The (technological) revolution will not be televised

Last week, Randal Rauser posted a 1956 ad for long-distance phone service:

If you want to put things in some real perspective, take a look at this advertisement from one of my 1950s National Geographic magazines. The ad is for Bell Telephone Systems and it is promoting the use of trans-Atlantic phone service.

Of course you already knew we could call across the ocean in 1956. But did you know how for all practical purposes few people could ever afford actually to do it?

Near the end of the ad the copy declares that calling Europe “is easy to do” and the cost is “lower than most people think”.

But not lower than you think, living comfortably in 2013, I guarantee that.

The copy continues:

The daytime rate for the first three minutes from anywhere in the United States is $12…” and that’s not even including the tax.

Did you get that? To put the cost into perspective, the average person in 1956 earned about $4200. With that rough benchmark we can say that one 1956 dollar is equivalent to about  seven 2013 dollars.

With that x7 approximation as our guide, we can multiply the cost of calling London for three minutes as the equivalent of $84 today. Think about that. It cost the equivalent of $84 (plus tax!) in 2013 dollars to call London for three minutes in 1956.

And with that you realize that calling overseas was a rare luxury for all but the most wealthy people. If your son had gone overseas to study in Oxford University in 1956 all your communication would have been via letter, except perhaps for a quick three minute phone call on Christmas eve.

By contrast, today Sub-Saharan African villagers who earn mere dollars a day can call you on their new smart phones.

That’s the world changed in less than sixty years.

The funny thing is, there’s no one point in history, no headline, no TV news clip you can point to as the point where long-distance communication changed forever. When I read reporting on new technologies, there’s a tendency to wonder whether any given will be the thing that changes everything. But in reality, there may not be a the thing, just a lot of little things that make a big difference put together.*

Still, take the amount of change that’s happened in that one little area in the past 60 years and extrapolate it into the future. Add a little bit extra for the fact that change is probably accelerating to some degree (in spite of the problems with Ray Kurzweil’s stronger claims), and that’s a whole lot of change we should expect in the next 60 years. But it may not come as any one thing that can be easily packaged for television.

*Caveat: there is the possibility that all these little changes will eventually hit some kind of tipping point where the last little thing that takes us past the topping will, in a sense, have changed everything.

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