When the mobile phone started to hit the big time in the late 80’s I was a wet-behind-the ears Irish lad trying to make his way in the massive metropolis of London.
It was a time of excess, just before the crash, when Thatcher’s great and prosperous nation had yet to hit the skids of recession and negative equity.
At that time there was no better status symbol to flash in the pubs of Soho than the large, brick-like mobile phone. Through the mid 80’s the “mobile” was seen as the city traders essential business tool. By the time I got there they were becoming the must have tool of every middle manager from Twickenham to Walthamstow.
I don’t believe anyone could have predicted then that the ostentatious Yuppie business tool, the partner in crime of the Filofax and the pager, would go on to find a place in the hearts, minds and pockets of the hoi polloi. But that is what happened.
Today western societies are awash with mobile phones. There are more mobile phones in developed countries than there are people. In Africa, half a billion people own a mobile, four times more people than have ever had a bank account.
The adoption of the technology has been phenomenal.
Over the most recent decade the mobile phone has even, get this, started to evolve. While many of us where happy with dumb phones or feature phones, the next great wave brought us Smart phones. An influential minority (hello again business users) wanted their phones to do more than send or receive calls or texts. They developed a need to see e-mails on a handset rather than a laptop. A Canadian company, Research in Motion successfully converted this desire into profit with the Blackberry, only to be followed by Apple.
The metamorphosis had commenced. As the kids of business executives discovered, smartphones are also great for games. And thanks to apps, miniature software applications that harness the technology within the phone, we now have hand held computers that can do virtually anything.
The evolved “smart” phone can now help you to tune a guitar, measure your heart rate, or guide you to your nearest bar/hospital/fascial alignment specialist (mine is in Ponsonby). You can track delivery of parcels. You can see how fast you’ve run. You can even choose to receive live tweets from influential humans whether they are Kardashians in California or orbiting Astronauts. Sometimes, if you feel like it, you can even make a call.
I tend not to. It’s too expensive. I prefer to see my smartphone as a connected device with multiple computational abilities that can enhance my life. Data is my addiction. The connection is the killer app. We have melded our phones to the Internet or to give it the unfashionable descriptor, the information super highway.
Many years ago, Google, standing on the shoulders of Yahoo and AltaVista, condensed all of the world’s digital content into a personally prepared SERP (search engine results page). There may actually be more than one SERP per search but no one is sure, as they never travel past the top three results. Google has been described as an external brain and this all-knowing brain, this all-seeing eye, is now at your fingertips at any time of day thanks to the Smartphone. More on this later.
In the meantime let us turn our attention to the current shape of the mobile phone. It’s a block. It’s smaller than the 80’s block it’s fair to say but it’s still a block that sits in your hand. That is changing too. We are about to enter the age of the wearable smartphone. Pebble and Sony have already produced wristwatch devices that can read some information from your handset. The rumour mill around Apple’s alleged upcoming smart watch is grinding so loudly, Samsung has had to come out and tell investors they too are developing a smart watch/phone. No one wants to miss the next boat.
Google has famously been preparing to launch internet-enabled glasses. It’s Google Glass project is the latest development to toy with the public’s imagination and desire for innovation. “Why carry a phone when you can wear it?” seems to be the catch cry of the Twenty-Teens.
Wearable technology is merely a step down the road to a greater evolution; one that may scare and thrill people in equal measures. Science fiction has painted a vision of the future where people and technology are intertwined. There is even a real world movement dedicated to it. They call it transhumanism.
Whether we like it or not, I believe it’s only a matter of time before the external brain I talked about above becomes assimilated back into the physical human brain. In it’s most basic form it is the fusing of human biological mechanisms with electronic technology. I will call IE, integrated/embedded technology. Before long, the smartphone is going to get under our skin, literally.
Surprising as it may seem, people have been sticking digital technology under their skin for decades. And there is already technology for planting sensors on your skin so your phone can read everything from your body temperature to your UV levels.
So where to next?
That’s the question I was asked on Seven Sharp on Thursday (and which I partly answered – you can see the show here).
We started by talking about bone conduction phones. This technology allows sound to be transmitted through connective tissue such as the bone at the base of the skull, or above your ear. Various scientific and military test show that this is an effective way of sending sound to the ear canal while leaving the ears open for other information. Can I get a yuck please?
In the next decade however, phones won’t just be connected to our skulls. There’s a high likelihood they will be inside them. Bryan Singer has seen the future and made a web series about it. In H+ the first world has gone crazy for the latest gadget, an implant developed by an Irish bio-tech start-up that plants the equivalent of smartphone software in your brain. In a nod to today’s gadget mania the first episode shows millions of people worldwide rushing to be first in line to get the new implant.
It looks similar in some ways to the communication device that people wear in Aeon Flux, the much-maligned 2005 sci-fi movie starring Charlize Theron. Here we see Aeon getting a call from the boss’s receptionist…
Sticking with sci-fi, I have to say the lack of embedded technology in Minority Report was a major plot hole for me. While even billboards were able to communicate with John Anderton, the police had to conduct room to room searches to find him when he went on the run. Surely if he had a smartphone in his brain the cops could have used the “find my fugitive” function?
A weak attempt at humour that may be but it is actually the crux of the issue in relation to IE technology. In the future when our phones, or computer connected devices are integrated and embedded, the powers that be will know where we are at all times. And they say only the paranoid survive online!
Embedded technology has always had a special allure for the gadget geek. Who wouldn’t want to live the like the bionic man, with expensive technology on the inside making you more efficient and daring on the outside. Is it time to think about how far we go with this evolution?
The power of the internet, the equality of communication, the efficiency of technology. It’s an alluring mix, but do we really want to be tied to our phones, figuratively and literally?