Cell phones changed the world and no one saw it coming

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Many people have remarked on some of the seemingly uncanny accuracy of a few science fiction authors predicting the future of technology. Such as Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of geostationary satellites and their use in communications and observation of terrestrial weather patterns. Or Vernor Vinge’s 1974 novel True Names and its depiction of the World Wide Web and immersive virtual reality.

images (4)But the fact is that, given an infinite number of monkeys pounding away on keyboards, there is a 100 percent chance that one will produce the complete works of Shakespeare. Thus it should come as no surprise that some writers of speculative fiction, many of them actual scientists themselves, would make a few lucky guesses.

What is truly surprising is that so few of the most recent, cultural-changing advances had not been predicted and that our society has embraced these new, transformative technologies and never paused to stop, look around, and grasp just how much and how quickly these changes have altered fundamental ways in which we communicate with one another, changed the workplace, offer universal access to the sum of human knowledge, even altered social interaction such as interpersonal communication, courtship and keeping in touch with one’s circle of family and friends.

Of course I’m speaking of the Internet but more specifically the devices with which we connect to and communicate through this new medium.

Nobody saw that coming.

And the technology I’m referring to mainly, but not exclusively, is the always ready, ever-at-hand cell phone.

Print newspapers and magazines are dying. Mass electronic communication used to mean television and radio; now a growing number of people are “cutting the cord” of cable TV and consuming entertainment and news directly and exclusively from the web.

Can you hear me now?

We can stay current and interact with our network of friends and family individually or entirely at once through Facebook, texting, email, or even through the increasingly rare use of direct vocal communication.

Statistically, the younger you are, the less likely you are to actually converse over your phone. I asked my young teenage daughter, who stays in close touch with her group of friends by texting, why she doesn’t just call them and talk. “But what would I say?” she replied. I may be getting old, but I find her answer inscrutable. I guess I’m hopelessly out of touch.

That last is an exaggeration. I do a large amount of communicating through email and real-time texting. Actual vocal communication has shifted from the norm to being reserved for more intimate conversation.

Heartaches by the number

Courtship has made the leap to the web as well. An entire industry has grown up around providing people with prospective romantic partners. Complex algorithms are employed to help you find potential compatible partners.

Singles can leaf through detailed profiles and pictures your matchmaking provider’s service has scientifically determined you might be interested in getting to know.

Users page through possible partners as our parents used to peruse tthe Sears catalog. There are even protocols that have sprung up spontaneously regarding initial contact, progressing to tentative text messaging, leading up to the first face to face meeting, to see whether the algorithms got it right and whether the “chemistry” is there.

We’re not in Kansas anymore

What truly amazes me is the rapidity of the changes in our fundamental social interactions, how quickly they have taken hold and govern the warp and weave of our social, family and work lives. Fifteen years ago these complex sets of rules governing our lives didn’t exist.

And they weren’t shaped by tradition or existing social mores. They sprang up as if by mutual unspoken agreement among all who adopted the technology. Of course some were products of conscious design. Fully three billion people make use of Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends.

The tarantella of social intercourse on this truly social network is dictated by the programmers who wrote the code, in both senses of the word, governing how one can make use of the various tools of communication it provides. One can also control to a fine degree the degree of intimacy granted to those friends you’ve let into your virtual home.

But the programmers were doing their best to provide the users with the experience they wanted, and thus it evolved from a virtual village serving a small group of college students into the single largest “city” the planet has ever seen.

The sleeper awakens

Sometimes I wonder if I have been hiding in a cave for decades, awakening like the Woody Allen character in Sleeper, to find myself in a brave new world. As I follow the technology itself professionally, I realize I’ve neglected to closely examine the uses, adaptations, and folkways that have sprung up making these changes possible.

Woody Allen in the 70s. (Wikipedia)
Woody Allen in the 70s. (Wikipedia)

What’s more, as I see the pace of growth in the sophistication of the underlying technology increase, I marvel at the more profound changes I will be witness to in coming years.

As I mentioned, nobody saw this coming. I can’t even imagine the world my young child will live in as an adult and fully vested member of the networked society of the middle of the present century. And I defy anybody who claims they can, given the truly radical changes in computer technology that are on the horizon.

Will we even be human anymore, given the potential of research into artificial intelligence, direct brain-computer interfacing. and human intelligence augmentation?

As the Bard writes in The Tempest, “O brave new world that hath such creatures in it.”

Or, as David Bowie sang, “Homo sapiens have outgrown their use…gotta make way for Homo superior.”

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