Predictions (Part 2)

In which The Author hasn’t got your number

To mark the centenary of the telephone in 1976, Arthur C. Clarke was invited to give an address at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It marked the end of a two-day celebration of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention, organised by American Telegraph & Telephone. The event saw him rubbing shoulders with AI pioneer Marvin Minsky, information theorists Claude Shannon and John Pierce (whose work did much to pave the way for modern telecommunications), and Dr Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid camera. Mr Clarke’s talk, entitled ‘The Second Century of the Telephone’, appeared in his book The View From Serendip. Here are a couple of extracts from it:
…in the last few decades we have seen the telephone begin to lose its umbilical cord, and this process will accelerate. The rise of walkie-talkies and citizen’s band radios is a portent of the future.
The individual wristwatch telephone through which you can contact anyone, anywhere, will be a mixed blessing which, nevertheless, very few will be able to reject. In fact, we may not have a choice; it is all too easy to imagine a society in which it is illegal to switch off your receiver, in case the Chairman of the Peoples’ Cooperative wants to summon you in a hurry. But let’s not ally ourselves with those reactionaries who look only on the bad side of every new development. Alexander Graham Bell cannot be blamed for Stalin, once aptly described as ‘Genghis Khan with a telephone.’
It would be an underestimate to say that the wristwatch telephone would save tens of thousands of lives a year. Everyone knows of tragedies – car accidents on lonely highways, lost campers, overturned boats, even old people at home – where some means of communication would have made all the difference between life and death. Even a simple emergency SOS system, whereby one pressed a button and sent out a Help! signal, would be enough. This is a possibility of the immediate future; the only real problem and, alas, a serious one, is that of false alarms.
At this point, before I lose all credibility with the hairy-knuckled engineers who have to produce the hardware, I’d better do a once-over-lightly of the electro-magnetic spectrum. This is, I think, unique among our natural resources. We’ve been exploiting it for less than one lifetime, and are now polluting much of it to the very maximum of our ability. But it we stopped using it tomorrow, it would be just as good as new, because the garbage is heading outwards at the speed of light. Too bad this isn’t true of the rest of the environment.
Do we have enough available band-width for a billion personal transceivers, even assuming that they aren’t all working at once? As far as the home equipment is concerned, there is no problem, at least in communities of any size. The only uncertainty, and a pretty harrowing one to the people who have to make decisions, is how quickly coaxial cables are going to be replaced by glass fibres, with their millionfold greater communication capability. Incidentally, one of the less glamorous occupations of the future will be mining houses for the rare metal, copper, buried inside them by our rich ancestors. Fortunately, there is no danger that we shall ever run out of silica (Clarke, 1978: 222-3).
…Now, the invariably forgotten accessory of the wristwatch telephone is the wristwatch telephone directory. Considering the bulk of that volume for even a modest-sized city, this means that our personal transceivers will require some sophisticated information-retrieval circuits, and a memory to hold the few hundred most-used numbers. So we may be forced, rather quickly, to go the whole way, and combine in a single highly portable unit not only communications equipment but something like today’s pocket calculators, plus data banks, plus information-processing circuits. It would be a constant companion, serving much the same purpose as a human secretary. In a recent novel [Imperial Earth] I called it a ‘Minisec.’ In fact, as electronic intelligence develops, it would provide more and more services, finally developing a personality of its own, to a degree which would be unimaginable today.
Except, of course, by science-writers. In his brilliant novel, The Futurological Congress, Stanislaw Lem gives a nightmare cameo which I can’t get out of my mind. He describes a group of women sitting in complete silence, while their handbag computers gossip happily to one another (Clarke, 224-5).
Less than three months ago, the Financial Times reported that some 475 million people in sub-Saharan Africa owned a mobile phone – up from 90 million seven years earlier (Manson, 2013). The same article told us that Kenya’s Equity Bank has become the first bank in the world to offer a completely mobile-based service. According to the FT this week, ‘most’ of the population of India (c 1.2 billion people) have basic mobile phones, and about 150 million are online – following China and the USA (Crabtree, 2013). Earlier this year, Reuters published data suggesting that 1.15 billion mobiles were in circulation in China. (Lo, 2013.) In 2009, according to the Cellular-news.com website, the number of mobile phones in the UK reached 75,750,000 – equivalent to 1.22 phones per head of population. I suppose I’ve contributed slightly to the skewing of that figure, mind. I’ve got three registered handsets and numbers, but only one phone actually works! (Meanwhile, Charles is standing in the doorway of the pub at this very moment, with a phone in each hand. It’s good to know that we’ve both done our bit to boost the figures.)
