A guest post from our good friend Martin Geddes. More about him later.
Future proves past
The late Victorians loved virtual reality. They were pretty keen on texting, too. Of course, they didn’t think of them in those terms. But the telephone and telegram are indeed primitive forms of those respective technologies. The phone call is an immersive audio-only virtual world that two (or more) people simultaneously inhabit. The receipt of a telegram activates the exact same reward mechanisms as today’s highly addictive social media applications.
In order to understand the future of personal communications, it is often helpful to go far back into the past. The basic patterns of relationships and motivations for interaction are essentially unchanging over time. The same needs can be projected forward, but will be delivered in ways that are as dissimilar to today’s services as they are in turn to those of our 19th century ancestors.
Whilst telegraphy solved the need for basic information exchange, like commodity market prices and new customer orders, the phone call solved two other core needs. The first is to narrate stories to each other, forming shared understanding and joint intent. The second is to feel the presence of another human being, whispering from the handset into your ear, and recreating the sensual sense of the other party.
In many ways, the latter visceral need is far more powerful and valued than the former: ask any delighted grandparent hearing their new-born grandchild over great distance for the first time. It isn’t so much what is uttered than it is being heard at all: the value is in the human connection that forms as a result. The telephone doesn’t just collapse time and space, but also the separation between our hearts.
Three major shifts changing the way we call
Projecting ourselves forwards in time, there is one key change in how we communicate. The last few decades have seen a swing from digital computers enabling online voice (and now video) services, towards AI-based software actively participating in our conversations. This transformation has already taken place in contact centres, with constant and automated evaluation of the energy in our voice and the intent of our words. The machines can now make some sense of us.
The virtual communications environment of the future will likely see three major shifts as a result. The initial one is the easiest: we will remove and automate much of the basic information transfer, such as dictating our names and credit card numbers to call centre agents has been replaced by web-based forms or mobile app payments. For instance, it is now common for your voice to authenticate you to your bank, removing the need to remember the fourth character of some gibberish password.
This automation will also grow to eliminate humans from the loop for many more tasks. As calls become captured and machine-processed by default, we will need to be protected against invasions of privacy and misuse of the intimate voice data. Rather than a non-negotiable and one-sided “your call may be recorded…” announcement, every call will involve an agreement of mutually acceptable terms.
New “lawyer bots” will pre-negotiate the basis on which we will engage in communications, agreeing matters such as the jurisdiction of any data processing, the policies for data retention and destruction, and the permitted uses of the data. Just because you can run my recorded voice through a mental health evaluation suite doesn’t mean you should!
A hyper voice future
The phone call of the future will create a richer narrative environment, giving us a “show and tell communicator”. Conversations are about something, and we will be able to conjure up the relevant virtual objects. These may be simple media like images, or rich and complex data structure like business processes. We can point to the relevant object part to discuss, annotate them, tag moments for action, and build notes tied to their context of the object and the voice call. We call this ‘hypervoice’, a revolution akin to the Web and hypertext.
Perhaps most transformation of all will be how intelligent machines can augment us to give us superpowers of comprehension. This reflects what author William Whyte wrote in 1950 in Fortune magazine:
“The great enemy of communication, we find, is the illusion of it. We have talked enough; but we have not listened. And by not listening we have failed to concede the immense complexity of our society–and thus the great gaps between ourselves and those with whom we seek understanding.”
Just as the “Babel fish” universal language translator has jumped from science fiction to product reality, so will we resolve other “impedance mismatches” between diverse humans. Another framing is to think of the hearing aid, which today amplifies raw audio, but tomorrow amplifies empathy and intimacy. We will see a switch in paradigm whereby technologists and engineers start to ask new questions, such as “what feeling state do I wish to create now?” — given a specific context and intent.
In any period of upheaval, it is natural to want to focus on what is new and unexpected. A flood of clever technologies makes for attention-grabbing headlines, but they only have value if they meet genuine needs. The wiser approach is to first understand what is not changing, and in the case of personal communications it is us. For if a Victorian time traveller was given a chronovisor to interact with the citizen of the mid 21st century, the challenge of being understood when using innovative gadgets might be all too familiar.
Martin is a genius. Formerly Strategy Director at BT’s network division, and Chief Analyst and co-founder at Telco 2.0. Martin previously worked on a pioneering mobile web project at Sprint, where he was a named inventor on nine granted patents.
He’s also an authority on the future of the telecoms industry, ranging from emerging business models to new network technologies. A futurologist, writer, speaker, consultant, and technologist and soon to be author of a book, The Internet is Just a Prototype.
Massively recommend subscribing to his blog and newsletter.