UK: IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE YET?

UK: IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE YET? - The chap who had to sell the first telephones must have had a hell of a job. Forget Alexander Graham Bell, who did the easy bit of putting together the technology, and start thinking of the more difficult bit of sepa

by David Morton.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The chap who had to sell the first telephones must have had a hell of a job. Forget Alexander Graham Bell, who did the easy bit of putting together the technology, and start thinking of the more difficult bit of separating people from their hard-earned 19th century cash - in return for just what precisely?

It helps to imagine the salesman running through the pitch just one more time. 'The idea is that using this new device you'll be able to talk to people. Of course, you can already talk to people, but this will let you talk to people who aren't there. By which, of course, we don't mean people who don't exist - just people who aren't in the same room as you are.

'No, naturally you won't be able to speak to just anybody - just those people who also have telephones. Well, admittedly, there aren't too many people with phones just at the moment. But if you buy one and get your friends and family to buy one then you'll be able to speak to all your friends and family, er, sort of thing.' You can hear the whole idea fall to bits before the reluctant punter even bothers to point out that it's all newfangled technology and that it probably won't work very well at first and that they think they'll wait until the technical problems have been sorted out and the prices have come down and you can get a phone in a choice of 12 shades of lemon.

The problem for that strangely unacknowledged first salesman was that the first telephones were not only costly, inconvenient and unreliable; they were also totally pointless. Even if you believed the salesman's promise that quite soon many more people would have phones - including your friends and family and hundreds of people you didn't even know - the question must have sprung to mind: why on earth would anybody use a telephone to talk to their friends and their family?

If you wanted to talk to your friends or your family you probably talked to them over dinner, over the garden fence, over a cup of tea - over anything, in fact, other than a telephone wire. Anonymous instant access to hundreds of people that you didn't even know must have seemed even less desirable to the respectable head of a late-Victorian family; and it is difficult to see what even the most infatuated Juliet would have seen in exchanging bellowed pledges of love to her Romeo - overheard by the household and the local switchboard operator.

But the fact is that however unforeseeable the future was then it nevertheless ended up as today's reality. Which just leaves the question of how on earth we managed to get here from there? And could we do the same sort of trick with the bits of the future that we're supposed to get into place for tomorrow?

But back to the telephone. It turns out that in the beginning the boys from Bell didn't sell to the world by telling everybody that it was 'good to talk'. Instead they emphasised how wonderful it was to listen - specifically to great symphony orchestras and to the opening nights of plays, all of which would be relayed to you down the phone line in the comfort of your home.

Of course the invention of radio broadcasting - and the advent of the wireless - got rid of the need to be directly connected by phone lines if you just wanted to listen in to Beethoven's Fifth. However, by that time there were enough phones to make interconnecting them worthwhile and the invention of the automatic telephone exchange to make it all feasible. From then on, humanity pretty well talked itself into the rest of it.

So perhaps all we need to do to put Britain firmly on the road to the information superhighway is flog tomorrow's information infrastructure as today's latest form of in-home entertainment - and then just sit back and wait for the penny to drop.

And that penny will be the realisation that what everybody has actually got in the corner of the living-room is not a satellite-receiving television, or a video games machine or a personal computer, but - well, just precisely what will it be?

If you listen to the more desperate salesmen of the information superhighway you'll discover that whatever it is, it will allow you to e-mail 30 million computer nerds on the Internet, telework around the clock and be in constant contact with your co-workers and customers - all of which sounds pretty unappealing to me. So unappealing, in fact, it's probably got a great future ahead of it.

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