I find these statistics quite staggering, and almost impossible to comprehend. Forty years ago, our telephone number at home consisted of just four digits if our neighbours were calling, or eight if the call came from a different exchange. Four digits were adequate to serve 10,000 subscribers on an exchange. I don’t think many of my schoolfriends had phones at home, looking back. We had a phone primarily because Dad was a councillor, and people needed to contact him about whatever issues had arisen in their area.
Over time, the number of installations increased until the numbers were changed. I can’t remember exactly when six-digit numbers became standard across the Aberdare exchange, but I must have been in my early teens, maybe younger. I still use our four-digit number as the security answer for one of my email addresses. It’s as easy to remember as my PIN (which it closely resembles.)
[A digression: My mate Darren B. had moved house some years ago, and in the pub on a Friday night he’d given me his new phone number. As it was an Aberdare number, I just decided to try and memorize the four digits. Unfortunately, his new number was almost – but not quite the same – as my PIN. Early on Saturday afternoon I went to the cashpoint, inserted my card, and promptly keyed in Darren’s phone number. I got a second attempt, confused myself, and buggered it up again. After the third failure, the machine ate my card. It was a Bank Holiday weekend, so I couldn’t do anything about it until the Tuesday. It turned out to be a very quiet weekend…]
When I first moved to Uxbridge, the STD code was 0895 (it’s funny how that’s stuck in my mind for nearly three decades, isn’t it?) In the meantime, I had to get used to prefixing my own number with 0685 when I phoned home. In London itself, of course, you needed to dial seven digits to make a local call. In Sidney J. Furie’s 1965 film The Ipcress File, Harry Palmer asks the operator to connect him to ‘Mayfair such-and-such.’ By the time I was there, the named exchanges had been long since replaced by three-digit codes.
When Dad and I were making our way out to Les and Mary’s house in Acton, during the late summer of 1985, it took me a little while to figure out that we were in the right part of town. The penny dropped when I compared the phone numbers on shop fronts to their number and noticed that the same three digits occurred in each one. The same system is used in the US, where Area Codes define certain places – or come with a certain cachet of their own, such as 212 for Manhattan (White, 2013). Telephone numbers featured in American films and TV shows include the number 555 mainly because no such numbers exist, apart from Directory Assistance service.
A few years later, demand for phone lines in London had increased to such an extent that the whole area was split into two parts. Les and Mary found themselves living in Outer London, with 081 as the prefix. Josie’s flat in St John’s Wood had the Inner London dialling code, 071. My London relatives now had to dial ten digits instead of seven simply to speak to each other. Many of these new numbers weren’t actually for phone calls, but for data transmission instead – catering for fax machines, burglar alarms, and the early days of modems.
As new houses and offices were built, the wired world started to spread its tendrils more widely. It became necessary to increase the availability of numbers once again ten years or so ago, so STD codes were extended to five digits. The phone numbers in Cardiff changed from six digits to eight, with a new dialling code. Within the space of fifteen years or so, our phone number in Dillons went from 0222 222 673, then to 01222 222 673, and finally to 029 20 222 673.
[A digression: It was a bit of a weird time, in fact, because we were informed by the Post Office around this time that we’d been using the wrong address for years as well. Instead of occupying 1-2 St David’s Link, Cardiff CF1 4DT, we were actually situated at 18-20 Hills Street, Cardiff CF10 2DL. Customers used to ask us about the sudden change. I’d always tell them that the world hadn’t ended at the end of 1999, as some people had predicted. Instead, we’d slid into the Universe next-door, where everything was exactly the same – except for our address and phone number.]
I’ve only ever made one phone call from outside the UK. Sam and I were on holiday in Ireland in the summer of 1996, and there was a phone box next to the pub in the village. We’d promised to ring our families when we arrived, and it took me a minute or so to figure out that we needed to dial 00 (for the international exchange), followed by 44 (the country code for the UK), followed by our own numbers without the leading zero. I had to phone Hodges Figgis (our sister shop) in Dublin once, and once again had to negotiate the international exchange.
