Forethought, a Labour thinktank on the future, have published a report on how they think Britain will change by 2020. I’m about halfway through the report, and most of the assumptions are not that radical – aging population, increased consumer expectations from public services, decline of manufacturing sector and rise in importance of ICT. But there is one statistic that has stopped me in my tracks:
“all of the phone calls made in 1984 are now made in less than a single day”
Annoyingly, they don’t give a reference for that statistic, or say whether they mean the UK or global communications market. But assuming its true, thats an amazing statistic – in 17 years, the amount of phone calls we make has increased 365 times. Its one of those stats that gives you an almost vertiginous perspective on the progress of technology. What did we do with all that extra time in 1984? What are we doing with all those extra calls? There is no analysis of whether they include internet access in the stats, but even so, that wouldn’t account for an increase of that scale.
It illustrates how communication technology changes society in subtle ways. We don’t end up with jetpacks, food pills or homes under the sea, but instead our lives change gradually, then exponentially, until we can’t remember what life was like before those technologies existed, even if this was less than 20 years ago.
In a previous job, I had to sort through the archive of a photography gallery, including carbon copies of all the gallery’s correspondence with artists in the 1970’s and 80’s. These conversations would take place over days, even weeks, as letters were sent and replies drafted. Nowadays, the same conversations would happen in a day, at most, using email. But we still ran the same number of exhibitions every year, with roughly the same number of artists, in 1997 as they did in 1977. What did the gallery staff in 1977 do with all their time? And what were we doing in 1997 with all our calls, emails and faxes?