Jun 03 2022

What If We All Had Pocket Telephones

Writing a book forces you to engross yourself, almost obsessively, in one topic. That’s why I have been thinking about futurism (predicting what the future will bring) for the past year. Even though the book is finished (The Skeptics Guide to the Future, coming out September 27th) something relevant to futurism comes to my attention almost every day. I find particularly interesting past attempts at futurism, especially those far in the past. First, the farther back you go the more amusing futurism becomes, and second enough time has passed to judge how accurate their predictions were.

My brother and co-author Bob just sent me this nugget – a cartoon from 1919 imagining what it would be like if we all had pocket telephones. This was first published in The Mirror and authored by W. K. Haselden. I love it because it is both prescient and naive at the same time. The cartoon focusses on the inconvenience of having a phone in your pocket that can ring at awkward times. We have all likely experienced most if not all of these situations. I was actually in a wedding where one of the groomsman’s phones went off (it was an early Droid with the characteristic “droid” ringtone).

I understand that this is a cartoon, not an essay, and probably the point was to focus on awkward moments because they are funny. But still the author had to imagine how a new technology would influence our lives and had to glimpse the future, and therefore it is a legitimate (if limited) piece of futurism. You probably immediately recognized one of the most common “futurism fallacies”, as we call them in our book. The author imagines the people of his day, complete with 1919 fashion, living in the future when “pocket” phones are available.

The first handheld portable phone was introduce in 1983 by Motorola, the DynaTAC 8000X. This would not fit into a typical pocket. The IBM Simon introduced in 1992 actually had a touch screen, a calculator, e-mail, and could operate over the internet. This was a forerunner of the smartphone. It’s also getting pretty close to a pocket phone, but was still a bit large to fit in a typical pocket. Perhaps the first true pocket phone was the 1996 Motorola StarTAC, the first “flip phone”. This was definitely small enough to fit in one’s pocket, and gave a huge boost to the transition to personal portable phones. Of course the next big revolution was the iPhone introduced in 2007, starting the era of the smartphone.

Haselden gives no indication of how far in the future he thought pocket phones were. Perhaps he thought they were right around the corner. But we cannot infer that from his choice to use people clearly dressed in the fashion of the day. Many attempts at futurism project current culture (not just fashion) far into the future, or they rely on common tropes about the future (with lots of silver unitards). This bleeds into another futurism fallacy – projecting a single technology into the future without considering how other technologies and advancements might affect it. The people in his cartoon have pocket phones, but not any other future technology.

For example, how could he have known that future pocket phones would also be computers, and therefore devices that you could program to do things like silence their ringtone when in situations that would be awkward if the phone went off. Such devices could also text (something no one saw coming) which enables silent communication in virtual time. You can also let a phone call go to voicemail when unable to answer. Haselden took one variable, the portability of phones, and projected it into the future, assuming (without being aware of the assumption) that nothing else would change.

Of course current futurists may fall for the same fallacies – when imagining a future technology failing to consider how other technologies will change, how people will change, and how all of these variables will interact in a dynamic evolving web.

And of course Haselden did not showcase all the possible extreme advantages of having a pocket phone (again, not the point of the cartoon so we don’t know if he considered this). He may also have imagined someone stranded with a broken down vehicle calling for assistance (or summoning an Uber). The ability to connect with an individual no matter where they are is also extremely convenient. I am old enough to remember the days when trying to coordinate even something as simple as meeting at the movies or a restaurant could be a nightmare. What if the movie is sold out, or there is a long wait time at the restaurant? How do you get that information to the other party? We had to plan contingencies on top of contingencies ahead of time to work out what we would do. What’s the plan if we get separated at the fair, mall, or other large venue? We need to prearrange a failsafe meeting place. Have you ever forgot your phone at home? How much panic sets in at the thought of being unreachable for the day, and not being able to contact others (obviously depending on your situation).

At the same time, the extreme convenience of a pocket phones also comes with its headaches. We are never unreachable, can be interrupted at any time, and have to obsessively check our texts, e-mails, comments, and messages. We have to adapt to technology as much as technology adapts to us – it is a complex dynamic. That is the ultimate point here, not to poke fun at past attempts at futurism but to point out how incredibly difficult it is. Even something as superficially simple as imagining what it would be like to have a pocket phone is fraught with pitfalls. Haselden had no chance of guessing what it would actually be like. I give him credit for guessing one aspect of it pretty well. It can be awkward or difficult to get called in some situations. Just remember to silence your phone.

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