Nowadays, businesses tend to quote their numbers as +44 (0) such-and-such, to make it easier for callers outside the UK to contact them. A few months ago I had a missed call on my phone from a number starting with +82, clearly originating outside the UK. I assumed it was an unsolicited call from an overseas call centre. It turned out to be a proofreading client from South Korea (see Korea Opportunities.) I should probably amend my phone number on my next set of business cards to take account of the global marketplace.
The last great change in UK phone numbering meant that every small and medium sized exchange in the country had an STD code beginning 01-, cities like Cardiff and Southampton started with 02-, and London was still in two parts, starting 0171 and 0181. That should have left plenty of room for expansion for the time being.
It also opened the way to a certain standardization of numbering in general. Now, the prefix 07- was available for mobile phones; 08- for ‘non-geographic’ numbers such as call centres and utilities; 06- was for personalized numbers; 03- is for numbers like the BBC phone-in shows; and 04- and 05- are kept for the future. Finally, 09- was allocated to ‘premium rate’ numbers such as Dial-a-Dominatrix services (I’m told…) (OFCOM, 2006). We’ve certainly come a very long way since Alexander Graham Bell himself announced, ‘I truly believe that one day, there will be a telephone in every town in America.’
The spread of mobile technology has had a surprising knock-on effect on our townscapes. In the Third Millennium, it’s becoming increasingly common to find public payphones being removed from the spots they’ve occupied for decades. When we were young, there was a phone box near the Helliwell’s factory in Robertstown. It was one of the old K6 designs (see Snap, Crackle and Pop), took 2p and 10p coins, and worked about half the time. It was removed years ago.
There used to be one at the bottom of Trefelin, at the far end of Trecynon, until fairly recently. That’s gone as well. Until about ten years ago, there were three call boxes in a row outside Servini’s cafe in Aberdare. Now there’s just one. The odd thing is, until I pointed it, neither Marino the owner nor Helen the waitress had noticed their absence. Another phone box used to stand opposite the Cross Bychan Inn, on the country road between Llwydcoed and Hirwaun. The last time I passed that way was with Stella, on one of our marathon Sunday walks. The phone box had gone, and the pub had been converted into a large house.
There are still three other phone boxes in the town centre: a K6 near Wetherspoons, a modern-style one on Junkie Corner, and another K6 near the Palladium. These last two sit quite close to those other relics of pre-digital communications – pillar boxes. (In fact, since the town centre is a Conservation Area, the matching red hangovers near the Palladium are Grade II listed structures.)

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There’s also a phone box near the top of Monk Street, not too far from the centre, and one on the Gadlys, halfway between my house and town. In terms of payphones, we’re fairly well catered for. There’s a K6 at the corner of my street as well, which I haven’t used for ages. The minimum call charge has shot up from 20p to 60p in a few years. Since my friends and I mostly text each other anyway, it’s cheaper to use my pay-as-you-go mobile. When I first bought a mobile on the Orange network, I found out that the best place to get a signal was at the end of my street. I returned it to the shop, saying that if I was going to walk there to make a call, I might as well use the phone box and have done with it.
I think it’s fair to say that more of my friends (especially the younger ones) have mobile phones than landlines these days. Neil G., one of the pub regulars, has bought himself a handy little gadget because he wanted to go online at home. It’s called a MyFi – it’s a little box which lives on the windowsill, and sends a wireless internet signal to his laptop. It uses the 3 network, and it’s pay-as-you-go as well. Janis and Grace use the same system in their office, and it’s a handy way to get online without the need for a landline. It seems like a good way to go, always assuming I can get a decent signal at home.
A lot of self-employed people I know only use mobile numbers these days, especially when they’re out and about. It means that they never miss a call, and eliminates the need for an answering machine at home. I’ve never been able to set up the voicemail on my mobile, though. Every time I ring Virgin Media, I’m told that they’re ‘experiencing a few problems at the moment’. That’s been the situation for eighteen months or so. I’ve given up trying.
Rhian’s Samsung Smartphone is a quantum leap ahead of my Nokia Thickphone, but I’m waiting for the technology to evolve a little bit further before I take that step into the future. She can look at Facebook and get the train times on screen, but it’s still fairly limited in its scope. I wouldn’t be able to write this blog, or process my photos, or work on text documents and presentations, on a phone of whatever size. I looked at Nicola B’s tablet last week, and it’s a very nice piece of kit. It would be even nicer if it wasn’t running Windows. In the meantime, I’ve got my Netbook, my phone and my camera. I’d much rather have three gadgets which do what they were designed for and do it well, than one gadget which tries to do everything and fails at them all.
