets in motion a now familiar script. At first, the technology is deemed to have little import or to fulfill only very specific, limited uses. Consider, for example, this casual dismissal by The New York Times in 1939: “The problem with television is that people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it.”
Next, as the technology’s true uses come into view, but before it is widely adopted, come the grandiose pronouncements, both pro and con, on how it will reshape society. In The Last Lone Inventor (2002), Evan Schwartz noted that television inventor Philo T. Farnsworth thought television would engender world peace: “If we were able to see people in other countries and learn about our differences, why would there be any misunderstandings? War would be a thing of the past.”
And then, as prices come down and the technology continues to improve, people simply buy the thing (which, it turns out, has fulfilled neither the utopian nor apocalyptic scenarios ascribed to it), and like a persistent rainfall refilling a dry desert lakebed, over time it so thoroughly permeates everyday life that we no longer pause to think about its presence, or indeed what might have once lain beneath the shimmering surface.
The telephone fits comfortably into this schema. It arrived on the historical stage in 1876 without invitation or clear mass desire. Yet there it was, a device harboring a radical change: For the first time, people could converse in real time at a distance. But what to do with it? As sociologist Claude Fischer observed in America Calling (1992), businessmen, who relied on letters and the telegraph to transmit important and often complex information, were initially skeptical of the telephone….
We have been fretting about the phone for years, even as it has moved closer and closer to us—once relegated to the back hallway, “between the dirty linen hamper and the gasometer,” as in Benjamin’s day, now in our back pocket. But it is difficult to say, as it seems to be morphing once more as a cultural form, whether the telephone has profoundly changed us in any way…
I am so grateful and excited by the opportunities the Internet provides to read from journals, newspapers and magazines to which I never had access before, right here at home, at my comfortable desk, with a coffee at hand and my little dog asleep at my feet. There is also a telephone to my right, a television with DVD equipment to my left, and my sewing equipment at the other end of the room. There are ten phalenopsis orchids in full bloom on the windowsill! And I can even see these beautiful computer generated fractals at the touch of a button. Astonishing!
There may be much wrong with the modern world and the way we live, much to be concerned about as we look to the future. But this seems just about perfect! I feel so fortunate to be here, in this time and place!