Category Archives: Mobile

Dear friend, here’s yesterday’s news…

Letter and penI spent a good deal of August and September 1986 writing letters and postcards to family and friends as I Inter-Railed my way around Europe. Number one in my address book was my then girlfriend, and my diary catalogues almost every letter to her – when I started and finished it, and when I posted it. I then exercise myself estimating when she’s likely to have received it, read it, and sent a reply.

In practical terms, I reckon the optimal pan-European turnaround time back then was about a week – plenty of time for a letter to have been overtaken by events on the ground. Communicating with that kind of built-in delay meant we were always dealing with yesterday’s news rather than what was going on right now.

28 years later, penning a carefully handwritten letter that takes a decent while to plan and write – then waiting a week or more for a reply – is a rarity. Instead, we’re sharing multimedia travellers’ tales interactively and in real-time.

For a quick, private and often ongoing exchange, text messages, email or Apple’s iMessage do the job. For everyday pictures and videos, there’s also Snapchat, the messaging app that allows you to send captioned media that can be seen once for just a few seconds. For day-to-day stuff and a form of public online diary, Twitter is frequently first choice. More arty photos get posted to Instagram, with a quick plug via Twitter if they’re really good. And of course for the genuinely committed, an ongoing blog sets your inner writer free.

Finally – for general updates and photos aimed at friends – there’s early social media leader Facebook, ironically becoming rather passé with many of the younger crowd these days.

Whatever the chosen medium, all this communication is bite-sized and instant – long gone are the days of reading last week’s news.

The success of a message is quickly evaluated by the nature and quantity of the reaction to it – replies, Retweets, Favourites, Likes, +1’s, and so on. Much of this messaging is public, so the pressure on your communication to perform is significant. A supposedly witty post or funny photo that bombs is an embarrassment, while one that gets shared by others to their own followers generates kudos.

Mercifully – at least as far as I know – all the letters that my diary mentions have been rightfully consigned to the dustbin of history. Just what will happen to the uncounted billions of messages, photos and videos that the world now constantly shares, only time will tell.

Say hello to Life in the Future

Life in the Future - Delphic Study

I’d like to introduce you to Life in the Future, one of my all-time favourite books, which got a passing mention in my diary on 26th July 1986, 28 years ago today. It was published in 1976 and still graces my bookshelf.

My favourite bit of the book has always been the double-page spread above, illustrating a Delphic Study from the mid-60s in which a host of experts were asked when they thought specific technologies might become available. Their answers were collated and plotted on a timeline (starting in the 1970s and finishing with ‘Never’), with markers to show when 50% and 90% of them agreed a particular technology would be in use.

Life in the FutureThe predicted dates were only part of the fun for me. What really interested me was which technologies had been chosen. My favourites – truly children of their time – were:

  • Two-way communication with extra-terrestrials (50% of the experts were expecting this by about 2025, while the rest pessimistically chose ‘Never.’)
  • Automated language translators (should have been done and dusted by the early 70s if you believe the study)
  • Effective, simple and inexpensive fertility control (predicted to be available by 1985)
  • Economic regional weather control (1990-ish)
  • The widely accepted use of non-narcotic drugs for changing personality characteristics (somewhere between the 80s and 90s)

Re-read rather ironically from my vantage point here in the far future – some way past the previously mythical 2000 AD – the book as a whole provides a fascinating insight into 70s thinking.  The influence of the  preceding few years is obvious: the new liberalism and free thinking of the 60s, the 70s energy crisis and the expansion of nuclear power (the accident at Three-Mile Island was just a few years away), the rise of the environmental movement, significant improvements in medical technology  (the first heart transplant was already old news by this point), the development and early use of packet switching telecommunications networks, and so on.

Longer-term hopes featured in the study included the feasibility of education by direct information-recording on the brain, the breeding of intelligent animals as a low-grade labour force, the control of gravity by modifying gravitational fields and economic ocean farming to produce at least 20% of the world’s food. Wonderful stuff.

Despite the boundless technological optimism on show, the experts had to draw the line somewhere. They baulked both at the use of telepathy and ESP in communications, and at the idea of induced long-term comas used as a form of time travel.

Before long, I’ll be reading Life in the Future on a date beyond the end point of the study, which was around 2020. Compiling a list of likely technological change over the next 60 years would be just as difficult today as it was back in the 60s – but it might be fun to try (suggestions below please!).

