Sunday, April 26, 2009

American Icons

I was reading a magazine the other day that had a review about a new book marking the 100th anniversary of the Ford Model T. This car surely has become an American icon of the automobile industry (truly the Good Old Days in light of recent events). I got to thinking about what made the Model T an Icon (definition: a thing regarded as a representative symbol of a class of products). The Model T was not the first American car. It was not the first factory-produced car, but it was the first to create the first mass market for automobiles. As the Model T penetrated people’s daily lives it became synonymous with the collective consciousness of that class of objects called cars. Icons are like that. They may not be the first invention in a new class but they become the short-hand for our mind’s eye. Often the very brand names of the product become generic to the whole class: Kleenex Tissues, Scotch Tape, Xerox copies. If asked, people will often be able to name the icon in a particular class of products. Here are some of my guesses:

Refrigerators: Frigidaire
Steamboats: Fulton’s Claremont
Electricity: Edison’s Lightbulb
Commercial Airliners: DC-3
Personal Music Device: Walkman
Personal Computer: Apple II
Sewing Machine: Singer
Tractor: John Deere

Not every product category has an icon, of course. Sometimes nothing dominates a category to the degree that it becomes the single representative of the entire class. Is there an iconic television, for example? Successful products tend to draw imitators and the choices quickly proliferate. This is one of the reasons that icons tend to be found early in the life cycle of a product category, before they are overwhelmed by imitators.

I was thinking of trying to collect even more iconic examples of American technology. I would also be interested to know what icons are emerging today? If you have any suggestions, I would appreciate your comments.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Streetcar Named Defunct

I came across this picture recently and it stopped me in my tracks. There is something about images like this that fill me with a sense of melancholy and nostalgia for a time I never even knew. This photo was taken in Los Angeles in 1956 as the Pacific Electric Railway streetcar line was being shut down and converted to buses. How ironic that a relatively clean mass transit technology was replaced by a highly polluting, fuel-consuming technology... in Los Angeles of all places!

Streetcars had been a major form of mass transit in most towns and cities since the late 1800’s. The perfecting of three things: the electric motor, the electric distribution grid, and the speed controller, made trolleys practical. The very word trolley as a synonym for streetcar comes from the system to connect the streetcar’s pole to the overhead power lines. Originally, on the end of the pole a small wheeled “troller” rode on the wire to make contact and transmit power to the streetcar. The troller frequently derailed from the overhead wire and it was time-consuming to reposition it again. The troller was soon replaced with a more reliable underwire system.

Streetcars were invented before the wide-spread availability of the automobile and the bus. Trollies changed the very nature of the city. It was now possible for people to live at a considerable distance from their jobs. The factories of the day were usually air polluters and most folks wanted to live in greener and quieter neighborhoods away from the noise and filth of the factories. In many ways, this was the precursor of the modern move to the suburbs. Residential areas began to be segregated from industrial areas. As more cities grew, more thoughtful planning became the norm.

While they were in the business of daily transportation, streetcar companies did all they could to increase ridership. This included building large amusement parks at the end of their lines to encourage people to ride their cars even on the weekends. Parks such as Palisades Park in New Jersey was built as a streetcar park in 1895 (you can see a long list of such parks on Wikipedia here). The trolley not only brought people to be amused, it became part of the cultural heritage in plays such as Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.

The streetcar faded during the forties and was all but gone by the mid-50’s. The demise of the trolley lines was brought on by the rapid rise in automobile ownership as well as the conversion of trolleys to bus lines. The success of converting cities from streetcars to buses was facilitated by the illegal consortium of General Motors, Firestone, Standard Oil, and others who worked through a front company called the National Car Lines to replace streetcars with buses. The consortium profited from the sales of their products to run the bus lines. But often, this changeover was welcomed by the locals because of the perception that the bus lines were more modern and convenient than the drafty old streetcars which had suffered from years of lack of maintenance. The streetcars were sent to the salvagers. A few streetcars were purchased by cities in other countries and continued to run successfully for many more years. You can still find streetcar tracks embedded in out-of-the-way roads in many cities.

But all of this is just background to my reactions to the photo. While this time the image was of streetcars, on another occasion it has been old cars rusting in a field or an abandoned canal or factory. What I think about is the pride of the builders when the technology was new. I can feel the pride of the community as it launched its new enterprise. I think about all that the technology promised for improving the future of the people of that day and age. And if often fulfilled those promises. But like everything else, the time for the technology came and went. All that was left were memories, old photos, and a feeling of being somehow diminished.

