The Telephone and Architecture

Technology dictates architecture.

That is, a specific technology demands a specific architecture. Not the architecture of a building, but rather the architecture for the implementation of that technology.  As lazy humans, however, we get the technology first; the architecture takes us time.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.

People understood right away what this thing did.  It allowed one person to talk to another over long distances. This was a radical new technology. Until Bell, the fastest anyone could deliver a message to another person was by putting a person on a horse with a piece of paper. It had been ever thus since the days of the Roman Empire.  Now, for the first time, a message could be delivered at the speed of electrons racing down a wire.

The telephone require a complete rethinking of the architecture of technology, and also, incidentally, a complete rethinking of the architecture of value.

Prior to the telephone, value had been determined by scarcity.  If you were the only person in the world with a diamond, then that diamond was worth a great deal. If, on the other hand, everyone in the world also had a diamond, then your diamond was worth nothing.  The telephone turned that kind of thinking on its head.  If you have the only telephone in the world, it is in fact worth nothing.  There is on one to call. If, on the other hand, five other people have phones, then your personal phone is worth that much more. If five million other people have phones, then your personal phone is worth a great deal more. It was the birth of networks.  (remember this, because it will become really important when we talk about the Internet).

The problem in 1876 was, that there were not only no other phones, but there were not wires to connect them.  So those who sought to profit from the phone realized that they would have to ‘wire the world’ to make the phone network of any value.

This was an enormously expensive undertaking.  It was probably one of the greatest engineering feats in human history. Whole new technologies had to be developed on the fly, from mining copper and making twisted cables to switching devices to electrification. But it was done.

Between 1876 and 1898 most of the western world was wired; and at considerable expense.  Massive amounts of money were borrowed; stocks were issued; bonds were purchased. But it seemed a good investment, because surely, for the next hundred years if not more, people would pay to use those wires so that they could talk to one another.

Just as the work was drawing to a conclusion, a terrible thing happened.

A young Italian man came to England with a small black box.

“Let me show you something” he said, and turning on his black box demonstrated how he could talk to someone else without wires.

“I call this… wireless” he announced.

His name was Marconi.

Needless to say, this caused great consternation around the world.  It was another one of those technologies that no one wants to see – a disruptive new technology that was suddenly going to make all the work and cost of wiring worthless.

So ATT bought the patents for ‘wireless’ and for twenty odd years repressed its development.  The only place ‘wireless’ was allowed to flourish was on ships. Because you can’t run phone lines to ships, at least not while they are at sea. And The Marconi Company remained a small venture, selling, (or trying to sell) to navies and shipping companies.

Then, in 1912, the Titanic, one of Marconi’s clients, hit an iceberg.  They sent out a radio signal telling what had happened. They sent lots of them, as it took so long for the ship to sink.

In New York, David Sarnoff, a 16 year old Russian immigrant, and an employee of the Marconi Company was receiveing radio traffic when he got the Titanic’s call. For 36 hours, he sat by the radio (which was in the window of the Woolworth Building in NY) and took in radio messages from the sinking ship.  A massive crowd gathered to hear the news, not in front of The Times building at Times Square, but rather in front of the Woolworth Building, as Sarnoff passed the latest bit of news to the crowd.

This was a seminal moment.  The sinking of the Titanic was the first global event that was covered in real time.

And in that moment, Sarnoff, at the age of 16 had a revelation:  Radio was not a competitor to telephones. I was not for sending one message between two people. Rather, it was something entirely new – it was for sending the same message to many people, millions of people, at the same time.

It was thus, in this moment, that the architecture of radio was understood, long after the technology had arrived.  It was in this moment that the broadcasting industry, as we know it today, radio and television, was really invented.  One signal to many people.

Becasue people had lived with telephony, they looked at wireless and immediately sought to plug wireless into the world they understood and were comfortable with.  It took nearly thirty years for someone to understand the architecture that radio demanded.

Why is this significant now?

All too often, we also take new technologies and plug them into an architecture that we already understand.  All too often we take the Interent and see it as an alternative platform for broadcasting.  Take a look at NYTimes.com. What do you see?  A newspaper. A newspaper put on the web.  That is because that is what newspapers understand. That is the architecture they understand.

As video comes to the web, broadcasters will also see it as a way to do what they do now – one signal to many people, but online.

This will be a classic mistake.

But they are in very good company.

One response to “The Telephone and Architecture

  1. Pingback: Participation Architecture « Dawn of the Participation Age

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