It Looked Like a Toy

I am in the midst of reading James Gleick’s The Information (and I think I’m the last person left who hasn’t), and I was startled by his retelling of the initial reactions to the introduction of the telephone. See if it reminds you of anything.

The next year, in England, the chief engineer of the General Post Office, William Preece, reported to Parliament: “I fancy the descriptions we get of its use in America are a little exaggerated, though there are conditions in America which necessitate the use of such instruments more than here. Here we have a superabundance of messengers, errand boys and things of that kind.… I have one in my office, but more for show. If I want to send a message—I use a sounder or employ a boy to take it.” One reason for these misguesses was just the usual failure of imagination in the face of a radically new technology. The telegraph lay in plain view, but its lessons did not extrapolate well to this new device. The telegraph demanded literacy; the telephone embraced orality. A message sent by telegraph had first to be written, encoded, and tapped out by a trained intermediary. To employ the telephone, one just talked. A child could use it. For that very reason it seemed like a toy. In fact, it seemed like a familiar toy, made from tin cylinders and string. …

The telephone left no permanent record. The Telephone had no future as a newspaper name. Business people thought it unserious. Where the telegraph dealt in facts and numbers, the telephone appealed to emotions… .

As soon as people laid their hands on telephones, they worked out what to do. They talked. In a lecture at Cambridge, the physicist James Clerk Maxwell offered a scientific description of the telephone conversation: “The speaker talks to the transmitter at one end of the line, and at the other end of the line the listener puts his ear to the receiver, and hears what the speaker said. The process in its two extreme states is so exactly similar to the old-fashioned method of speaking and hearing that no preparatory practice is required on the part of either operator.”

If the iPad doesn’t jump out at you immediately, you haven’t used one yet (I’m using one to write this right now). My very own prejudices about the iPad — and I say this as one who was at one time employed in the business of selling them and actively used them at work all day, though in a rather limited capacity — were that the iPad was essentially a toy. Yes, you could perform a lot of computer functions on one, but good lord why would you want to, especially when you could have an 11-inch MacBook Air?

Readers of this blog will note that I recently came around on tablets, but the key was that you need to have it at home to get it. Like the telephone, the iPad appears unserious, in many ways because it’s so accessible to the unenlightened rabble who have yet to delve into their Mac’s Finder or think that the Google is a program the Internet runs on or what have you. But its accessibility, I’ve discovered, does not negatively correlate to its functionality.

Why? Because just like the telephone, its subtle, easy introduction into the layman’s everyday life is actually a feature (intended or not), not a bug. The telephone, if indeed it was intended as a kind of personal broadcasting device, slipped so covertly and unintrusively into humans’ lives, that the humans who owned one knew exactly what they wanted to do with it, Bell’s prescriptions be damned. Likewise, I think it likely that Jobs and company didn’t really know what people might do with an iPad (I think this is evidenced by the fact that the iPhone, which was built on iPad-intended technology, began with no App Store, seriously limiting its core functionality, relatively speaking). But the device’s intuitiveness and ease of use somewhat guaranteed that normal people would be able to find their own uses for it without having to think about it too much, or even having to know what the hell it really was.

I viewed it through the prism of someone who had done the work (some of it, at least) to know what a computer was supposed to do. That’s probably how proponents of telegraphy felt, too. I came around, a little bit after the rest of the world, but I got there.

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