When one reflects on the past century, it is astonishing how much technology has evolved in every sense. From light bulbs that lasted only ten hours, to bulbs that can now last over ten thousand hours. From a simple cellular phone only capable of making phone calls, to today’s smartphones that have effectively changed the way we interact with one another. Although there will always be opponents of technology, there is no denying that is has positively impacted modern society, and the way we live, work, and communicate.
Thomas Alva Edison
In today’s society, when a light bulb goes out, we think nothing of it. It is easy to drive to the closest store, purchase the appropriate bulb for next to nothing, and replace the burnt out bulb. What people don’t realize, however, are the painstaking hours of work and dedication that Thomas Edison devoted to this magical wonder, and the impact that it has had on society today. In order to fully understand and appreciate this marvel, it is necessary to go back in time and relive the invention for yourself. In Chapter 1 of Beyond Engineering, Robert Pool takes you back to the beginning, back to the time when “if people wanted light after the sun went down, they still performed the age-old ritual: they lit a fire. Outdoors, it might be a wood fire; indoors, a candle or kerosene lamps”.
Before Edison’s invention transformed society, the majority of people were cast in the dark when the sun went down. Although candles and kerosene lamps were an option, they were not only dim, but also a potential safety hazard. They were also unable to provide the reliable source of light that today’s lamps produce. Even though a few warehouses and factories had arc lighting installed, this technology was far too expensive and unattainable for the average household.
It goes without saying that the light bulb itself was nothing special. Without all the additional technology and developments that followed, such as power stations, transformers, electrical wiring, etc., its impact on society would have been minimal. It is incontrovertible, however, that the electrical technology that has emerged thanks to the light bulb, has impacted and transformed society beyond recognition. Without these developments, modern society would still be in the dark. We would not have the privilege of travel that we take for granted today, thanks to vehicle headlights, aircraft lighting, streetlamps, etc. We would never have developed the modern workforce that our society benefits from today, thanks to twenty-four hour lighting, and the contemporary conveniences that we enjoy today. Not to mention the ability to enjoy our homes any time of day, not just when the sun is shining. Without the progress that followed the light bulb, we would not have access to today’s amenities that we take for granted, such as electric stoves, microwaves, movie theatres, “night life” and computers, to name only a few. Though it is doubtful that Thomas Edison ever dreamed that his invention would alter life for millions of people to come, it is indisputable that it truly has.
The cellular telephone is an excellent example of a device that has evolved from a simple, uncommon product, in to a complex multi-billion dollar industry. From a product that began as an expensive toy, only attainable by the most privileged members of First World society, to an invaluable device used by the majority of people worldwide. If you were to return to the point of origin, when the cell phone was first created, you would certainly never be able to convey to its original manufacturer the technological evolution that has brought cellular technology to the point it’s at today. When mobile telephones were first invented, they were a modest, bulky device with only one purpose- to make and receive phone calls from “anywhere”; not at all similar to the sleek, complicated models we use today. It is not difficult to realize the enormous changes the cellular phone has undertaken since the first model was released.
Although the cell phones of the past certainly had an assortment of parts and pieces to make it work, it pales in comparison to the vast, complex array of parts that are needed today to make a smartphone function. Similar to the complexities of the Boeing 747 “super jet”, “No single person can comprehend the entire workings” of a cell phone. The cell phone found in the pocket of the majority of citizens of the world today include GPS, Wi-Fi, 3G or 4G networks, LTE, high-resolution cameras and millions of downloadable user-made applications to choose from. In fewer than 30 years, the cell phone went from a rare device only attainable by the wealthiest of the population, to a device that a large percentage of the population now owns. Whether on the streets of downtown Toronto, or a small village in poverty-stricken East Africa, it is becoming increasingly rare to find a person who does not own a mobile device.
Similar to the light bulb, the cell phone began as a modest product with a modest purpose, and underwent multiple, complex revisions to result in the current models manufactured today. If one examines the cell phone’s impact on our culture, it is evident that it has had both a positive and a negative impact on society. Without a doubt, the largest positive impact has been its ability to make day-to-day life less complicated, and ultimately, easier. Among a never-ending list of examples are: the ability to set reminders for appointments, meetings and important dates, an endless array of how-to and do-it-yourself applications to save money on professional services, internet access from anywhere, instant access to bank, email and home security accounts, etc. Mobile technology has also made it easier to stay in touch with loved ones around the world. Deployed troops are able to communicate with their families at home via Skype, international businesses can hold meetings with coworkers on the other side of the world via videoconference, and parents are able to communicate with their children anytime, from anywhere.
It is easily debatable that the positive impact cellular phones have had on society far outweigh the negative, however, it is not realistic to maintain that there has been no negative bearing at all. Aside from the physical danger associated with our near-obsession with our cell phones, such as texting and driving, the most easily identifiable negative effect is the noticeable decrease in personal, human interaction. It is not an exaggeration to say that the vast majority of today’s generation spend a large portion of their time on their cell phones.
Whether in a restaurant, a classroom, public transportation, or the movie theatre, you are most likely surrounded by the bright light originating from someone’s phone screen. It is rare to walk down a public street, or through a shopping centre, without seeing people walking, texting, chatting or surfing online all at the same time, regardless of their surroundings. The intimate, social relationships between friends seems to have suffered as a result of society’s need to constantly feel “plugged in” to our mobile devices.
Without a doubt, technology will continue to adapt and evolve, as will our attitudes towards it. What seems futuristic and revolutionary today, will one day be taken for granted by our descendants. Just like the original inventors of the light bulb and cellular telephone, the inventors and manufacturers of today can only scarcely begin to imagine the different evolutions and modifications that their current products will undertake in the near-future. Though it is impossible to predict the inventions, creations and ideas to come, it is irrefutable that the impacts, both positive and negative, on society and the worldwide population as a whole, will be substantial.
1) Chapter 1, History and Momentum, Beyond Engineering, How Society Shapes Technology, Robert Pool
2) Chapter 4, Complexity, Beyond Engineering, How Society Shapes Technology, Robert Pool
[ 1 ]. Chapter 1, History and Momentum, Beyond Engineering, How Society Shapes Technology, Robert Pool [ 2 ]. Chapter 4, Complexity, Beyond Engineering, How Society Shapes Technology, Robert Pool
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