I wonder which technologies people will mourn fifty years from now? Will people think back nostalgically about their Blackberries or their iPods? Will people remember the Good Old Days of Web 2.0 and Twitter? I find it hard to believe but then I would guess my parents would never have thought anyone could miss the old streetcars. So it goes.

[Picture from the UCLA Archives. Taken at Terminal Island, Los Angeles on March 19, 1956 by the Los Angeles Times.]

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Staying Connected: Text, Audio, Video? Less is More

Our daughter is spending this year in Mali, Africa. Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world. The small town of Douentza in which she lives in is a 14 hour bus ride from the capital city of Bamako. Yet, even in Douentza we can talk to her by cellphone and she can e-mail from the local internet cafe to give us updates. Global communication is truly amazing. But the internet connection in Douentza is not broadband and is slow most of the time. It is not fast enough, for instance, to support real-time video conferences. So until just recently we hadn't seen our daughter's smiling face in months.

Last week, she went to Bamako on business. A colleague of our daughter who lives there has a high speed connection in her apartment and we were able to have a wonderful video conversation using Skype. Being able to see her while we talked gave us a much better feeling of how she was doing. Every parent knows the signs of stress in their kids and we could see that she was really doing quite well. The video added a special dimension to our regular phone conversations. With Skype on both ends, the whole conversation was free. When I stop and think about this even for a moment, it is amazing. I can talk to someone half a world away in real-time video at virtually no cost. The internet has changed our lives in so many ways we could not even imagine 15 years ago.

Video phones are a sci-fi novelty idea that has been around since I was a kid. I can remember seeing prototypes demonstrated on television that showed the Modern Family of the Future sitting at their video phones and talking like they were in the same room. AT&T actually tried to commercialize video phone service in several major cities in the 1970's but the costs were so high that the business was a flop. The equipment had limited capability, the network was expensive and proprietary, and the bandwidth for transmission was extremely limited. This was still a very primitive communication technology era. It would take another 25 years, low-cost, powerful microprocessors, and the world wide web to make the impractical possible.

The idea of being able to remotely see someone while talking to them is something that seems to have always caught the imagination. Wikipedia has an image of a picture phone that dates from 1910. With the advent of television, the video phone seemed to be just around the corner. Today, many cellphones are enabled for video conversations. The average laptop or desktop computer comes with a small video camera that allows web-based video conversations to take place easily. So why aren't video calls more popular? Why isn't everyone checking in via a video link with friends, family, and business colleagues?

But as we all know, it is not video that has become the ubiquitous mode of communication, it is text messaging. Every day while driving I will see some other driver who is busily punching out a message while keeping just half an eye on the road. Somehow, the need to text even while doing something that could get you killed has become a compelling need for so many. Why do people feel so compelled to be linked at every moment? Why not just talk rather than text? After all, texting requires you to type on a teeny-weeny keypad and use a shorthand language of abbreviations and emoticons. But in some ways, this seems to make texting more attractive rather than less.

The biggest advantages of texting is that it (1) doesn't require the other person to be available at the moment and (2) you can be available for connection anytime, anywhere via your cellphone. It is basically a stripped down e-mail system that works because people carry their "computer" (read: cell phone) with them and always have it on. Texting frees you up from having to answer the phone when you are busy or don't feel like talking. Texting allows you to be one step removed from the audible cues you can hear in someone's voice which can at times be a good thing. Texting allows you to stay in touch in places where talking is annoying or prohibited. You can even write some things that you might not be willing to say out loud.

Whole new paradigms have sprung up that are based on our ability to send small messages to not just a single person but a whole world that might be reading. Twitter is the most notable of these. Twitter turned out to be one of the principle means of getting the news out in rapidly-unfolding events (like the Mumbai massacre) that otherwise would be unavailable to us. Much of the power of what has been dubbed Web 2.0, or social networking, is built on small text messages that connect us billions of times a second.

So often, it turns out that less is more. Given the option of full-blown real-time video communication, we choose instead to chat asynchronously via small cryptic strings of text and emoticons. Somehow, despite the limitations of the medium, we can make ourselves perfectly clear. We need to stay connected to each other but that doesn't mean that we want to be in a face-to-face conversation, even with our best friends. Texting and Twittering. We love to connect. We love the immediacy. But we also love the sense of being able to control when we talk and when we listen. Technology allows us to connect and it allows us to maintain a certain distance. We struggle with the balance point and we probably always will.