Lesson 1: Looking Back to See the Future
Every so often, an invention comes along that makes a major change in the way an entire society lives, like the computer, the radio, and the automobile. Or looking farther back, the steam engine, and before that, the printing press.
Remembering how certain inventions have changed—and continue to change—our lives can help you better understand the world we live in today and prepare you for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is the name we use to describe the time period of rapid technological change we’re currently in.
Consider the telephone. Before the telephone was invented, the only way to send a message quickly was to visit the local telegraph office. Messages were coded in dots and dashes (an early binary language) by a telegraph operator, but there was no chance for conversation unless both parties were in telegraph offices receiving messages in real time. Even then, you’d never actually hear a voice.
That changed in 1876 when the telephone was invented. Just two years later, the first commercial switchboard began operation. It connected a community of 21 telephones in New Haven, Connecticut. From there, telephone services steadily grew, creating new jobs (such as telephone operator and telephone line installer) as access to phones spread across the country. Even though early service was limited, expensive, and suffered from poor voice quality, the telephone was here to stay. By the early 1910s, nearly 40 years after they were introduced, 30 percent of US homes had telephones. Today, it’s almost inconceivable to be without a cell phone.
The telephone has had a tremendous impact on society. It has:
- Enabled us to quickly alert people and emergency responders about illnesses and injuries
- Facilitated the rapid exchange of information, speeding up the pace of business, government, and scientific and technological advancement
- Permitted family members to live farther apart while continuing to frequently communicate with each other
- Enabled us to quickly spread word of disasters, promoting more global focus in people’s lives
Despite all these benefits, don’t think that the telephone is done changing our lives. Consider the effect the cellular phone is having on our society. It enables people to remain in touch while they’re on the go. No longer do you have to wait until you’re “at” a phone: Your phone is in your pocket. What’s more, not only has regular telephone service been a lifesaver in emergencies, but our current cell phones that sync with global positioning systems can help rescue teams zero in on a person’s exact location in an emergency.
The moral of this story? If 150 years later we still have yet to see all the innovation and change the telephone brings to our lives, what does this say about computers and other digital devices?
It tells us they’re still in their infancy. There are a lot more surprises ahead.