Technological Inevitability: Are Some Inventions Meant To Be?

Sure, Skype and Facetime are changing how we communicate, but is this new technology really all that revolutionary? This week's excerpt looks at a "futuristic" idea that has been around much longer than you'd think.

I once saw our future technological fate myself. In 1964 I visited the New York World's Fair as a wide-eyed, slack-jawed kid. The inevitable future was on display, and I swallowed it up in great gulps. At the AT&T pavilion they had a working picture phone.

The idea of a videophone had been circulating in science fiction for a hundred years, in a clear case of prophetic foreshadowing. Now here was one that actually worked. Although I was able to see it, I didn't get to use it, but photos of how it would enliven our suburban lives ran in the pages of Popular Science and other magazines. We all expected it to appear in our lives any day.

Well, the other day, 45 years later, I was using a picture phone just like the one predicted way back in 1964. As my wife and I gathered in our California den to lean toward a curved white screen displaying the moving image of our daughter in Shanghai, we mirrored the old magazine's illustration of a family crowded around a picture phone. While our daughter watched us on her screen in China, we chatted leisurely about unimportant family matters. Our picture phone was exactly what everyone imagined it to be, except in three significant ways: the device was not exactly a phone, it was our iMac and her laptop; the call was free (via Skype, not AT&T); and despite being perfectly usable, and free, picture-phoning has not become common-even for us. So unlike the earlier futuristic vision, the inevitable picture phone has not become the standard modern way of communicating.

So was the picture phone inevitable? There are two senses of "inevitable" when used with regard to technology. In the first case, an invention merely has to exist once. In that sense, every realisable technology is inevitable because sooner or later some mad tinkerer will cobble together almost anything that can be cobbled together. Jetpacks, underwater homes, glow-in-the-dark cats, forgetting pills - in the goodness of time every invention will inevitably be conjured up as a prototype or demo.

And since simultaneous invention is the rule, not the exception, any invention that can be invented will be invented more than once. But few will be widely adopted. Most won't work very well. Or more commonly they will work but be unwanted. So in this trivial sense, all technology is inevitable. Rewind the tape of time and it will be reinvented.

The second, more substantial sense of "inevitable" demands a level of common acceptance and viability. A technology's use must come to dominate the technium [defined by the author as "the technological artifice as an aggregate phenomenon", essentially our technological culture as a whole - ed.] or at least its corner of the technosphere. But more than ubiquity, the inevitable must contain a large-scale momentum and proceed on its own determination beyond the free choices of several billion humans. It can't be diverted by mere social whims.

The picture phone was imagined in sufficient detail a number of times, in different eras and different economic regimes. It really wanted to happen. One artist sketched out a fantasy of it in 1878, only two years after the telephone was patented. A series of working prototypes were demoed by the German post office in 1938. Commercial versions, called Picturephones, were installed in public phone booths on the streets in New York City after the 1964 World's Fair, but AT&T cancelled the product 10 years later due to lack of interest.

At its peak the Picturephone had only 500 or so paid subscribers, even though nearly everyone recognised the vision. One could argue that rather than being inevitable progress, this was an invention battling its own inevitable bypass. Yet today it is back. Perhaps it is more inevitable over a 50-year span. Maybe it was too early back then, and the necessary supporting technology absent and social dynamics not ripe. In this respect the repeated earlier tries can be taken as evidence of its inevitability, its relentless urge to be born. And perhaps it is still being born. There may be other innovations yet to be invented that could make the videophone more common.

Such needed innovations as ways to direct the gaze of the speaker into your eyes instead of toward the off-centre camera or methods for the screen to switch gazes among multiple parties in the conversation. The hesitant arrival of the picture phone is evidence for both arguments: (a) that it clearly had to happen and (b) that it clearly does not have to happen.

That brings up the question: Does any technology lurch forward on its own inertia as "a self-propelling, self-sustaining, ineluctable flow," in the words of technology critic Langdon Winner, or do we have clear free-will choice in the sequence of technological change, a stance that makes us (individually or corporately) responsible for each step?

Kevin Kelly helped launch Wired magazine and was its editorial director for several years. He has written for The New York Times, The Economist, Science, Time and the Wall Street Journal among many other publications.

What Technology wants is available from Amazon

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc, from What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly. Copyright © 2010 by Kevin Kelly.