Even so, the new generation of technology – from Smartphones to tablets – really does have the potential to become the ‘Minisec’ in the next phase of its development. However, instead of having a communicator built into my wristwatch (Dick Tracy style), my time check comes to me courtesy of my phone. Somewhere along the line, it seems, Mr Clarke’s vision went through a fourth spatial dimension and came out in reverse.
The one thing which he did manage to get totally wrong was the part about the telephone directory. The idea of having several hundred numbers stored on a portable information-retrieval device is nice in theory, but falls down in practice. No end of people I know have had firmware crashes which wiped out their contacts book. It’s unusual to go on Facebook every day for a week and not find a plaintive message from someone whose phone has done the dirty on them.
I had a text yesterday from someone whose number wasn’t stored in my phone. I replied anyway, as it was obviously from someone who knew me. Later on, in town, I bumped into Dean W., who told me that he was the mystery texter. I’d had his number on my old phone, but I was relieved of that about two years ago. I’ve had to rebuild my contacts list from scratch, as and when I’ve seen people and stored their numbers. Since then, Dean’s had a new number as well. He only had my current one because I gave his girlfriend one of my business cards a couple of months ago. Conversely, if I’d needed to contact him for any reason, I’d have had to track down someone who knew him and got his number that way.
The growth of mobile technology is rendering traditional phone books obsolete, as phone users move from fixed lines (and fixed numbers) to a world of constant upgrades and multiple networks. It’s not difficult to visualize a situation, a decade or two away, where the only numbers in the phone boxes are business numbers. We went ex-directory once Dad finished on the council; Uncle Pat and Auntie Vilda were always ex-directory; Mother still is, and I was all the time I had a landline. Anyone trying to contact our family would have a hard time looking us up in the phone book.
Looking up a personal number is going to become more difficult as time progresses. Even now, if someone comes into the Library to look up a business number in the Yellow Pages, Steven or Judith will have to search it online. To cut down on costs and free up valuable space for display purposes (see A Turn-out For the Books), they no longer keep the printed editions in stock.
In the Twenty-first Century, everyone in the world will have a mobile phone, but trying to get in touch with someone you only know vaguely (or not at all) will be difficult at best. Maybe, like the situation the Doctor encounters in ‘Gridlock’, you’ll only be able to communicate with someone if he or she is on your Friends List.
The one prediction Mr Clarke referred to which has come true, rather ironically, wasn’t one of his. Stanislaw Lem was spot-on with his vision of The Futurological Congress, although not quite in the way he had in mind. It’s become increasingly commonplace to sit on trains, in pubs, or in the Students’ Union with a group of youngsters nearby, all fiddling with their mobiles and not speaking to each other. I often wonder whether they’re texting each other, like the scene in The Big Bang Theory where Rajesh and Lucy go on a date but are both too shy to say anything.
One couple I know message each other on Facebook when they’re both at home, but in separate rooms. I wonder if I could encourage my next-door neighbours to go down that route. At least then I wouldn’t have the pleasure of involuntarily eavesdropping on their weekly domestic arguments. It’s definitely worth mentioning when I see them next…

REFERENCES

CLARKE, A. C. (1979) ‘The Second Century of the Telephone’ in The View From Serendip. (London: Pan Books.)
CRABTREE, J. (2013) ‘Engineer’s skills helped build online retailer from scratch’, Financial Times, June 5, 2013. Retrieved June 7, 2013.
LO, C. (2013) ‘China’s mobile subscribers up 1.2 pct at 1.15 bln in March’, Reuters, April 26, 2013. Retrieved June 7, 2013.
MANSON, K. (2013) ‘Africa takes lead in mobile revolution’, Financial Times, March 14, 2013. Retrieved June 7, 2013.
WHITE, M. C. (2013) ‘Manhattan’s iconic 212 area code up for grabs’, NBC News, April 19, 2013. Retrieved June 7, 2013.
‘Vodafone Sees Loss of UK Market Share and Lower ARPUs’, Cellular-news.com, 2009-04-23. Retrieved June 7, 2013.
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