On 03 September 2017 I delivered a short version of this essay as a talk to the Philosophy Forum in Melbourne, Australia.
Human curiosity, and innovation, and society, or, if you like, science, and technology, and culture, all have their own independent ethos. But they continually affect each other. This interaction can be seen in the emergence and development of many kinds of technologies, each of which has followed its own particular course and has had its own particular outcomes. In this essay I will discuss one particular case, electrical telecommunication, which has transformed societies by delivering information more quickly and more copiously over much greater distances.
I would define science as a rigorous pursuit of knowledge of the material world, which I think arises out of human curiosity. I would define technology as the means and procedures of doing things, and the introduction of new technology is innovation. I regard a culture as the sum total of the things that the members of a society do, and the beliefs and wishes that determine what they do.
I would define communication as the means and process of transferring information. Telecommunication consists of producing information, carrying it to another location and accepting it at that location, irrespective of the distance between the locations. This requires some means of representing the information at the sending point, some means of transmitting it to the other location and some means of interpreting it at that location.
Before the existence of electrical telecommunication, information was sent by a range of other technologies, such as: shouting or other sounds; beacons, such as bonfires situated at prominent locations, that were lit to signal some specific piece of information; the waving of flags; and the transport of written information by human runners, carrier pigeons, etc.
It took a lot of human curiosity and innovation to bring electrical telecommunication into being, and a lot more to make it practically effective. Some of the innovation was brought about by trial and error, which often requires a lot of imagination.
And electrical telecommunication could not even have been thought about, until society was able to develop an awareness of the concept of electricity.
We can now think of electricity as being static, that is, not moving, and as current, that is, continuously moving.
Static electricity is the condition when something has an electric charge, that is, when it contains an excess of electrons or a shortage of electrons. This imbalance creates a force, measured in volts, that tries to restore the balance. In its form of lightning, it is a dramatic example of a strong electric force breaking the restraints and restoring the balance.
Static electricity had been observed for thousands of years. Less dramatic early observations of it were the occasional electric discharge between a person and some nearby object, and of some fish that could give electric shocks when touched, and that amber (the same amber sometimes used in jewellery) would attract small objects after being rubbed by some other materials, similar to the attraction of a magnet. These were all thought to be just individual unconnected inexplicable phenomena.
Then, in the 1600s, it was discovered that not only amber but many other substances would produce the same attracting electric charge when rubbed. Most of these substances could be larger and more easily manipulated than pieces of amber, allowing larger electric charges to be produced and played with. This led to the development, by innovative curious people, of devices for the generation of static electricity that could produce sparks, and others that could store static electricity. But these were just seen as interesting scientific curiosities with no practical use.
It would require other people’s curiosity and inventiveness for this knowledge to be used in any practical way. But what might it be used for?
For telecommunication there needed to be a way to use electricity to represent information.
It was not until 1753 (and I am quoting the dates to give some impression of the slow build-up of ideas and innovation: they were different kinds of societies in those days) that someone suggested using static electricity for telecommunication. The suggestion was to use 26 wires, one for each letter of the alphabet. When an electric charge was applied to one of the wires, a pith ball, suspended at the other end of the wire, would be attracted by the charged wire, indicating that that particular letter was being sent. But the curiosity, innovation and moods of society must have had other preoccupations. (Pith is a very light spongy substance found inside the stems of some grasses and some other plants.)
21 years later, in 1774, an electric telegraph, using 26 wires was built – between two rooms of its inventor’s home. But this arrangement would have been cumbersome to use, particularly over longer distances.
So while some basic knowledge of electricity and its technology was now available, and the idea of using electricity for telecommunication had been proposed and demonstrated, a lot more discovery and innovation was needed to do anything practical.
In 1800 Alessandro Volta made the first artificial electric cell, what we now refer to as a battery, and he found that he could produce sparks with it. The cell provided a more reliable and consistent source of electricity than the earlier devices that were charged with static electricity. Then it was discovered that metals would conduct electricity, and that batteries could provide a continuous flow of electricity, and with that, the concept of an electric current was born. (Some third century BC archaeological findings in Iraq and some stone engravings in Egypt suggest that both these cultures had made electric cells. There has been no resolution yet as to whether they actually were electric cells, or the use that such cells would have been put to.)
