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Cell Me A Phone

Phlogiston Forty-Three, 1995

If there is an icon for the 1990s it is a picture of someone with a cellphone glued to their ear. Nothing typifies the decade quite like it. Once only the wannabe yuppies sported them, but nowadays everybody has one of the infernal devices. Even I've got one.

You can tell when a gadget has truly arrived in the public consciousness by the urban legends that accrete around it. By now probably everybody has heard the one about the person striding round in a public place, talking loudly into his phone when suddenly it rings. In the legend he is supposed to blush and creep away, but in my opinion anyone caught in such a predicament ought to say (Very Loudly!), "Excuse me, there is somebody on the other line.", thereby convincing his audience that his cellphone is infinitely more technologically advanced than theirs is. I have never quite had the courage to try this out, but one day I will. Of course, by the time I get round to it, cellphones will have multiple lines and nobody will be impressed at all.

When I consider the big, black, chunky bakelite telephones of my childhood my science fictional sense of wonder gets turned on at the advances that gave us the sleek pocket cellphone. I shouldn't really be surprised though. The cellphone is an obvious (in retrospect) extrapolation from the clunky 1950s monsters I grew up with. Why did nobody spot it before?

Well consider this, from a novel published in 1948:

Matt dug a candy bar out of his pouch, split it and gave half to Jarman, who accepted it gratefully.

"You're a pal, Matt. I've been living on my own fat ever since breakfast -- and that's risky. Say, your phone is sounding."

"Oh!" Matt fumbled in his pouch and got out his phone. "Hello?"

"That you, son?" came his father's voice...

[There is a long conversation]

Matt broke in, "I'll have to sign off, I'm in a crowd. Goodbye, thanks for calling."

"Goodbye son, good luck."

Tex Jarman looked at him understandingly. "Your folks always worry, don't they? I fooled mine -- packed my phone in my bag."

Space Cadet, Robert Heinlein

Robert Heinlein got it exactly right (as he so often did) and this prediction is spot on. Mind you he blotted his copybook. The space cadets may have portable phones, but they still do all their calculating with slide rules!

If you wanted to you could use this incident as a perfect example to support the thesis that science fiction predicts the future. You would, however, be completely wrong. Science fiction does no such thing though many naive critics seem unconvinced of this. Somebody once dismissed one of Brian Aldiss' short story collections on the grounds that it contained no useful predictions at all; a criticism which amused Aldiss mightily.

For almost all of its life people have assumed that because it often deals with future settings and as yet uninvented devices science fiction must be considered to be a sort of literary crystal ball telling us how the future will be both in terms of the gadgets we will be using and the type of society in which we will be using them. Such ideas are reinforced by the classic examples of Jules Verne's submarine and H. G. Wells' aeroplanes and tanks and perhaps also Orwell's and Huxley's sociological speculations.

But such thinking is essentially sterile and the evidence does not support it. SF predicts on the machine gun principle. Spray enough bullets around and one of them is bound to hit a target. You don't have to aim at all -- statistics are on your side. Science fiction does not tell us about the future, it tells us about a future. There are so very many futures (and so very many gadgets) discussed in all of the umpteen umptillion SF books that have been published since the world began that it would be surprising if they didn't occasionally get something right. Hence Heinlein's phone (and Hugo Gernsback's television come to that).

However from out of this plethora of predictions there does emerge one common thread, one consistent message -- the notion that whatever is going to happen, whatever magical devices we may use in whatever society the future may hold for us there is one thing that we can be absolutely certain of; tomorrow will be different from today. Things will change. Science fiction is the literature of change. The details don't matter at all. It is only necessary to know and accept that things will be different.

This is not a particularly profound or original statement (lots of critics have said it before me) but I would like to explore some of its implications, if I may.

Most people find change unsettling, difficult to come to terms with. Familiarity is a comfortable rut to sit in and to be forced out of our rut into something new is often hard and there is a natural tendency to resist it. You can see the effect quite markedly as you watch a cat growing up. Kittens love new things. They live to explore and investigate and everything is new and exciting. Changes in routine, new furniture, new people, new surroundings are new toys to play with and a kitten will investigate and explore all new things with gusto. But as the cat matures, a fixed daily routine becomes more important. New things come to be regarded with suspicion because they interfere with the familiar rituals of food and sleep. Nothing is as conservative as a mature cat. New pieces of furniture are treated with deep suspicion (and sometimes scratched to destruction). New people are avoided in case they don't know how to stroke properly. Moving house is the deepest trauma and it may be weeks before the owners are forgiven and everything returns to normal. Change is suspicious and frightening.

