FROM ARPANET TO THE IOT-POP-CULTURE AND THE HISTORY AND FUTURE OF TELECOMMUNICATION
Inside pop-culture there has long existed an obsessive need to express romantic and at times catastrophic visions of the future. Films, pulp novels, television and radio have projected and perhaps influenced the arc of our technological growth, in some instances predicting technologies that have now become reality (driverless cars anyone?). In a true example of art imitating or perhaps fooling life, on October 30th, 1938 fans of Science Fiction were famously agitated into near mass panic during the radio broadcast of H.G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds. A public on edge from the tension and anxiety existing in pre-World War II America was fooled into thinking the world was coming to a swift and violent end at the hands of Martian armies. Panicked Americans flooded telephone switchboards and police stations looking for safety and reassurance in the face of what they viewed as impending cataclysm. The radio broadcast can be looked at as the first example of a story ‘going viral’.
In 1969 researchers working on what came to be known as ARPANET created the Internet. Originally linking only four separate computer sites located at U.S Universities, the technology, used primarily by scientists and created firstly for the defense department in the midst of Cold War America, was merely a shell of what exists as the Internet today. Only those in direct contact with the project could imagine the impact the new technology would eventually have on the world and many outside this small circle of professionals viewed ARPANET as merely the plaything of a military on the brink of war.
As early as 1964 Science Fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, best known for 2001: A Space Odyssey issued predictions that at the time and to most people, seemed impossibly far-fetched. He famously predicted the future of remote work saying “It will be possible, in that age, perhaps only 50 years from now, for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London.” As a controversial futurist with what now appears to have been a crystal ball, Clarke also predicted the cell-phone describing the technology as “a personal transceiver so small and compact that every man carries one”, further elaborating, “the time will come when we will be able to call a person anywhere on Earth merely by dialing a number.” In contrast to the doom and gloom predictions many of Clarke’s fellow futurists issued to an already paranoid public, his work is marked by an optimistic view of science and technology and envisions a utopian world with a highly developed technological society. Arthur C. Clarke though often controversial was a visionary ahead of his time.
Not every Apple historian views Steve Jobs as the brilliant iconoclast most of us have come to know but there is little doubt his work and vision have shaped nearly all of the technology we use and interact with each day. Jobs, in a now legendary 1996-WIRED article famously described what he saw as the future of computing offering a slew of predictions that are shockingly accurate today. His forecasts surrounding network mobility, ecommerce and digital disruption hit the target with near 100% accuracy. Within the same article Jobs astonishingly predicted the advent of cloud computing saying “The minute that I don’t have to manage my own storage, and the minute I live primarily in a connected versus a stand-alone world, there are new options for metaphors.” Jobs went on to say “I don’t store anything anymore, really. I use a lot of email and the Web, and with both of those I don’t ever have to manage storage. As a matter of fact, my favorite way of reminding myself to do something is to send myself an email. That’s my storage.”
We now find ourselves living in a connected reality beyond what Arthur C. Clarke or Steve Jobs may have predicted. The Internet of Things (IoT), cloud, mobility, big data, blockchain, augmented reality and social media are bringing about unprecedented transformations and altering our lives both in and outside the workplace in ways no one could have foreseen. Digital technologies have transformed entire industries offering fundamental improvements in safety, personalization and efficiency and the transformation has only just begun. By 2021 Gartner expects the financial, healthcare and physical worlds to be impacted so heavily by digital transformation that “20 percent of all activities an individual engages in will involve at least one of the top-seven digital giants.”
Decades ago our future was foretold by forward-thinking individuals with an uncanny knack for seemingly outlandish predictions. The next five years have been mapped out by industry analysts and influencers who have shown that an explosion in connected technologies will continue to impact and transform nearly everything that surrounds us both at work and at home. What lies beyond 2022 is anyone’s guess but one thing is certain, it is an exciting time to be alive.
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- Ian Thompson