Finally, it’s worth noting that while the study was busying itself with telepathy, controlling gravity and alien contact, it missed a few rather important developments that we take for granted today:

  • Instant access to a worldwide network of connected computers – from a device you hold in your hand
  • A system allowing you to search all the world’s knowledge – anytime you want, and from pretty much anywhere
  • In-vehicle video and audio navigation systems controlled by a global satellite network

…to name but three!

If you were taking part in a similar study in 2014, I’d love to know what key technology breakthroughs you’d expect between now and 2080. Who knows, if we compile a big enough list, the Internet could help us run a Delphic study of our own!Futuristic capes

*Life in the Future was written by Michael Ross-Macdonald, Michael Hassell and Stuart McNeill. I can’t remember how I came by it (I wasn’t keeping a diary back then!), but it’s essentially a broad and very readable look at predicting the future and how people affect it by the way they organise themselves and live their lives. I realised as I got older that  it was written with a clear environmental slant which was very new at the time. I owe it a lot.

A picture of the future

old cameraDiary date: 8th April, 1986

On this day back in 1986 I was excitedly on my way to the chemists to pick up some photos I’d taken on a weekend away with the university squash team. They featured a lovely girl that I was fairly sure I had just started going out with – I was never very good at reading the signs – so I was looking forward to seeing them even more than usual.

I told this story to my teenage children the other day, and they literally didn’t believe it – least of all the part about the prospective girlfriend. However, it also didn’t escape their attention that I was describing paying someone at the chemists to create and print out photographs for me.

When you think about it, the whole process really was rather unwieldy.

In those days, you bought a one-time-use roll of light-sensitive film which you put carefully into your camera, snaking it round a spool before you closed the case and hoped everything was attached where it should be. You then went about your business taking photos – rather inexplicably in multiples of 12 depending on which film you’d bought – after which you needed to open your camera, pray that everything had worked, and insert another roll. You took your finished film to the nearest chemist or photography shop, and you waited a few days. Then you went back, handed over a fee, and were given a sealed envelope containing your photos. You had no idea if any of them were any good, but you bought them all anyway, sight unseen. As soon as you were out of the shop, you tore open the envelope to find out what you’d just bought, hoping against hope that they weren’t someone else’s pictures. Finally, you selected the ones you wanted to keep (the bar was set very low in those days), put them in a pile with all the rest (or – if you were very organised – in an album), and off you went again.

In comparison, taking photos in 2014 is undeniably sci-fi-like:

1. You take a photo. You could have taken a video just as easily, but hey, you’re old-fashioned like that. And by the way, you probably used your telephone to do it, not your camera: (a) because you can, and, (b) because your phone never, ever leaves your side.

2. You look at your photo on your phone as soon as you’ve taken it and decide if you like it. Maybe you edit it a bit if it isn’t quite what you were after – unless you’re aiming for something like a #nomakeupselfie, that is.

3. Once you’re happy (and regardless of where you happen to be at the time), you probably share your photo immediately with your entire circle of friends and family, using the handy global computer network to which you are almost constantly connected.

4. Within a few minutes, people from all over the world start telling you what they think of your snap – and if they like it too, they might even share it right away with their own friends.

I know we don’t have flying cars yet (come on people, let’s get that sorted!), but photography really has done everything it can to make up for that particular disappointment.

Now all we have to do is find a way to guarantee that all the pictures I take this year will be stored and accessible somewhere in 28 years time – just like that picture of my squash-playing girlfriend, which is still tucked away safely upstairs in my student photo album.

From Walkman to iPod: Hello to abundance

Cassette and pencilDiary date: 30th December, 1985

My favourite Christmas present of 1985 was a Sony Discman my parents bought me to replace the ageing cassette-based Walkman that had served me so well on my travels over the previous four years. With its at-the-time revolutionary ability to jump from track to track instantly and its mysterious ESP – Electronic Skip Protection – the Discman (subsequently renamed CD Walkman) was a must-have for any mobile music lover whose collection was slowly migrating from cassette tape to compact disc. But despite its shiny shell and space age curves, it failed to solve the one issue which made travelling with a tape-based Walkman so difficult: the need to choose the limited amount of music you would take with you in advance.

