Since some point in high school, I’ve had a bit of an obsession with the idea of “transformative technologies.” Basically, I’ve found it interesting to think about what technologies truly transform our lives, rather than simply offering added value – however significant we might perceive that value to be.
To wit: I’ve always thought of the radio as transformative, in creating a means for the instantaneous dissemination of identical information to a mass audience. The boob tube, by contrast, seems like mere icing on the cake.
More recently, and perhaps more counter-intuitively, I’ve been inclined to describe the answering machine as transformative – by contrast with the mobile phone. The answering machine, my logic goes, created a mechanism by which we could connect with someone in short order, without the need to actually locate them. (Of course, the telegraph might be understood to have done the same thing, but the relative challenges of communicating by telegraph might arguably place it a notch behind the answering machine, at least in the specific dimension on which I’m analyzing the latter. More importantly, I would suggest, the primary transformation wrought by the telegraph – which I would acknowledge – lies not in the capacity to communicate with someone without locating them, but in the capacity to communicate with someone at all. In this respect, it should be evaluated against the telephone, in terms of its transformative impact.)
The mobile phone, it is true, makes it easy for us to communicate, regardless of where we are. But (formerly) omnipresent pay phones did something similar – at least in tandem with answering machines, and later voicemail. The ease of actually talking wherever we are, moreover, is less self-evidently transformative to me, than the ease of receiving the content of such communications, regardless of where we are.
A story on National Public Radio last week, however, made me wonder. In it, the reporter described the increasing participation of fairly small-scale African farmers in global markets. A number of relevant variables came into the picture, but among the most significant was the widespread availability – and use – of mobile phones by such farmers. The latter, the report indicated, have “created a great sense for the farmers of reality, of what urban markets are like.”
Now that’s something different. That a small-scale farmer in Africa, with little other exposure to the global economy, might gain insight into it via his mobile phone struck me as truly transformative.