AT&T looks into the future - from yesterday

In her keynote speech at the Ramkhamhaeng University's conference "Learning Theories vs. Technologies?", Nada Dabbagh from George Mason University showed some clips from a short movie produced by the infamous telco giant AT&T in the early  1990's where the company looked into the future, and produced a brave new world with their products. Dr Dabbagh commented on these clips that technologically, "we are not there, yet". However, I will argue that we will never be there. Before I start to give you my arguments, I will quickly recall how AT&T saw the future world.

How AT&T saw the future

Obviously, the movie as a whole told one day in the life of an all-american family, and how they interact with the future products to make everyday life more easy. There was the father, seemingly an architect; the mother, a surgeon; the adult daughter who is going to marry her Belgian boyfriend, and the teenage son. Dr Dabbagh showed the following clips:

  1. The first clip we saw showed a video phone with a translation on-the-fly feature - there were an Indian man who spoke Hindi (or another one of the thousands of indic languages), the daughter aboard an airplane who spoke English, and the coming son-in-law who spoke French. But the phone translated everything into the preferred language of the caller while giving a subtitle with the original speech. The translated speech didn't sound artificial but used the people's original voice, the Indian's speech was rendered into English even with an indian accent. 
  2. The second clip showed the father at a construction site where he used a mobile computer that was as thin as a piece of paper. And of course, he could take a video call from his wife.
  3. We were also shown a clip in which the daughter's boyfriend seemed to propose for the daughter. He did that in French which the father did not understand. He called on a video phone that had the size of a middle sized plasma tv, which had a special sensor field next to the screen. As the father touched it, his finger print was recognized, and the phone started to translate everything said into English.
  4. Later, the mother and the daughter went shopping for the bridal costume. Well, they didn't actually go somewhere, they switched to some kind of the next generation of tv shopping, where the digital sales person was life-sized and voice-controlled.
  5. Meanwhile, the son was playing some kind of virtual reality game together with his friends online. He was wearing a pair of VR goggles through which he saw the interior of a Frankenstein-like castle with some monsters in. Suddenly, there was an automated message from his mum(my) SCR. He set the game into pause mode, and the monsters transformed themselves into his friends as they look in real-life. His mother said, that he had played now for two hours, and he should switch to the homework channel now.
  6. Also, we saw how the mother treated a patient in the hospital from home. Her personal digital assistant reminds her of an appointment. She opens a connection on her plasma tv sized video phone, where she tries to contact her colleague. As he is unreachable, his digital assistant stands in for him (although the assistant is not authorized to make any medicinal decision). On the third part of the screen, there is the patient and a nurse who are at the hospital. If desired, x-rays, etc. will appear.
  7. The last clip was more related to learning. The father was visiting a school. He went to a computer lab there, where the children were taught by a digital teacher who was - as the mother's digital assistant - fully capable of interacting with humans in a meaningful way.

Thoughts about this movie

At first, this movie didn't seem to be any kind of futuristic to me. I thought it might be because of the clothing and hair style of the protagonists, which reminded me of 1980's tv series, especially Knight Rider. But it was more then just the optics, the reason why everything look so yesterday-ish to me had also to do with the technology presented in the movie, and how it is used.

If you look at utopias from any kind of time, then they always represent the time in which they were conceived. The more you go back in time, the clearer this is. When I was a kid (that was in the early  1980's), I used to have a book about the future which was was written about 20 years before. In that book, the authors predicted that there will be a colony on the moon by the year 2000, and a space station circling around the earth, and everything on earth was run by nuclear energy. Even as a 10 year old boy, it was evident that these predictions in the book would never be a reality. In the neighbouring city, there was a nuclear power plant, and I grew up seeing the protests against nuclear energy on tv. But at that time, I didn't realize the reason why my book's technical utopia will remain within the realms of the imagination of an author from the 1960's.

It's because the technical evolution does not evolve in a predictable way. Giant companies like AT&T are not the companies that come up with innovative ideas, they just exploit them when they are ripe for mainstream. The innovations come from small companies, like Apple who designed and marketed the first personal computer (in contrast to the big mainframes that were in use in the 1970's), but the real breakthrough for personal computing came with IBM's PC.

And the same goes for the ideas portrayed in this movie.

What developed differently since AT&T's movie

Can you think back: What did you do with a computer in - let's say - the year  1993? Using floppy disks to transfer your files to another person's computer. CD burning was at that time still in its infancy, done by the early adapters. You were probably running MS-DOS with Windows 3.11, or an Atari, Amiga, or MacOS machine. And Linux was two years old at that time, and still without its mascot Tux.

What's missing in this picture that we all have today? Right, the internet. In 1993, there was the world wide web available already, but it was unknown to the general public. What was available for normal people were BBS networks like Fido-Net or Maus-Net which you accessed with 14k modems.

The internet gave us a totally new definition of how we use (not only) computers today, so that's why there are a lot of odd things and expressions in the AT&T movie, like the "homework channel", the son should change to, or the virtual shopping trip which looked more like shopping tv than e-commerce as we know it.

Another thing that is mostly not there in the movie is the mobile phone. Apart from the paper like portable computer which could also take video calls, there were just rather conservative phones with just the video and translation feature added. But still, this is something that seems to get more and more obsolete to me in today's world.

However, there is one feature in the movie that is about to become a reality - the convergence of formerly seperated kinds of technology, like the big video phone which also could be used as tv set, too. Just imagine what kind of technologies you can use on a normal interncet connected computer from the end of 2006: tv, radio, telefone, ... the old media merged into the multimedia pc being now transformed into a multimedia service.

But today's computers offer so much more than just these old media. We have e-mails, blogs, podcasts, wikis, you name it. And these applications that the movie makers did not foresee, imply a totally different kind of usage with computers. The protagonist's mindset was mostly in a tv kind of mode with just a limited kind of interaction - like changing pre-defined parameters, e.g. when mother and daughter looked at the bridal costume. But today's web is much more targeted to users who create their own content and share it with others, e.g. on YouTube, in blogs, or Wikipedia. This full interaction which is a social one and not just changing some parameters in a specific context is not really important for the AT&T family. Well, I guess such kind of uncontrollable user behaviour must be a total nightmare for such a big player. ;-)

However, one thing that really looks up to date in AT&T's movie is the online game the son is playing. If you visit an internet cafe in Thailand, there is a huge amount of young people who play online role playing games like Ragnarok . However, the idea behind games like this is not an AT&T creation.

Learning AT&T style

The way of learning in the movie shares a lot with the 1990's naivité concerning the future of learning and is based upon preconditions that should be obsolete by today.

  1. Learning is an own mode of using technology. There is a clear distinction between playing an online role game and the "homework channel".
  2. The teaching person is replaced by multimedia programmes, even by a digital teacher.

Learning as it is today

Learning becomes now more and more a social activity, like writing blogs and wikis together, and learning becomes less seperatable from other modes of using technology, especially concerning looking for information to do new tasks on your job.

I would argue that the teacher made from flesh and bone is today more important than ever as a guide through the sea of information, but also as a motivator and a facilitator within a group of learners. It's like playing a computer game against the computer, or a friend. As long as there is nothing like a real artificial intelligence, a digital assistant can never be a replacement for the teacher (as imagined by AT&T).

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