Built in 1816, a more sophisticated telegraph system was developed using static charges applied to a single wire. The system was tested using a wire that was put in a 170m long trench and also using a 12km overhead line. There were with mechanical devices with synchronised rotating flat discs at each end of the line. The letters of the alphabet were marked around the edge of each disc. A pith ball was suspended at each end of the wire. When a pointer on the disc at the sending end pointed to the letter to be sent, the telegraph operator pressed a key, which changed the electric charge of the wire, which affected the pith balls. The operator at the receiving noted what letter the pointer was indicating when this happened.
When shown this invention, the British Admiralty dismissed it as “totally unnecessary”. For ships at sea this was a reasonable assessment: the pith balls would often have bobbed around as the ship rocked and the wind blew. And though less cumbersome than having 26 pith balls at each end, it would have been very slow, having to wait as the discs turned from letter to letter. The system might have been more acceptable if it had been offered to a land-based organisation, but that was the end of that, at least for a decade.
By then it was well known that if a long thin straight magnet was allowed to rotate it would move into a north-south direction. The compass, an instrument based on this phenomenon, was used for the navigation of ships at sea. In 1820 it was discovered that a nearby electric current would deflect the direction that a compass pointed to, so a current must have some magnetic effect.
Several people realised that a coil of wire surrounding a compass would make an instrument – what we now call an ammeter – that would measure the amount of electricity flowing through a wire, and determine the direction of flow of the current. Then it was discovered that some metals carried electricity better than others, that thinner wires carried less current than thicker wires, and that longer wires carried less than shorter wires. That was enough for the basic science of direct current electricity to be discovered.
This led to further inventions in several countries, and prepared the ground for dramatic changes in society.
The main material that was needed for the earliest telecommunication was wire. Wire had existed for millenniums, mainly in very small pieces for jewellery. Different, longer, special, types of wire were needed for telecommunications, and in large quantities and at comparatively low cost. The wire had to be an excellent conductor of electricity, fairly robust, and able to be easily worked and handled. Copper was the most suitable. It is the second best metal conductor of electricity and it meets the other criteria. (Silver is a better conductor, but dearer and not as robust.) Soft thin flexible copper wire came to be used in electromagnets, and also in cables, in which many strands of wires are enclosed in a sheath, with each wire insulated from the others. A thicker robust kind of copper wire was developed for suspension between poles.
Processes had to be developed for producing both types of copper wire to meet all the criteria in the quantities needed. This was quickly accomplished.
In 1828 Samuel Morse invented morse code – different combinations of “dots and dashes” representing the letters of the alphabet. He also invented a device for manually sending electrical pulses of morse code and a device for making the dots and dashes audible at the receiving end of the line. These were basically an on/off switch for sending, and an electromagnet that attracted a small piece of iron and produced a clicking sound, for receiving. Each burst of current caused a click of sound at the receiving end. A short interval of time between clicks represented a dot and a longer interval represented a dash. He also invented a device for recording the morse code dots and dashes on paper.
This use of a code to represent letters of the alphabet and a sound or a mark on paper to represent the code was the technical breakthrough that made electrical telecommunication practicable.
Morse built a few private systems, and then the first commercial electrical telegraph system in May 1837 in the USA.
Thus began the first stage of electric telecommunications, which became widespread in the third quarter of the 19th century, ushering in a new range of technology and manufacturing, encouraging research into a new branch of science, and changing the way people communicated and did business.
All these things led to a continual flow of new developments in various kinds of communication service, and in all of the components of telecommunications.
The Problem of Long Distances
When electric telegraphy is carried by direct current on wires, long distances produce a difficulty. The longer a wire, the more resistance it offers against the flow of electricity, so the greater the resistance the smaller the current. If the current is very weak, the instruments will not work. This can be addressed by increasing the voltage, which would become more dangerous as the distance increased. This puts a practical limit to how long a section of a telegraph line can be.
But if the equipment at the receiving end of a section of a line were to send the dots and dashes to the next section, the information could be relayed for a further distance. This can be repeated many times. So this solved the problem of distance, even from England to Australia.
The device for relaying telegraph messages was called a relay. Systems using combinations of advanced versions of relays were later used in a different role, as primitive electromechanical computers that comprised a major part of the intelligence of the automatic telephone exchanges.