People are very similar to cats in this regard. And the faster the changes come about and the larger they are, the more difficult they are to cope with. My grandfather was born in the nineteenth century, before the era of powered flight, and he lived to see men walk upon the surface of the moon. Such revolutionary changes in one lifetime are, I suspect, very few and far between and I doubt that I will ever see anything quite that dramatic or revolutionary. And yet, despite having seen it, my grandfather refused to accept much of what he saw. Such new-fangled notions were not for him and he preferred to ignore them. They were threatening. The rate of change was too fast to cope with. His ideas were fixed by an earlier age. He was born in a static society where change was slow. He stopped himself thinking about these things by claiming that they were none of his business or that he couldn't be bothered with them. But that was just an avoidance mechanism and whether he liked it or not they did affect him and they weren't going to go away. He bitterly resented that.

Many earlier generations saw little change in their lives. They were born, they grew up, they died; and during their life very little differed from what their fathers and grandfathers before them had seen and done. Some small innovations perhaps, but nothing dramatic. I think that the generation that preceded my grandfathers was probably the last generation of which that was completely true. The twentieth century accelerated the rate of change of innovation out of all proportion to what it had been before. It has been estimated that ninety percent of all the scientists and technicians who have ever lived are alive now. Not that they are the only arbiters of change, they are only the most prominent. We see such changes in all fields, artistic as well as technological, but even the artistic trends are seldom accepted straight away. Innovation in the arts tends to be sneered at rather than feared because we all feel that we understand art whereas few of us claim fully to understand technology. Nevertheless we remain essentially conservative about both and when the Tate Gallery buys a pile of bricks for a vast sum of money and promotes it as art (as happened about twenty years ago) it finds little support. It can't be art because it is new and strange (and perhaps also because we feel it requires little skill -- there is a feeling abroad that art should be difficult to produce; I have no idea why. There can be beauty and therefore art even in random patterns. Why should a pile of bricks be excluded?).

Sometimes when change (of whatever type) is forced, kicking and screaming, into a lifestyle, it becomes even harder to come to terms with. Again I have a perfect example, from my grandmother this time. In the early 1970s Britain changed its currency and went decimal. To the day she died (about twenty years later) my grandmother insisted that it was a mere fad and that one day soon "they" would have to change it back again because it would never catch on. She never learned to be comfortable with the new currency and always insisted on knowing what the various prices she saw in the shops were in "real money". She was frozen in time, into patterns of familiarity and the familiar was ipso facto the one correct way. With such attitudes change becomes anathema.

We can see this on a small scale with my grandmother and on a larger scale with totalitarian governments which are also resistant to change and the threat of new ideas. They too are frozen into patterns of familiarity and when the change takes place, as sooner or later it inevitably does, they break and fall. They cannot live with change and so when change takes place they cease to live. We have seen evidence for that in Soviet Russia and East Germany.

Things like this mean that modern generations no longer have the luxury of avoiding or denying change. The accelerating rate of change positively requires us to acknowledge it and to keep up. If we fall behind the juggernaut will roll over us and crush us. We need a mind set that accommodates the idea of change. SF is the agency that cultivates that mind set. If science fiction tells us anything it tells us that these things happen and prepares us psychologically for the certainty that whatever tomorrow will look like it will definitely be different from today.

I suspect that science fiction fans come much more easily than most other people to change. As a direct result of reading their favourite literature they cope with the whole idea better than the average person or organisation. I have no direct evidence for this, but I do have some indirect, circumstantial evidence that I have gathered from my job.

I work with computers -- the industry that more than any other is most closely associated with change. My colleagues and I are responsible for a revolution in the way the world does business. Within the space of a very few years, computers have ceased to be arcane machines attended by acolytes in air-conditioned rooms and used by very few people in the organisation. They have spread onto virtually every office desktop and few people now can escape their insidious effect. Most people find this very difficult to cope with and they struggle to keep up (yet another symptom of the reluctance of the average person to accept change -- I often hear moans about "the computer system" and how things have gone to pot since it was introduced). The pundits would have us believe that it all works quite smoothly. They proclaim that there is an ever-increasing computer literacy in the work force, that computers are becoming ever more simple to use. This is rubbish. Computer systems are increasing in complexity almost daily. Ninety percent of the users do not use (and are not capable of using) ninety percent of the features available to them.

