Battlefield Screen

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Battlefield Screen

By Benedict Evans

Facebook won on the desktop. All the other rival social networks have disappeared and it now seems very unlikely that another site will come along that does the same thing better, overtaking Facebook the way Facebook overtook Myspace.

But Facebook hasn’t won on mobile.

  

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My Double-Edged Web

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My Double-Edged Web

By Alexander B. Howard

I spent the first two decades of my life without a smartphone or cellphone of any kind. Today, I wouldn't leave home without one. When I awake, my iPhone is there on the nightstand, ready to be consulted for news about the world and latest from my friends and family. Multiple spheres of my life and work pulse below glowing icons, accessible with a tap, swipe and scroll.

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Editor's Letter

My dad's first cellphone had a shiny, micro-pebbled black plastic shell, a long antennae, and a matte aquamarine screen. A hideous miracle, I thought. When he was home, the cellphone would sit on the top of his dresser, next to a pile of change and folded scraps of yellow legal paper. To me, the cellphone was an alluringly grown-up accessory, a signifier of import, of having colleagues in sleek suits awaiting your decisions. I wanted, not so much to use it, but to be seen using it. A kid on a cellphone! The very image of it gave me a nice, shivery feeling. 

Until it didn't. For the cellphone stayed on that dresser for years. Eventually, it became an object of derision, eliciting levels of eyeroll and groan I'd previously reserved for madras bathing shorts and Dansko clogs. But my dad didn't want to upgrade. Upgrading meant the Blackberry, and the Blackberry meant a life spent stabbing at tiny buttons.

Today, inured to the tiny buttons, he refuses to consider the iPhone -- too many distractions. But the BlackBerry has its own distractions; on long drives, its red light blinks constantly, ricocheting out of the cup-holder, grabbing at my gaze. Once, I asked him why he didn't just turn the light off. 

 "I think I don't see it unless I want to," he said.

I don't have a blinking red light, but I'm constantly aware of notifications. Often, I log out of Gmail, turn my phone off, and still I'll see flashes, hear Marimba pings. 

We talk a lot about technology as a force for good and evil and redundancy, but for many of us, the underlying question is really: what will technology do to my human-ness?

The simplest answer, I think, is, "it's up to you." A better answer is: "it's up to you, but you have to be aware of that." 

This issue explores the better answer. In "My Double-Edged Web," Alexander B. Howard examines how the modalities of his digital connections fit into a richer, and more demanding physical world. Maria Bustillos traces e-commerce's history, from its community-minded origins to a present that is mostly sterile and transactional--but also, for those who seek, interspersed with pockets of enthusiastic, one-on-one interactions. On the subject of one-on-one interactions, Benedict Evans looks at social's mobile landscape, and finds one Goliath and a heckuva lot of Davids. And, over forty years after he invented the cell phone, Marty Cooper envisions its future: an embedded device that optimizes nearly every aspect of our lives.  

We are living in a decade with a high number of unprecedenteds: surveillance, data, access to knowledge resources, access to information (both truthful and spurious), access to people (real and quasi-real and totally fake). And choice. We have--thanks in large part to technology!--choice over all the other unprecedenteds, even if finding the choices can be challenging, the choices themselves less than ideal.

To choose is to be human. Here's to its continuation, on and offline.

 

 

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We Just Clicked -- and Then You Left Me

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We Just Clicked -- and Then You Left Me

By Maria Bustillos

The first few years of the World Wide Web were a paradise for collectors. Those who'd long been cooped up in the walled gardens of Prodigy, AOL and Compuserve were suddenly released into the wild in a sort of dork exodus, and one of the first things they (okay, we) did was to search out and trade rare goods.

 

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We Talk Pretty One Day: an Interview with Inventor Marty Cooper

New York Times, April 4, 1973

New York Times, April 4, 1973

Marty was Martin Cooper, then the General Manager of Communications Systems at Motorola; Joel was Dr. Joel Engel, Cooper's rival over at AT&T.  For three months, Cooper and his team had been racing to build the first portable cell phone while AT&T continued to build out what they saw as the smarter option: the car phone.  

