⨳   3 Dec 2021

Are We Ready for This?

Inventions that were ahead of their time can help us to understand whether we are truly ready to live in the world we are making.

⚐   Christopher Butler is a designer living in Durham, NC.

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Speculative fiction fans know that you can create an entire world out of just a handful of objects. A lightsaber can begin to describe a whole galaxy far, far away; a handheld communicator, phaser, and tablet can depict a star-trekking utopia; a black monolith can stand in for an entire alien civilization.

World-building isn’t about creating imaginary worlds from scratch — accounting for their every detail — but hinting at them by highlighting mere facets that represent a coherent reality beneath them. If that reality is convincing, then the world is inhabitable by the imagination and its stories are endearing to the heart.

Creating objects in the real world is almost exactly the same; that’s why invention is a risk. When we create something new — truly, categorically, conceptually new — we place a wager on the balance of support it will have in the world in which it emerges and the power it will have to remake that world. When a product fails because it was “ahead of its time,” that usually means that its makers succeeded at world-building, not invention.

It could be argued that Jean-Louis Gassée, not Jony Ive, invented the tablet computer, even though his Newton MessagePad failed soon after it launch in 1993 and is now mostly forgotten. In hindsight, it’s easy to see why Ive’s pad succeeded where Gassée’s did not: twenty years of technological development provided better hardware, screens, batteries, software, and connectivity. And even though anyone interested in a tablet had probably been ready for one since even before the MessagePad thanks to the Star Trek universe being filled with PADDs, the one thing that really prepared the world for the tablet computer was the mobile phone. In 1993, hardly anyone had a mobile phone. By 2010, 5 billion people used them. A world in which over 70% of its population is already accustomed to mobile computing is one ready for a bridge device between a small mobile screen and a large stationary one.

The Newton MessagePad, of course, isn’t alone. So many products and technologies that are commonplace today made their debuts in products that didn’t actually succeed. Not because they weren’t good ideas, but because the world wasn’t quite ready and they weren’t powerful enough to make it so. The Nintendo Power Glove anticipated gestural interfaces and controls almost 15 years before Minority Report told us all to expect them… and we’re still not there. Microsoft’s Zune wasn’t the first portable MP3 player, of course; that distinction goes to the completely unknown MPMan F10, released in 1997. It also wasn’t the first really good or really successful one; the iPod really should get the credit for that. But, it did risk its identity on a monthly subscription music service that the MP3 hoarders it was sold to just weren’t ready for. Google Glass was released in 2013 and died a humiliating but quick death after a well-known tech bro wore it in the shower, reminding the world that face-mounted computers are made for a reality much creepier than any of us want. But almost a decade later, every major tech company is either making a face computer or is rumored to be making one. Times change. Things change. People change. The World Changes. In that order, and then over and over again.

There are, of course, many older examples. Much older ones, in fact, like the actual first automobile — powered by steam — created by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot over a century before the first gas powered vehicle vehicle introduced by Karl Friedrich Benz. Benjamin Franklin coined the term “battery” in 1749, but it wasn’t until half a century later that Alessandro Volta built one. (And, it turns out that the basics of batteries were understood and in use over 2,000 years ago!). But my favorite one is the PicturePhone.

We Live in the PicturePhone’s Future

The basic idea of transmitting image and audio over wire dates back to the 1870s (long before any of us were warned by The Jetsons that video phones would force us into a falseness that anticipated our perfectly curated Zoom backgrounds by many decades). In 1927, Herbert Hoover (not yet President) made the first public video call from Washington, D.C. to New York City. This early system used a closed circuit system, but within a few decades, Bell Labs managed to create equipment that could make use of the country’s existing telephone lines. This is what Bell Telephone announced to the world at the 1964 World’s Fair, the PicturePhone. By that point, it was ready for hype, but not use.

It took a few more years of anticipation-building for Bell Telephone to get their product ready. But they didn’t hold back on their marketing. In one of the most fantastic examples of product placement in cinema of all time, Bell Telephone was prominently featured in a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1969. That was Bell’s way of saying, give us thirty years or so — not only will you be PicturePhoning cross-country, you’ll be calling space, too!

A year later, the PicturePhone was demonstrated in public. The first call using the first consumer-ready PicturePhone was made by the Mayor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to the chairman of Alcoa, one of the city’s most important manufacturers. Now, take a moment to watch some of the demo. I ask you, is that not an impressive thing? Does it not look pretty great, even by today’s standards? By all measures, it was a technical marvel and a good user experience. But it failed — bitterly. Why?

Bell Telephone’s plans for the PicturePhone were ambitious, if not outright delusional. The cost of a PicturePhone plan was $160/month. Today, flagship mobile phones sell at around $1000 a piece, but could you imagine paying that price each month for service? That’s what $160 would have felt like in 1970. Bell set up PicturePhone booths in New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. to build awareness, but charged $20/minute to use them. When was the last time you dropped $150 in a vending machine? That’s the kind of expense we’re talking about. As batshit as the economics of the PicturePhone were, Bell’s goal was to build a $1 Billion company — 100,000 PicturePhones in the first five years; 1,000,000 by 1980; 12,000,000 by 2000. Despite making a great piece of equipment and truly dazzling the technorati of the time by making it work well over old, twisted copper wire, that was never going to happen.

Today, it’s easy to ask why Bell wouldn’t have just subsidized the product in the early days to build the market. The answer is regulation. At the time, Bell owned most of the infrastructure — the network over which the PicturePhone was transmitting. Taking a loss on the device to lock in customers would have triggered a massive antitrust case, and well, back then companies actually cared about that sort of thing and so did the government. (One wonders what Bell would have done if everything had shifted by a few decades, but that’s another piece of speculative fiction.) So, the PicturePhone was forced to be exorbitantly expensive.

