The humble telephone is endowed with such a proud heritage spanning almost one-and-a-half centuries and, of course, involving a certain Edinburgh-born inventor called Alexander Graham Bell. Yet, today, it by-and-large sits on its lonesome in the corner largely ignored while we immerse ourselves in a parade of sophisticated technology.
Its origins actually stretch back 500 years, even more. Now the phone is making a comeback. Sort of. A new generation of audio-only tech apps is about to descend on all of us, courtesy of the social media folks. Think of a podcast where you can ring up – or in – for a one-to-one, or more likely a group, chat. A kind of phone with innumerable extensions.
Lots of us have become so used to utilising the likes of WhatsApp messaging during the lingering coronavirus. Now it and other video screen platforms are about to be complemented by a new tech innovation, heavily marketed under the slogan: 'It's good to talk'. That's what the Big Tech boys claim – and they usually get their way. The virus is getting the blame.
From the pandemic's early days when we were all desperate to see each other now, apparently, we're all sick of the sight of one another, as we crave normality. Very soon names like Clubhouse and Discord will be upon us, as we continue to hibernate housebound during lockdown. Mind you, watching English parish council members indulge in sparky verbals, as a kind of on-screen entertainment, would certainly be missed.
Think of the latest development as an extension to the telephone in modern times. A bit of history here, courtesy of BT who to this day employ, either directly or contractors and suppliers, 10% of all IT and communications folks in Scotland: Alexander Graham Bell filed an application in 1876 in America for a patent for his apparatus for transmitting vocal sounds. Within the month in his Boston laboratory, he reputedly spoke to his assistant Thomas Watson the first recognisable words transmitted by telephone – 'Mr Watson, come here, I want you'. This sentence was transmitted over 100 feet of wire. The days of the telegraph were effectively over.
Reports at the time recorded that Bell Telephone, becoming AT&T, subsequently engineered the first long-distance call, from Chicago to New York in 1892, costing $9 for the first five minutes, equivalent to the average US unskilled labourer weekly wage for performing 60 hours work. Bell even demonstrated his invention to Queen Victoria.
Over a century later, there's Zoom, Teams, Facetime and Skype video, so why audio? What's in a name? It's a so-called 'new' way of selling something that offers a familiarity with what's already in existence. That's the way it is with global techland, as we're persuaded to change our behaviour, yet again, and buy into the latest social media offering.
The concept of the audio social app isn't new. What's changed is a heavy marketing push emphasising how one can either chat to friends or fellow team members at work. Even conduct vocal interactions with strangers, conjuring up all sorts of fresh fears concerning trust, privacy and security issues.
It's all being geared up towards the likes of Millennials and especially Generation Z during work and leisure times, the former involving the widely accepted defining birth years 1981-1996, with their offspring viewed as the first generation to have not experienced life without the internet. Soon, they will not only use music platforms like Apple Music and Spotify, but will also chat endlessly to friends and work colleagues on audio social apps. However, it's talking to complete strangers that's the worry.
The market leader Clubhouse accepts members on an invitation-only basis, that's a start, but already a 'back door' loophole into its so-called celebrity membership has been discovered. Ultra-tight regulatory controls are required. Otherwise we're all going to suffer from another 'open season' that has plagued social media activity, with all the negativity and threats to our cherished privacy, and with it a profound lack of trust of all matters via cyberspace. Here's hoping.
Thankfully, the telephone's legacy lives on. Sort of.
Bill Magee is a freelance journalist who specialises in business and finance. He has written for many publications including The Scotsman, The Times, Business Insider and Reuters