And as for the myth of increased computer literacy, it is simply that -- a myth. Virtually nobody truly understands the machines they use every day. I find vast amusement in watching self-important businessmen on aeroplanes showing off with their laptops. Most of them don't have a clue. Sometimes they explain what they are doing to their neighbours. That is usually hysterical and I often find it hard to control myself as I listen to their mangled explanation of a technology that is obviously a total mystery to them. They open their mouths and thrust their feet in right up to the ankles.

But even those who do begin to master the software (and there are some) experience difficulties when someone comes along and installs a bigger and better version with more chrome, bells, whistles and dancing girls. The whole thing starts to become a red queen's race, and even that doesn't always succeed. Running very hard doesn't always keep you in the same place. Sometimes, despite all your best efforts you start to slip behind.

However, extreme as it may seem to them, these end users are seeing only the tail end of a process that is quite frightening in the rapidity with which it overtakes the technicians such as myself who are charged with implementing this new revolution. We see, and are required to cope with, things that are orders of magnitude greater than anything they see.

I have worked in the computer industry for almost twenty five years and in this time I have seen revolutions come and go. My job has changed out of all recognition and many of the vital skills I needed a few years ago have been relegated to the scrap heap. There was a time when I could hold a punched card up to the light and read it as easily as I could read a page of printing. This is a skill for which there is little demand these days. When I first started, terminals either didn't exist at all or were such hideously expensive devices that few sites had them. Nowadays terminals themselves are becoming old-fashioned and the trend is for graphics workstations. These are only the most visible examples, but there are many more. I suspect that I completely renew my skill set every five years or so. It isn't that clear cut -- I don't wake up one morning and say to myself, "Oh, I haven't learned anything for five years, I think I'll study object-oriented programming." Nevertheless, gradual though it might be, if I stop and think and look back I often find that things I now use routinely, without even thinking about them are things that five years ago I probably hadn't even heard of.

And the gap is narrowing rapidly. Soon it might be three years, then two. Eventually the gap might be measured in weeks or days. There might come a time when I will need to learn new things before they are even invented. Perhaps the concept of negative or virtual change will then become viable.

The rapidity of the changes I have to cope with don't particularly worry me and I don't find them that hard to manage. Indeed in many ways I enjoy them. Finding out new things is fun. Many of my colleagues feel the same way (those that don't do not survive long in the industry) and I have often wondered why.

This is where the empirical nature of my argument comes to the fore. I have no strong evidence, but I suspect that science fiction has a lot to do with it. The percentage of science fiction fans in the computer business is considerably higher that the percentage of fans in any other line of work. My observations suggest that the ratio is about three to one. (Interestingly the next largest group of fans after computer people appears to be librarians). There are probably many reasons for this imbalance but I believe that one of the most powerful is that since SF predicts that change is inevitable and since the computer industry is probably one of the most effective modern tools for implementing change the average SF fan feels comfortable with the framework and is indeed actively attracted to it. It feels like a science fictional world and is therefore fun. The average non SF-fan does not feel comfortable (indeed they probably feel a little frightened by the whole idea). Perhaps SF is propaganda for the future as well as psychological preparation for it.

That, I suppose, makes science fiction the only relevant fiction for the 1990s because it is the only one that so neatly encapsulates the age. Science fiction and its predictive ability (in the general sense) is a paradigm for living through the events that are heading towards us at an ever increasing pace; whatever those events may be.

The small and generally insignificant successful predictions of science fiction such as the cellphone itself are the icing on the cake, the things that give us a nice glow of pleasure when we encounter them. But the message that the cellphone symbolises is infinitely more important that the simple gadget itself.

Once I was at the airport, in one of the lounges where they serve you free beer and so I indulged (as is my wont when the beer is free) and eventually hydraulic pressure forced me into the toilet where I stood side by side with several other gentlemen in the same predicament as myself. Suddenly from the jacket pocket of the man beside came a ringing noise. He jerked in surprise and attempted to answer it with one hand while continuing to go with the flow with the other. The contortions this required proved too much for him and he wet himself copiously. I was laughing so much that I almost did the same.

Heinlein never mentioned that complication. SF doesn't always get the details right -- only the message.

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