Though an economic misfit, the PicturePhone was an excellent machine and an even better catalyst. Researchers at Bell Labs knew that a digital future was at hand, and that new infrastructure would be required to support it. Several years before the PicturePhone was released, Bell produced a film representing their view of the future, called Seeing the Digital Future, which anticipated so much of today’s digital and internet-driven culture. Creating the PicturePhone allowed them to experiment with some of the interactions they expected would become commonplace, while also demonstrating the need for upgraded infrastructure.

That Bell engineers were able to deliver a device that transmitted solid sound and picture over existing telelphone lines was extraordinary. That they were able to create such a compact, desk-ready device that was compatible with the telephones already sitting on them was also. That the PicturePhone had a camera that used real glass optics and was refocusable and repositionable remotely makes me covet it, even now.

Beyond those features, the PicturePhone released in 1970 anticipated much of today’s internet experience. Fluid and frequent digital connections between people, absolutely, but also the multimedia nature of how we exchange information today. Bell added video to what had been an entirely auditory connection experience so far, but they also built add-ons to connect PicturePhone to mainframe computers, share slides over the screen, and even a mirror module that would allow the unit’s camera to broadcast documents you had on your desk. Undeniably cool, though admittedly niche for the time. Bell hoped that gaining a country’s worth of subscribers would force a nationwide upgrade in digital infrastructure. As it would turn out, even the internet, as we know it today, wouldn’t do that. We might have to distribute credit for making the average American understand the need for fiber optic cable among a diverse constituency — from Google to Pornhub.

…but the PicturePhone Would Not Recognize This World

Pricing and infrastructure can be blamed for what would turn out to be a $500 million loss for Bell Telephone. Even that number doesn’t really describe how much of a misfire the PicturePhone was compared with the fact that in the first 6 months, only 12 customers subscribed to the service, and by the time it was officially canceled, it had exactly zero of those customers left. But even in 1970, there were more than 12 people rich enough to be early adopters. So why didn’t they?

I suspect that clip from The Jetsons, in which Jane Jetson puts on a mask in order to answer an early-morning video call, holds the answer. The PicturePhone required exposure and expected its users to be comfortable with that. It either required its users to be ready to be seen, warts and all, or to adjust to a life of perpetual performance — to become actors in their own lives. In 1970, we weren’t ready to do either.

Today, some fifty-odd years later, we do both and it is totally normal. It is as common to get an uncomfortable glimpse into a colleague’s untidy bedroom as it is to envy the perfection of someone’s setup. There are times when I fire up Zoom and feel as if the contemporary business vernacular is a mashup of the hospital-home-chic of modern tech and the megalomaniacal curatorial control of a Wes Anderson frame. In neither case is it comfortable, but it has become ordinary. How did we get here? I think we’re living in the PicturePhone’s future.

The dream of the PicturePhone is alive today because of more than half a century of building the world it needed and changing the people who would use it. The first time most of us really got video calls was back in 2005, thanks to Skype. Just fifteen years ago, but thirty-five years after PicturePhone. Five years later, we got FaceTime (and a network that would handle video over wireless). In between we had social media, selfies, vlogging and a whole host of technologies slowly shaping our culture into one of performance — readying us, fortuitously, for a time that Aldous Huxley anticipated in Brave New World, when we’d all stay home and culture would be mediated by surrogate technological connections, not embodied ones.

And, of course, the pandemic sealed the deal. Imagine the 18-months of COVID-19 lockdown in world without the infrastructure that supports the virtualization of nearly everything or the years of practice that made showing up on camera feel natural. What a time to be alive.

What Are We Really Ready For?

Technology is almost always the compost of civilizational soil. The ground is naturally made fertile by minds that wonder and worry and love and desire. We make the things we want the world to conform to and when it doesn’t accept them, the ground swallows them up again, breaks them down, integrates them into its fabric and crop, and incepts our very being with bits of them. The landscape begets the crop; the crop sustains the land; the land makes its people.

At a time when so much weight is put on taking digital culture to its furthest reach — when we’ve exhausted digital connections in a physical world so all we have left is to build digital worlds in which to live — it’s worth considering what we are truly ready for. We were equipped for the Zoom culture that assuaged the isolation of lockdown — the timing is almost spooky when you really think on it — but we are not ready, not really. We’re not even at a point of sociological insight to understand what we’ve done to ourselves in making a world ready enough for the PicturePhone. But we have made that world and we are making ourselves at home in it. But we aren’t ready. Ask any psychologist, teacher, parent, friend — or anyone brave-enough to admit it of themselves — we are suffering under the exposure of a generational effort to make a technological dream reality. Connectivity; it sounds like a good thing. Access; that sounds even better. A Creator Economy; would that such a thing existed.

The PicturePhone is not to blame for the stresses of 21st-century digital culture. Nor is the idea of remotely communicating face-to-face one that should necessarily be burdened with the troubles of its execution. You can’t judge a philosophy by its abuse, as is said, so maybe you can’t judge an idea by its third-order effects. But what we know now, as well as we’ve known it time and again over the course of human history, is that we are rarely ready for what we want. Sometimes, the surprises are good ones. Sometimes, not so. But they are always complicated. Because readiness is not just about technological prerequisites — the if-this-than-that of technological progress. It is also about human flexibilities - the if-this-then-what? we all confront every time we make something new.

 

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