Deciding which tapes – and subsequently which CDs – would accompany you on your travels was a major undertaking. Lack of space meant only a few albums or mixtapes would win a coveted place in your already packed rucksack – and the considerations and implications of your musical choices were legion:

Which of your current favourites had earned the right to come with you – and how would you choose them? Should you side with the novelty of the album you bought last week and still weren’t quite sure about, or was it better to stick with the tried and tested mixtape that could make you feel at home even when you were on the road? You might like both of them now, but how would they sound once you’d listened to them dozens of times in the space of a few days?

What would your choices say about you once your cassette cases were spotted by others? Would your tapes convey enough of a sense of taste, hipness, tortured artistry, fun and mystery? Would they make you more or less attractive to the opposite sex? And would your selection be sufficiently swappable and shareable as far as your friends were concerned?

How many albums would fit in your bag – and how many was it practical to carry? Which tape would start its life in the Walkman itself, and spend its non-playing days living in the cases of the other cassettes you’d chosen to take with you?

Then there were the practical considerations. Chief amongst these: batteries. I was lucky if my first Walkman lasted 2-3 hours with a brand new set of AAs – and even then the volume for the final hour would slip gradually ever lower. The condition of the tape itself was also important. Any cassette that had previously required rescuing with a pencil was immediately a non-starter. As for adding new music to your collection while you were on the go…well, a trip to a shop was obviously required, as well as careful thought about how it would fit into a bag that was already stuffed with the music you’d brought with you.

Today’s MP3 players have largely made the discipline and romance of restricted music selection a thing of the past. My iPod currently tells me it contains 1,985 songs, many of which – if I’m honest – I’m fairly sure I haven’t heard in a while. Albums too have been disassembled, with the miraculous instant track skip of the Discman replaced with the instant iPod shuffle between individually favoured songs.

These changes in the way we manage and consume music are symptomatic of the more general shift from yesterday’s scarcity of storage to today’s always-available abundance. Many of the choices we were once forced to make – trivial or otherwise – now feel like they belong to another age, and not a mere decade or two ago.

 

Why ‘Does it have Wi-Fi?’ is the new ‘Are we nearly there yet?’

This way for Wi-FiDiary date: 17th November, 1985

Back in the heady days of my diary, my friends and I have moved out of university accommodation and are living in a rented house a mile or two away from the campus. We chose it because it was cheap at £11 a month each and provided a roof and running water. The fact that at least some of this water ran steadily through the ceiling into my bedroom and that slugs crawled all over the living room furniture every night doesn’t seem to have entered our thinking.

Twenty-eight years on, my eldest daughter is looking at prospective universities and I’m quickly discovering that the list of student accommodation must-haves has lengthened considerably. An absolute given is something that was barely dreamt of when I was a student – Wi-Fi. Accessing books, films, games, the library, lecture notes and even friends and family used to require effort, planning, movement and often (horror of horrors!) physically relocating yourself miles away from your current position. Now, the same activities are available from your student room at the touch of a tablet, in a way that feels eerily like the world in E. M. Forster’s haunting short story, ‘The Machine Stops.’

Wi-Fi has quickly become one of those attributes that somehow makes a place seem more desirable. Its rise has been so meteoric that it’s fast approaching the status of utility rather than luxury  – an upstart must-have without the historic gravitas of water, heating and lighting, but part of a new breed of suddenly essential services, like its sibling mobile telephony. Wi-Fi lets you feel at home even when you’re on the move, to remain together even while you’re apart.

‘Does it have Wi-Fi?’ is the connected generation’s ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ It’s a question asked of everything from shopping centres and trains to pubs and holiday destinations. High streets are awash with individual networks, with retailers banking on the fact that data-starved users on less reliable or more expensive mobile connections will crawl to the nearest hotspot like thirsty explorers to a desert oasis.

The idea that Wi-Fi adds a certain something to a location isn’t new. As long ago as 2004, realistic plans were being drawn up for whole towns and cities to offer free, municipal networks. Despite the fact that many of these early projects failed (through a combination of cost, practicality, technical hitches and competition from the big mobile networks), optimism over city-wide Wi-Fi persists – embodied in big projects like the UK government’s super-connected cities initiative.

Whichever university my daughter ends up in, I’m pretty sure that ‘how do you connect to the Wi-Fi’ will almost certainly be one of the first questions she puts her hand up to ask.

Why waiting matters

Waiting for a traffic lightDiary date: 11th June, 1985

If you believe my diary, there seems to have been an awful lot of waiting around involved in living in 1985 – along with a fair amount of lingering, dallying and even the occasional bout of tarrying.