The telephone service also faced a similar distance limit. But, while relays can reproduce dots and dashes, they can’t reproduce the sounds of speech. However, a few curiosities, new inventions and new discoveries produced a similar solution.
The curiosities were glass tubes that some curious people sealed off as containers and sometimes filled with unusual gases or pumped out to create a vacuum. The main invention was the electric light bulb, which is a form of a sealed tube containing an inert gas or a vacuum.
One discovery was that when a metal with a negative electric charge, was heated above 730oC it would quickly lose its charge, but if positively charged it would stay charged. The conclusion from this was that the surplus electrons were able to get away from the negatively charged piece of metal because the high temperature “loosened” them from their atoms and the negative charge repelled them. If the metal had a positive charge the loosened electrons would be attracted back in. (If some stronger positive electric charge were placed near the hot metal it would attract some of these electrons away, and the positive charge on the hot metal would be increased.)
The second discovery was that an electric light bulb with a positively charged piece of metal inside it would produce an electric current through the vacuum in the bulb, but no current would occur if the metal insert had a negative charge. This arrangement behaved as an electric – or electronic – valve, a valve being any kind of gate that allows passage through in one direction but not in the reverse direction.
Further developments employing additional components inside this thermionic valve, or vacuum tube, or radio valve, enabled it to perform many functions. In one of its various forms, it amplified electrical signals carrying sound, so that telephone lines could be relayed similarly to telegraph lines.
The continual amplification of sound introduces distortion, and it also amplifies any noise that the line has picked up from external magnetic fields. These disadvantages were not eliminated until digital transmission was introduced to telephony and other analog services in the late 1970s.
(The words digital and analog relate to ways of representing information. Analog means that things are represented in ways that have some resemblance to what they are representing, such as the jagged line that represents sound, or the movement of the hands of a clock. Since, despite quantum theory, the world around us looks to be continuous, so analog representations usually look continuous, as distinct from, for example, looking pixellated.
Digital information does not necessarily resemble what it represents, and it is clearly a series of distinct elements. For example, a series of 1s and 0s does not look at all like what it represents. But it can represent whatever you want it to, as in sound, pictures, text or anything else. And a series of 1s and 0s can be analysed and processed in very many ways.)
The thermionic valve could also turn alternating electric current into direct current, extract the sound carried by radio waves, produce oscillating waves of a wide range of frequencies, and provide the intelligence of the first electronic computers.
It transformed life in the early twentieth century.
Kinds of Services
The telegraph was the first official kind of electrical telecommunication service. Its main, but not initial, component was the sending of telegrams. In this service, customers wrote messages which were given to a telegraphist in a Post Office. (Postal services had been established a long time before this.) The telegraphist sent the messages using morse code. The messages were short and succinct because the customer paid according to the number of words. The message arrived at the post office appropriate to the location of the addressee. A telegraphist at that post office translated the morse code into words as it was being received and wrote or typed it onto a special form, which was then delivered to the premises of the addressee by a messenger, who, in the 20th century, was often a boy on a bicycle.
In the 1930’s automated machines called teleprinters and teletypes were developed to send telegrams. The operators of these machines typed the messages using a typewriter style keyboard, and equivalent machines at the destinations automatically printed the messages. . And the teleprinter signals could lead not only to typed text on paper, but also on punched tape, which consisted of long thin roles of paper with a series of holes across the tape. The pattern of holes (and absence of holes) represented a letter of the alphabet. The tape proceeded through the punching machine and the full text of a message was prtgressively coded onto it. The coded tape could then be put into another machine which would then send the message to another destination.
In Australia the same messengers still delivered the telegrams, along those that had been sent by morse code, which was not phased out until 1963. Australian telegram usage peaked at 35 million messages per annum in 1945 and then declined as more and more people got telephones in their homes, which were much more convenient, were immediate two-way connections, and cost a lot less per word. But telegrams did give you the message on paper.
In all of the countries where the telegraph service operated it provided businesses and government with a more efficient and effective way of operating. In Australia communications with England had been by mail carried on ships until the mid 1870s, when the first telegraph connection was made, by wire on poles across Europe, Asia and Australia, and by cables under several bodies of water.
