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Albert Einstein, back-to-the-land, Black Swan, business climate, Claude Shannon: information theory, Clayton Christensen, complexity theory, corporate governance, cuban missile crisis, Edward Thorp, horn antenna, Hush-A-Phone, information retrieval, invention of the telephone, James Watt: steam engine, Karl Jansky, knowledge economy, Leonard Kleinrock, Metcalfe’s law, Nicholas Carr, Norbert Wiener, Picturephone, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman, Robert Metcalfe, Sand Hill Road, Silicon Valley, Skype, Steve Jobs, Telecommunications Act of 1996, traveling salesman, uranium enrichment, William Shockley: the traitorous eight
Or because of all those reasons combined. The Picturephone was a mistake in judgment. The Picturephone began on a high note of optimism. “We have now received a clear go-ahead from AT&T on the Picturephone program we proposed,” Julius Molnar, Bell Labs’ executive vice president, informed the staff in late summer of 1966.30 The actual Picturephone technology was being upgraded and redesigned; instead of the egg-shaped futuristic device that had made a splash at the World’s Fair, Molnar told the staff, the set would be a “Model 2,” or Mod 2, as it was called at Bell Labs, a squarish device, designed by a renowned industrial designer, that was both more elegant and more functional. Molnar’s goal was to field test the device in 1968 and begin a rollout of “commercial face-to-face picturephone service” soon after. A small exploratory marketing study of the Picturephone, comprising ninety-nine employees from major corporations and nonprofit institutions, was compiled at the end of 1967.
Whether or not the technological hunch behind the Picturephone was correct, Bell Labs executives could rightly point to the device as a significant feat of engineering, one that indirectly yielded not only the CCD device but a variety of new applications in integrated circuits and (during the manufacturing process) ruby lasers. 33 To some extent, there was an expectation that in preparing the Bell System for Picturephones, Bell Labs was also laying the groundwork for high-speed network services for businesses. “The switching and transmission capacity provided for Picturephone service will also enable us to move into flexible high-speed message data services which customers could use as easily as they place an ordinary call today,” Ray Ralston, the Picturephone’s engineering chief, remarked (195 Magazine, November–December 1967). Indeed, the Picturephone was able to connect with a computer and thereby provide rudimentary data to its user. 34 Julius Molnar, “Technical Program of Bell Laboratories: Talk to Department Heads,” March 2, 1972. AT&T archives. 35 One of the more curious things about Picturephones emerged from research in John Pierce’s communications science department.
By 1964, these devices, created by the engineers at Bell Labs over the course of a decade, had a trademarked name. They were known as Picturephones, and they seemed the very essence of the future. At the fair, a visitor who wanted to try a Picturephone would enter one of seven booths and sit before what was called a “picture unit.” The device was a long oval tube, measuring about one foot wide and seven inches high and about a foot in depth. Set within the oval face was a small camera and a rectangular video screen, measuring four and three-eighths inches by five and three-quarter inches. The picture unit was cabled to a touch-tone telephone handset with a line of buttons to control the screen. If you wanted to make a Picturephone call at the fair—or more precisely, if you wanted to talk with the Picturephone users at other booths—you simply pressed a button marked “V” for video; after that you could either talk through the handset or through a speakerphone on the picture unit.
What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
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The picture phone was imagined in sufficient detail a number of times, in different eras and different economic regimes. It really wanted to happen. One artist sketched out a fantasy of it in 1878, only two years after the telephone was patented. A series of working prototypes were demoed by the German post office in 1938. Commercial versions, called Picturephones, were installed in public phone booths on the streets in New York City after the 1964 World’s Fair, but AT&T canceled the product ten years later due to lack of interest. At its peak the Picturephone had only 500 or so paid subscribers, even though nearly everyone recognized the vision. One could argue that rather than being inevitable progress, this was an invention battling its own inevitable bypass. Yet today it is back. Perhaps it is more inevitable over a 50-year span. Maybe it was too early back then, and the necessary supporting technology absent and social dynamics not ripe.
As my wife and I gathered in our California den to lean toward a curved white screen displaying the moving image of our daughter in Shanghai, we mirrored the old magazine’s illustration of a family crowded around a picture phone. While our daughter watched us on her screen in China, we chatted leisurely about unimportant family matters. Our picture phone was exactly what everyone imagined it to be, except in three significant ways: the device was not exactly a phone, it was our iMac and her laptop; the call was free (via Skype, not AT&T); and despite being perfectly useable, and free, picture-phoning has not become common—even for us. So unlike the earlier futuristic vision, the inevitable picture phone has not become the standard modern way of communicating. First Glimpse of the Picture Phone. From Bell Telephone’s pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. So was the picture phone inevitable? There are two senses of “inevitable” when used with regard to technology. In the first case, an invention merely has to exist once.
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The predicted end point of this process was a progressive disassociation of social life from real space, leading to the death of cities as the population spread out to more bucolic spots. The assumption that communications tools are (or will someday be) a good substitute for travel assumes that people mainly gather together for utilitarian reasons of sharing information. Companies have been selling us this idea since the invention of the telegraph, and AT&T’s famous Picturephone, first launched at the 1964 World’s Fair, was pitched as a way to reduce the need for travel. This reduction did not happen, not in 1964 or ever. If communication were a substitute for travel, then the effects would have shown up by now, but they haven’t. In 1978 President Carter deregulated the airlines, causing travel prices to fall, but telecommunications stocks didn’t collapse; they rose.
The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki
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The point is that you cannot, or so at least it seems, have one without the other. It’s a familiar truism that governments can’t, and therefore shouldn’t try to, “pick winners.” But the truth is that no system seems all that good at picking winners in advance. After all, tens of thousands of new products are introduced every year, and only a small fraction ever become successes. The steam-powered car, the picturephone, the Edsel, the Betamax, pen computing: companies place huge bets on losers all the time. What makes a system successful is its ability to recognize losers and kill them quickly. Or, rather, what makes a system successful is its ability to generate lots of losers and then to recognize them as such and kill them off. Sometimes the messiest approach is the wisest. II Generating a diverse set of possible solutions isn’t enough.