Transformative Technologies

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.

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4 Responses

  1. There is a transformative aspect of the cellphone: that’s SMS/IM/whatever. Yes, messaging. With SMS, my wife and I can be in constant contact with each other. We can chat whenever we want. We can have a continuous, low level conversation that lasts the entire day, regardless of where we happen to be — across town or across the planet. This is something unique in human society.

  2. Bruce Boyden says:

    I think the mobile phone has been somewhat transformative, but I don’t know that I’d place it up with the emergence of mass communications (i.e., radio and other elements of the nationwide consumer economy that emerged in the 1920s). Specifically, planning has become unnecessary. Even with pay phones and answering machines, trying to meet up with someone on the fly, or change plans, was considerably more difficult. Sticking to the pre-arranged schedule was critically important. I think Bruce (the other Bruce) is also onto something, that “dead spaces” during the day with no interpersonal contact are being thinned out. In fact, that’s the whole reason I bought a cell phone to begin with — I saw people walking home from work, talking to loved ones on their cell phones, and was envious.

  3. fishbane says:

    Mobile communications are transformative, I’d argue, much in the way mass transport (trains, planes, cars and shipping containers) have been. The velocity at which planning can happen, coordination have change plans quickly in most places, and simply the expectations people place on one another (“you _don’t_ have a cell?”) are something new.

    An personal, anecdotal example of the last one – I had a very high stress job for a number of years, and took some time off after we sold the company. I chose to cancel my cellphone, so I could be truly alone outside of the house, which was a valuable novelty to me after about 6 years of being accessible 24/7. At first, my working friends reacted with a bit of envy. After a while, people started thinking me a bit of a crank. Were we to relate to one another, it was expected that I be accessible for whatever reason.

    There are subtle changes to social relation that make it a very different world. And add a camera/video recorder to everyone’s pocket that can upload a picture before the device is destroyed, and there are very interesting implications for our notions of public space as well. I think we’ll see more surprising implications coming from locality as well – phones and the networks that run them both know, at least approximately, where they are, which can be linked to increasingly ubiquitous surveillance. No more excuses about the Holland Tunnel being backed up for being late…

  4. Stuart Buck says:

    This reminded me of a paper from the Quarterly Journal of Economics last year: The Digital Provide: Information (Technology), Market Performance, and Welfare in the South Indian Fisheries Sector, which found that “the adoption of mobile phones by

    fishermen and wholesalers was associated with a dramatic reduction in price

    dispersion, the complete elimination of waste, and near-perfect adherence to the

    Law of One Price.”