The service also provided a new kind of employment. In my early days of employment in the Postmaster General’s Department, the late 1940s and early 50s, the Department, which had a monopoly on Australia’s postal and telecommunication services, had more than half of the total number of federal government employees.
A kind of service was developed using teletype and teleprinter machines located in business premises. In Australia the PMG invented an automatic telegraph exchange system that was introduced in 1959, allowing these businesses to make automatic teleprinter calls to each other. This, along with the telephones, reduced the use of the telegram service.
The change of technology from morse code to teleprinters replaced the telegraphists with typists, and a transition from one finger operation to ten fingers and the end of reliance on hearing.
The significance of the introduction of electrical telecommunication is comparable with that of the introduction of computers. Even when telegraph services predominated, they changed many aspects of the lives of people, businesses and governments.
The telegraph service, as its name implies, dealt with printed text. The next kind of service is more familiar – the telephone service, which deals with sound; in the forms of voice and music.
The electric telephone was preceded by speaking tubes, which had funnels at each end, and you spoke into or listened from the funnels. They were used well into the 20th century on ships and buildings. An alternative invention was a tight string with a device at each end that had a flat surface when spoken into. When I was a boy we used to make them, using two jam tins (and jam came in tins then). The lids of the tins were removed and a small hole was made in the middle of the bottom of each tin. A string was passed through the holes and a big knot was tied on the inside of each tin. When the string was pulled tight, if you spoke into one tin the sound was generated at the other. This was, of course, essentially line-of-sight transmission, whether used commercially or by children.
Such acoustic systems were superseded when electric telephones were invented in the 19th century. The electric telephone could carry the sounds much further than any acoustic system and with less distortion of the speech. But it still relies on the earlier principle of the tin cans and string – converting sound vibrations into mechanical vibrations.
Further scientific discoveries led to further developments in telecommunications. Michael Faraday discovered that waving a magnet near a strip of metal produced an electric current, and then that an electric current attracted iron in a way similar to a magnet.
By 1845, Faraday had invented the electric motor and the electric generator.
The ability of the electric telephone system to transmit information so much faster, and its immediate connection to the person at the destination, and its ability to provide a discussion, all made it very attractive to business users and the general public. There was also a cost bonus; the availability of the existing telegraph poles to carry telephone wires, at least between towns. And soon the streets of towns began to be lined with poles supporting many pairs of uninsulated wires, one pair of wires per subscriber. As with the telegraph service, the telephone service was quickly adopted in many counties.
As the service began to provide public telephones and services in customers’ premises its usefulness and popularity increased. But even in the 1950s, in Australia at least, only a small proportion of residences had telephones. The service required a separate line (two wires for each connection) from the telephone exchange to the premises of each customer. The PMG had a group of people whose job it was to estimate how many houses in a particular street would want a service during the next eight years and the next twenty years. This was to provide enough lines in advance of requirements, but not so many as to make the construction costs uneconomical. Later on it was taken for granted that every house would want at least one service. Now, in the age of mobile phones, fewer households have landlines and some that do use them for computing only.
The not-so-small businesses soon found that they needed more than one telephone line, and also they needed phones in different parts of their premises. So they had mini-exchanges installed in their premises, where phone conversations could be made within the building (free of charge), and the many employees could each make calls into the public network, sharing the fewer connections to the public exchange.
All of these phone services have stayed much the same, but progressive changes in technology have made them more efficient, improved the quality of sound, extended the feasible distance of audible connection and provided more service options. And the service gave rise to a new kind of publication, the telephone directory, which provided not only people’s telephone numbers, but also their addresses. The address was necessary to ensure you called the right John Smith in the right suburb. But you could pay to not have your telephone number and address in the directory.
The beginning of the science and technology of radio was similar to that of the beginnings of electric telegraphy and occurred at the same time. But, while electricity was known beforehand, the idea of electromagnetic waves travelling through the air was quite unknown. And at that early time no one would have thought that light was an electromagnetic wave.
But once it was known that an electric current caused a magnetic force around the wire carrying it, and that a wire moving in an area close to a magnet caused a voltage in the wire, it became apparent that electromagnetism might provide a means of communication “through the air”. Attempts at such communication over short distances began in the 1830s with very limited success.
Then there were four critical developments.
