Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Speaking of counting down, counting down to the future can be tricky.

My daughter posted this video on Facebook. It is series of AT&T ads from 1993 that were on a CD-Rom that the company paid Newsweek to include as advertising in an issue, to drive home the idea that some day all publication would happen via CD-Rom.

The interesting thing is almost all of this stuff happens now, but the actual engineering is a little different. The ad predicts EZPass (but without the tranponder but using a in-car card reader instead), video conferences (although the graphics and windows management still has not caught up with the projection), smart and remote classrooms, on-demand video, etc.

As far as I can see, they appear to have only missed two developments that at once made the predictions possible but changed the way they happen: they missed was the advent of cell phones and the subsequent development of smart phones. They also missed the idea of digital radio-transmission, which made the cell phone and a whole host of other things possible. I know enough about the latter to tile the dance floor on the head of a pin, but digitizing data transmitted by radio means that much more information can be crammed into a radio frequency. This explains why your car remote doesn't open your garage door and why you garage remote doesn't screw up some kid's remote control airplane, all of which pretty much share the same radio frequencies. And why it is that so many cell-phones can work off the same towers all at once.

There is a third thing the ads missed, and that is the economic constraints that direct how technologies are used (that have nothing to do with the technologies themselves).

The idea of a readable card having or making your medical record available wherever you are is possible but not even close to reality. The very annoying HIPPA law was passed soon after these ads were made. They were supposed to make health-care information portable but confidential in anticipation of future technologies then on the horizon. the technology is here but all of the economic and ethical questions about its use have not been answered. Instead, HIPPA made sure one doesn't stand too close to the check out at the pharmacy, and makes sure that getting called from the waiting room to the examination room uses the same technology as a deli, all in the name of privacy. (HIPPA is also the excuse that hospitals use to never tell pastors that their congregants are in hospital or to where they've been discharged, but don't get me started on that!) And a decade or more later, insurance companies still gather the same info that everyone needs using different forms and separate proprietary software increasing costs and time.

So technology can't by itself fix everything because it is subject to other human endeavors like economics, politics and the only real universal constant: bureaucracy.

One thing they got right is that AT&T is at the heart of it all, although they are now owned by a then-new "baby Bell." They handle a major portion of the world's internet traffic through what they used to call "Long Lines" built when plain-old-telephone-service ruled.

On the whole, these ads do a better job of anticipating the future than 2001: A Space Oddesy or any number of the Popular Science magazines that I read when I was a kid. I was supposed to have flown Pan-Am to the Moon by now. I'm disappointed about that, but they probably would have lost my luggage.


PseudoPiskie said...

I wish I could like AT&T more than I do. Around here they are almost nonexistent and what is here doesn't work very well. I wish Apple would allow another carrier.

Andrew Gerns said...

I understand. This was not meant as a peon to AT&T as a whole, which would be silly since what is called AT&T is not the same company that existed in 1993...which was different that what was AT&T in 1968. Instead, I was thinking about comparing how the vision for technology and the reality line up and how this has affected how we interact.

The company that handles internet traffic pretty well, their core business, is not so hot on other things.

PseudoPiskie said...

I understand. I was just irritated because I wanted to make a long distance call on my cell but had no signal. That has become the norm here. Where would we be without Bell Labs tho? And they really did a good job of predicting given the times.