Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Future of Telephones: The 1962 World's Fair

We are always predicting the future, whether that future comes in the next week, the next decade, or the next century.  Not surprisingly, we miss the mark when it comes to the fine points. The details are always harder to see through the heatwave of time. What is perhaps most surprising is that at times we get the broad outline more or less right.

I was reminded of this recently when I saw a video produced by AT&T for the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. So how well did this short film of fifty years ago do in terms of its vision for the future? Check it out, the future of phones starts around the 4:50 mark:

The film was set in the world of the rotary-dial telephone. Every phone was owned by the Bell System. The up and coming technology of the future was (drumroll, please) the push-button phone!  No more rotary dialing, just the speed and simplicity of tapping the buttons. Other new technologies on the telephoning horizon included features such as call-waiting, call-forwarding, and conference calling. It was even predicted that you could dial a number while you were away from home to turn on your air conditioner or your underground irrigation system. And where would you make such a call when away?  In a telephone booth, of course!

The Ubiquitous Telephone Booth
There is always the temptation to chuckle at these past predictions of the future. They can seem naive and simplistic. What AT&T didn't see clearly in 1962 was the huge changes not only in technology but also in the business models that were going to turn their industry on its head. They couldn't foresee the government breakup of the company over concerns about its monopoly power. They couldn't foresee that phones would no longer be the property of the phone company but would become commodities purchased in electronics and discount stores. The future from the vantage point of 1962 certainly didn't include cordless phones and, most importantly, the future arrival of cellphones was completely invisible.

Not only did the rotary-dial phone disappear but shortly thereafter went the pay phone and even the phone booth. People used to want privacy for their phone calls. Now people chatter endlessly on their cellphones while walking down the street or sitting in a restaurant. But some things remain the same. They still use call-waiting, call-forwarding, and conference calling. People value new and better services.

The other major gap in Ma Bell's vision in 1962 was that the phone would morph from being a device strictly for talking and turn into a computer that you can carry in your pocket. I would guess that today's smart phones have more computational power than the entire 1962 switching system for a medium-sized city. And with Moore's Law still operating, smart phones have an ever more powerful future.

Lest we take too much pleasure at the expense of the folks of 1962, we are no better at looking into the future.  There are, of course, plenty of futurists who predict that we will be wearing our computers embedded in our clothing and that everything will be digital and online everywhere 24/7. But in these projections we miss the unpredictability of our non-linear world. Things will certainly be very different in some very unpredictable ways. But what remains constant is that we will still want to connect. We will still need talk to those we love and those we whom we work.  As AT&T's marketing slogan said in those days of fifty years ago, we will still want to "reach out and touch someone."  How we will do that remains to be revealed to us. Whatever the answer, I guarantee it will be interesting.


1 comment:

Message Direct said...

Technology, it is! It's totally jaw-dropping how things could get hi-tech nowadays. Anyway, this is a well-written article. Glad you've shared this. :)