In 1864 James Clerk Maxwell published a ground-breaking mathematical explanation of the process by which electromagnetic waves would propagate through space. This was purely theoretical, like Einstein’s theories of relativity.
In 1878, it was noticed that electric sparks caused sounds to be heard in nearby telephone receivers.
By 1888 Heinrich Hertz had validated Maxwell’s theory experimentally. He used a spark to generate electromagnetic waves that were picked up by a nearby antenna, which converted the radiated energy into electricity, which then caused an electric spark. But his purpose was purely to demonstrate that Maxwell’s unseen waves were real, and he saw no practical use for them
An electromagnetic wave consists of an oscillating electrostatic force, which induces an oscillating magnetic force, which induces an oscillating electric force, and so on, and in the process, it is travelling through space. An oscillating force is one that increases to some maximum size and then decreases to zero and continues to a maximum of the opposite charge or polarity, and then decreases and so on, repeating the sequence.
Light, radio waves and x-rays are all examples of electromagnetic waves. They all move at the same speed – the speed of light. The various kinds have different ranges of frequencies, that is, numbers of cycles per second of their oscillations. The technical name for one cycle per second is one Hertz, and the number of Hertz in a particular wave is called its frequency. The distance a wave travels during one cycle is called its wavelength. So the higher the frequency the shorter the wavelength.
The different frequencies of electromagnetic radiation have different physical effects. X-rays, which have an extremely high frequency, can penetrate materials that reflect or absorb radiation of lower frequencies. The different ranges of frequency need to be handed by different kinds of technology. The bands of frequencies used in telecommunication are referred to as radio waves. Different bands are used for different applications.
In 1895, using equipment similar to what Hertz had used, Guglielmo Marconi sent an actual radio signal over a short distance in Italy. In 1899, he sent the first radio signal across the English Channel.
Many of the discoverers of these new electrical phenomena were regarded as heretics, on the grounds that such things were not mentioned in the bible and did not conform with the official description of the world that God created. But unlike Galileo in the 17th century, they were allowed to continue their activities and publish the details, and were not persecuted.
Marconi, with his radio signals, was the last of the pioneers of electric telecommunication to be condemned by the church. The various services became a part of everyday life, and society accepted that there were truths about the world that were not mentioned in the religious texts.
In 1902 the morse code letter “S,” – not just a single spark – was sent across the Atlantic Ocean. And so began long distance radio telecommunication.
The “wireless” radio communication has the advantage of being able to operate across water and between moving senders and receivers. So it has long been ideal for ships and peripatetic people, and everything in between.
In the 1930s, short distance point-to-point portable radio systems using thermionic valves were developed for military use and later for private use, but they were not suited to being connected to the telephone network.
By the 1980s new developments in radio antennas and transistors led to the invention of mobile automatic telephone systems that became a part of the public telephone network. The users’ phones were installed, along with vehicle-mounted external antennas. in motor vehicles The phones were too big and awkward to carry around on the person.
Not long after, a hand-held mobile phone was developed. It was given the nickname, at least in Australia, of pocket brick. Continued refinements and several generations of evolution produced the smartphone, which can operate virtually wherever the fixed-line system exists and beyond, and also can have virtually all of the functions of a computer.
The changes in the kinds of telephone services, and the changes in the technology, are still introducing social and business changes for the users of the service, and new kinds of employment with new kinds of skills for the people engaged in providing the services and also in the larger organisations using them. But each change also removed some kinds of jobs.
The continued need for more and better telecommunication systems worldwide stimulated a lot of scientific research. The world’s largest telecommunication company, the ATT, was in the forefront of scientific research and in innovation of equipment. The digital era arose from its laboratory, the Bell Labs, which has also produced 14 Nobel laureates and several other distinguished scientists. Among their other work were aspects of information theory, which relates to both fundamental physics and telecommunication, and the invention of transistors, which superseded thermionic valves and made the digital age possible. (The distinction between analog and digital was described earlier in this essay.)
The essential component of every computer in the world is a network of transistors, which are intricately structured little pieces of the element silicon. Most people carry transistors in their pocket or bag wherever they go, mainly in the form of smartphones..