Mostly, I seem to have been waiting for friends who were late for something, but I also spent lots of time waiting for buses and trains, or for a particular book to become available at the library, or even for a letter to arrive. Waiting was often a pain in the backside, but it did have its occasional serendipitous upside – like the unexpected chance to chat to the cute girl from down the road who you never managed to accidentally bump into no matter how hard you tried.

Many of the things my 80s self used to wait for now sound distinctly old-fashioned. That boring half an hour spent on a street corner waiting for my friends to show up has disappeared altogether and been replaced by a preventative text, Facebook or WhatsApp message. News from my extended family now arrives instantly by email instead of days later by exhausted-looking letter. If my train is late, my phone buzzes to let me know before I’ve even left home. My holiday snaps are seen by friends and family while I’m still away – instead of weeks later after they’ve been printed out on special paper at the local chemist. And my parents used to have to wait till I came home from university before finding out much about what had happened during each term. These days, they’d probably be able to fashion a blow-by-blow account from blogs, texts and status updates – even if I decided not to let them be my friends on Facebook.

Given all this general speeding up, whizzing around and instant gratification, it’s nice to know that waiting for some things still takes just as long as it used to. It still seems to take around nine months between conceiving and having a baby, for example – which is almost certainly a good thing for all concerned. Mercifully, there are also still 12 months between Christmases and birthdays. And the average waiting time for a date with the cute girl from down the road isn’t necessarily any shorter these days just because you follow her on Twitter.

In reality, we’re still waiting for a lot of the important stuff in life just like we always have done. What’s really changed is how quickly and easily we can communicate about it with other people.

Given that anticipation is allegedly half the feast, the fact that waiting hasn’t gone completely out of fashion is no bad thing. These days, perhaps all we’re doing is sharing the feast just that little bit more.

The only way is Ethics

WhatsApp logoDiary date: 19th May, 1985

Whoever wrote my diary 28-years ago this week sounds like a bit of a whinger. Whoever he is, he’s angsting about revision. A lot.

However, if you’re prepared to believe my A-Level-studying daughter, this is one area of life where times have definitely changed for the better. It seems the best place to deal with revision angst these days is not your desk or the library, but in fact mobile messaging service WhatsApp. A quick demo was enough to convince me that it might amount to more than the usual phone-based time-wasting, so I’ve magnanimously agreed not to pass final judgement until the exams are over – at which point my already irrelevant opinion will be even more academic.

As for the mutual support and expertise WhatsApp helps provide, a real-life example will tell you all you need to know. Faithfully reproduced from my daughter’s phone and saved for posterity, here’s a revision thread covering the complex, highbrow and morally challenging world of A-Level Philosophy and Ethics.

I pass no comment. But I may conceivably be arching an enigmatic eyebrow. Needless to say, names have been changed to protect the innocent:

AP: Shit for ethics I’ve barely gone over genetic engineering and war haha

EM: Neither but ive done bentham and kant

SC: Mee too

EM: So lets hope they come up!!

FG: Im going bentham and kant hopefully

AP: When it says prime mover, what argument is that from? Cosmo or aristotle?

FG: Aristotle

AP: Kkk chillin

SC: Im going ontological and god as creator if thats right

EM: Ok thats not terrible if they come up, wanted ma boy plato though

AP: I really dont mind any of philosophy but not god as creator

FG: I was hoping cosmological?

AP: I wanted paleys watch but that was too optimistic

EM: All the ones i havent done properly have come up apart from science and religion, which is scary

SC: The 2 i know quotes for arent there ffs haha

EM: Can i use ‘good will shines forth like precious jewel’ for kant in ethics?

SC: Yeah

AP: I literally havent even looked at genetic engineering!!!! Scared 😦

FG: I know a long teleological quote, i want that to come up

AP: Quite honestly, im going to fail

EM: Mee too

AP: Seriously id be better off not turning up

EM: Gonna die

AP: Its gonna be horrific

SC: Im gonna bring snacks for that six min break haha

AP: Cant seem to find all my revision for ethics, theres an issue

FG: So funny how we have a six minute break i dont quite understand

SC: Wonder why six not five

AP: Hahaha

FG: We wont leave the room

EM: Omg gals this time tomorrow we’ll have finished philo!!! Woooo

AP: No guys ive lost all my ethics

AP: No ono

AP: well im failing ethics.