You’ve seen the prototype (or something like it) that Cooper ended up using to make that famous call: big (2.5 pounds!) and beige, with a long, chunky antenna. "That telephone in the secret agent's heel is almost here -- if you're the Jolly Green Giant, have a jolly green bank account, and can wait until 1976,” quipped the AP, in their writeup of the phone’s unveiling.

The first cell phone call had nothing on Neil Armstrong's catchy juxtaposition, but it, too, was a small step for a man (into midtown Sixth Avenue!) and a giant leap for mankind. You know what happened next: the world shrank (the phones shrank, too), became more human, then, some argue, less human, but smaller still.

As for Cooper, he, along with his wife Arlene, went on to found a number of successful telecommunications companies (the latest, GreatCall, has a fantastically simple cellphone for seniors). He amassed eleven patents. He issued a dictum, Cooper’s Law, stating that data over usable spectrum doubles every thirty months. And he speaks, frequently, about how wireless can be put to more beneficial use.

Recently, I spoke with Mr. Cooper about the past, present, and future of communication.

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When you were a kid, what did you use to communicate with people who weren't within shouting distance?

Well, Claire...do you know how old I am? 

...You know even when I was a teenager, it was unusual for anybody to have more than one telephone. Telephone numbers were five digit numbers, and in the early days, most of the lines were party lines, so you could actually listen in on peoples' conversations.

I lived through the age when there were car telephones. When my wife was twelve, she was a switchboard operator for car telephones. Not many people had car phones, and she would listen in on conversations between movie stars and other famous people.

And then you joined the Navy. What did you use there? Letters, telegrams…

Did you ever hear of a thing they call snail mail? You write letters. When I was at sea and traveling, the only way I could communicate was by letter. Even the ability to talk over long distances did not exist.

The next big change in communications will be machine-to-machine communications.

Have your communication tools and habits changed from decade to decade? Is there a time that stands out in particular?

I really depend very heavily on email now. I don't like to bother people, so email is just so convenient. I spend much more time on email than I do talking to people. And as I told you before, I send tweets out and I get information and some of it is even important. I just found out one of the FCC chairs is following me--is that a compliment or what?!

We have to come up with new technology that makes data communications much lower in cost, because we’ve got a whole bunch of new things coming. The next big change in communications will be machine-to-machine communications. In healthcare, you’ll measure things on your body every minute, instead of every year or two. We're all going to be connected almost continuously, and that requires a lot of radio waves.


I read on the BBC that you said before cellphones, we called places, not people.

If you think about the most fundamental change for teleservice, it's that a phone number nowadays is associated with a person. When people call you, they expect you to answer. Before cellular, when you called a number you were calling a place, and you didn't know who was going to answer. We now can tailor-make the communications for the specific purpose.


 
The future of the world hangs on the fact that we have so many more ways of communicating.

How important is the form of the communication tool to how we communicate?

First of all, everyone is different from everybody else. Most of my electronic communications are either talking or email. People communicate on twitter, on Facebook, on Linkedin. Each one has a twist that's optimized for some form of communication, for some form of collaboration.

I think the future of communication will be centered around collaboration. We are becoming more and more efficient at having groups do things. Every form of communication can be done in an optimal way, and with a minimal number of inhibitors. If you only have a very brief message to send to somebody, and you don't care that they get it immediately, texting is perfect.

The future of the world hangs on the fact that we have so many more ways of communicating. There are a lot of applications that are more entertaining than useful, but the parts of the cellphone that make me feel proud, it's when I hear about a woman in India who gets micro financing and gets a cellphone, and she lets villagers use it, to find out where the best markets are to sell their cows…everybody wins.

If you look at the problems we have today, the biggest problem is poverty. But if we can start doing everything we do more efficiently, this will be solved.

 

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Today's cellphones have all this computing power behind them, yet their form hasn't really changed that much. They've shrunk; and they've gained screens--but they are still recognizable to the phone you built in 1973. Do you think that is going to change? 