The computing abilities of smart mobile phones are one aspect of another kind of telecommunication service, data transmission. The data transmission service has some similarity with the telegraphy service, but it is different from all the other services in one crucial way. The other services handle their own kind of information from the input by one end-user to the output to the other end-user, while the data system accepts whatever the sender has prepared for transmission and the recipient has the facility for accepting and interpreting whatever is sent. So it is up to the data customers to decide what specific purpose is to be transmitted. However, whatever kind of information the customers send, they must make its format compatible with the data network.
An early example of a data service is the remote security service, whereby fire detectors or intrusion detectors send an alarm to a security company or the police or fire brigade. These systems used, and some still do, the same networks that supply the telephone service. This facility is known as the private line service. Private lines were also used for direct telephone connections between the head office and branch offices of large companies, but it has long since been superseded by developments in the automatic telephone service.
In the 1960s, the US military, which had previously used teletype machines, created its own data service for undisclosed purposes. They also used it in Australia. The first data services transmitted data over the telephone system at a speed of 600 bits per second, 12 times the speed of a teleprinter. But new developments in science quickly introduced a succession of new generations of equipment that revolutionised telecommunications. Nowadays, after a succession of new generations of technology, 12 million bits per second is commonplace and, the National Broadband Network is offering speeds of up to 100 million bits per second.
The biggest development in telecommunications since the introduction of the automatic telephone system is the integration of computing and telecommunications. This means that there is now just one big system handling almost every kind of service. All of the services can now be held in your hand, in a smartphone.
As the versality and areas where mobile phones operate increases, they become much more useful than landlines. So, where once a household would typically have one landline phone used by all of the occupants, each occupant can now have their own mobile phone with their own telephone number, and can use it almost everywhere in their country, and the household may have dispensed with the landline phone.
Broadcasting is a one-way service from a central point to whoever wants to listen to it or view it. The services themselves are an amalgam of every kind of art, information, education, entertainment, advertising and persuasion. They can be carried by both radio and cable
In the 1990’s, a new kind of service began, the Internet, which allowed its users to put data and pictures into a centralised storage system. Each piece of storage had an identifying code and an identifying name. Other users of the internet could access a particular stored item and read it, but only someone with the password could change it, unless it had some special facility to do this.
The internet grew to be worldwide, and to support other kinds of services, such as email, which allows users to send text messages to other users whose “email address” they knew. Other services such as Facebook and UTube were developed to allow users to show messages and photos and videos that all users of the systems could see and reply to.
Email is a much quicker and flexible medium than posted letters (which became known as “snail mail”) and telegrams. Email completely superseded telegrams, and reduced the use of written letters. But for some uses, “hard copy”, that is, documents on paper, are considered to be more authentic than email.
All of these kinds of services , and adaptations of them, were very quickly taken up, and in most countries a very large proportion of the population uses them. Some of these services can be accessed by mobile phone. Other social media , such as Twitter, which broadcasts text messages with a limited number of characters, are carried on the mobile system.
All of these services introduced a lot of new words relating to the equipment and the processes and the titles of the jobs of the people. As changes occurred some of the terms became obsolete. We don’t often talk nowadays about telegram boys or telegraphists, or thermionic valves which were also called vacuum tubes. Many of the terms were used only by the people inside the trade. This is, of course, common to all specialisations: new words keep entering the vocabulary from all directions and old words fade.
As for the services themselves………
The media is the massage
In the 20th century Marshal McLuhan wrote a book with the title The Media is the Massage (but most people think he wrote the medium is the message). Both connotations are relevant to information media.
The different media, text, pictures, voice conversation, video conversation, broadcast voice and broadcast video all have their own kind of influence, and all have associations with electric telecommunication. Also, all of these have subsets with corresponding differences of influence.
The text you send has several different kinds of effect. It can often be carefully considered before sending, it can be sent to one or a great number of recipients. Depending on the medium of reception the recipient has time to read it carefully after reception or it may quickly disappear. There is no eye contact between sender and recipient, so in all cases all the information is in the connotations of the text. The appearance, the mood and the intent of the sender have to be assumed. Email, texting and tweets have different degrees of intimacy and range of recipients.
Voice conversation adds clues of intonation, fluency and hesitancy, but it gives little time to consider what to say after the initial exchange, and if not recorded will depend on memory for further use.
Video conversations such as with Skype are imperfect equivalents to face to face conversation with the freedom to modify the ambiance by either party.
