As a teenager interning at AT&T, I attended the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York to help with various technology-related matters.
While the nomination of Bill Clinton for President was clearly the most historically-significant aspect of the event, one small item given to me while I was there – that I have saved, and that I display in my office to this day – something so insignificant at the time that many folks who were given one probably tossed it and do not even remember – serves to me as a constant reminder of an important lesson.
In 1992, payphones that accepted coins as payment were still the primary mechanism by which people away from home or work made phone calls – but times were changing and technology was advancing. The 1992 DNC was chosen by the local phone company in New York to demonstrate – at a venue being watched by people around the world – the emerging technology that it said would be the communication device of the future, and in which it planned to invest a fortune to ensure mass deployment: a payphone that accepted prepaid coin-replacement cards inserted into the phone for payment.
Of course, we now know that such communication devices would not only never become ubiquitous in the USA, they effectively never arrived in the USA at all – in fact, since the 1992 DNC I have never seen such a phone in the USA.
But, the card’s symbolism of the human inability to perceive major paradigm shifts goes far further – pretty much everything about the card would be gone within just a few years. “New York Telephone” – the company that issued the card – would be absorbed into its parent “NYNEX” less than two years later, and merge into Bell Atlantic and then into Verizon in the few years that followed; many (if not most) Millennials and Generation Zers have never even heard of the once mighty “New York Telephone.” Payphones themselves disappeared from all over the country along with the rapid adoption of cellphones. Internet-based communications, not voice calls over analog lines, would quickly become the primary method of electronic communications. And, tragically, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center – pictured so prominently and symbolically on the card – were destroyed less than a decade later.
In fact, the entire 2020 Democratic National Convention is being run remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic – without using any technology even remotely resembling card-replacement payphones.
The 1992 DNC coin-replacement card initiative was not the work of technical novices; the company behind it was a telecommunications giant divested from the old AT&T Bell System monopoly, and had working for it many employees well aware of advances in cellphone and Internet technology. Yet, it still so greatly failed to perceive how dramatically and how rapidly emerging technologies would alter the way that humans communicated.
As such, the small card displayed in my office serves as a constant reminder to me about our collective inability to fully anticipate the impact of emerging technologies on human society. Daily changes may be quite small, but huge shifts that we often cannot fully fathom in advance can take place over just a few years, quickly rendering obsolete the innovations that we thought would dominate the world.