Broadcast voice and video are impersonal, so don’t necessarily consider the impact on the listener/viewer, and can be repetitive, carefully crafted to influence and merely to inform and entertain.
Other media, such as Utube and Facebook are a combination of all the other media.
All of these telecommunication media have changed the convenience, the ways of doing business, the usage of time, the personal relationships, and the knowledge and opinions of almost everyone on Earth.
Communication has always had to use some kind of technology to represent the details of the information it carried. Hand gestures, speech and writing were among the first technologies for common use. Electrical telecommunication needed some kind of symbol and some kind of devices to embody the symbols and conveniently transmit them, Morse code broke the deadlock. And then there followed the trickle and then the deluge of information technologies that played such a large role in almost all societies around the world
A notable fact is that most of the earlier developments of telecommunication were based on materials and the physical sciences, but the most recent developments in telecommunication are based on digital information. At the moment, the major element of change is in information, and the materials are no longer visible but are hidden in “black boxes”. A consequence of this is that telecommunications engineering now consists of managing the traffic and the demand for traffic, deciding what where and when new equipment and cables should be provided, and connecting the black boxes to the cables. In the meantime, specialists in various disciplines are producing new versions of the equipment and cables, and devising now facilities that the systems can provide.
Another notable fact was the slow pace of change in the early stages of electrical telecommunication and the increasingly faster changes in later years. This probably reflects three aspects of society, the mindset, the wealth, and the available technology at the particular time. The mindset would have been determined by the social structure and religious belief. Intellectual curiosity would have been directed more towards philosophical matters associated with religion. The mindset in the 21st century is very different.
A crucial factor in the recent change, following digitisation, that is, the handling of all data in a digital form, rather than an analogue form, which is different for each type of information, was the inevitable merging of telecommunication and computing as one technology.
Present and future outcomes
This superficial look at one particular technology demonstrated the interplay of human curiosity, and ingenuity, and an entertainment-hungry, greedy, adventurous, competitive society. It also demonstrated the production of new ways of thinking, and new cultures that have become increasingly complex, well informed, and wealthy. Most of the changes were unexpected. Many arose from discoveries that seemed trivial, irrelevant or weird at the time. Almost all impacted on society. And all technologies, being parts of culture, continually interact with others.
But there are downsides.
The downside of the vast and very useful worldwide range of telecommunication systems is that it can be used to promote misleading and aggressive and fraudulent messages with very little editing. These messages often have destructive effects on individual persons, and on the health of people who believe fraudulent health advice, and on the operation of public and other services, and on the integrity of political elections,
The ubiquity of the internet provides coordination of industrial and government operations, and gathering and storage of many kinds data. The ability of “hacking”, that is, getting illegal access to parts of the internet, leads to stealing personal, industrial and security information, and to disruption of private and governmental operating systems. This could be done by individual persons, criminal gangs, and foreign countries. The ability to hack and develop ways to prevent hacking and develop new ways of hacking is an ongoing competition.
Most innovations, when they start to mature, have downsides. Cameras started to impinge on people’s privacy when they were small or could be easily concealed and could be quickly operated. Internal combustion engines have polluted the atmosphere at both ground level to affect human health, and in the upper atmosphere to cause global warming. The use of coal to produce heat has had a similar effect. And then there is the all-pervading range of plastics.
Society has grasped the advantages, but has been careless about most of the downsides. An exception to this carelessness occurred late in the 20th century, when the gas ammonia, which was used in the operation of refrigerators, was replaced with hydrofluorocarbons, which are more comfortable to handle. When the hydrofluorocarbons escaped into the atmosphere, they started to destroy some of atmospheric ozone, which protects the earth from ultraviolet radiation from the sun. When this was detected, it was fairly quickly addressed. In contrast to the other downsides, fixing this problem did not inconvenience society in general.
When an innovation becomes a necessary component of every-day life, or of enjoyment and entertainment, its downsides become extremely hard to address.
As the human population increases, in conjunction with an increasing level of education, science, wealth and technology, there will be an increasing amount of curiosity and discovery and innovation.
There is action now towards all motor vehicles using electricity for fuel and becoming completely autonomous. And there is a lot of attention to innovatory action in outer space.
What awaits us now is a lot more merging of technologies and consequent unexpected changes to society. So be prepared.