Oh you bet. The way it's going to change in the future is: right now there are just a couple phones you can have, but people are different from each other. My vision is everyone will carry on them a little box hidden on their bodies that I call a server. The server implements optimal devices. There is still going to be voice communicator, but it’s a device that you wear behind your ear, or perhaps embedded under your skin that you can talk to and receive audible messages from. It includes a powerful computer that has stored, among other things, all of your contacts. When you want to call someone, you ask your computer to make the call and you just talk. The voice communicator actually sends your voice to the personal server that you carry on you your body in a convenient place. The point is that the voice communicator is optimum for talking and listening, not a universal box that you have to hold up to your ear.

You'll also have devices on your body that will measure your health state. You may have a keyboard or something if you want to send messages or a gesture device. All these things feed into server and all are accommodated to your personality. The cellphone of future will be tailored to your personality and your needs.

 

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A Zoom with a View

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A Zoom with a View

by LOGAN SACHON

I think about Instagramming a lot, but I do not Instagram a lot.  In the 18 months I've had my account, I've posted just 102 times. 

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Private Eye: 60 Minutes with Alex Howard

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Private Eye: 60 Minutes with Alex Howard

by CLAIRE WILLETT

I’ve always had the sense that [privacy] is something that if people aren’t able to get, it has a significant effect upon their ability to be completely honest with someone else, to share confidential information, to be able to express themselves without fear of retribution, without fear of mistakes. 

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Welcome to My Worlds

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Welcome to My Worlds

by TAYLOR DOBBS

My generation is the last that will even remember a line between the physical and digital realms. The last generation that existed solely in the physical world is already gone. Today we exist, simultaneously, twice.

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Say Anything

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Say Anything

by  JIA TOLENTINO

I realized that I had compartmentalized “things I say on Twitter” and “things that the man I live with will ever think about,” and I wondered if I’d done the same with my actual self.

 

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Generation Flake: What Convenience Hath Begat

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Generation Flake: What Convenience Hath Begat

The problem with us millennials isn’t that we’re materialistic, or narcissistic, or falsely confident, or under-ambitious. I mean, we are those things, but not, I’d argue, to a greater extent than our forebears.

The problem is that we’re flakes.

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Editor's Letter

Until I went off to college, most of my communication happened face-to-face when it happened at all. I was a quiet kid, afraid of the telephone, uncomfortable talking with all but a handful of adults: my father, my mother, her best friends, her mother, our caretaker, and Millie, the alcoholic who managed our neighbor's horse barn. 

Instant messaging, chat rooms, myspace--these were tailor-made for the quiet kids, but I didn't have a computer. I would sit on the edge of my friend Abby's frilly bed and offer encouraging stabs as to the subtext of "just chillin wit Josh wat u up2?" 

Sometimes, Abby would message boys on my behalf, and the moments before they responded were thrilling--you could see them spinning the wheel of hotness, deciding where I landed. 

But for the most part, I thought AIM was boring and everyone's screen names were dumb, to say nothing of the trite Jack Johnson lyrics used to pimp out their away messages. 

I wish I could say I carried the Thoreauxian norms of my childhood into adulthood, but it turned out I was just a late bloomer. In college I spent hours a day on Facebook, agonizing over which French novels to list under the books section of my profile, what degree of coquetry was appropriate for a post left on a wall that did not belong to my boyfriend. To my boyfriend, I sent enough text messages for ten Tao Lin novels, and used up by allotted minutes so quickly and so frequently that my mother soon gave in, switched me to an unlimited plan. 

From ignorance to dependence to fear. After graduation, my daily computer time went from around 4 hours to upwards of 12. I was working as a digital strategist and supplementing that with freelance writing, and I still had food blogs to ogle, Facebook to check. At first, my only worry was that all this screen time would be bad for my health. On a long B-train ride back to my apartment, a young mother's pleas for help fell on literally, if temporarily, deaf ears. I began to fear for our brains, our instincts.

From fear to contempt. I used to read a lot of product/gadget blogs, and now I don't anymore. They all said the same things with different proper nouns. So many keystrokes were devoted to iPhone design rumors, to launches of games, to canned tutorials on how to live your life better, thanks to these apps.

A month ago, my phone broke. I went nearly two weeks without replacing it. I was constantly aware of not having it, but I liked it. I liked being forced to pay attention to my surroundings. I pet my dog more. I imagined lives for people I saw on the street. I listened to a saxophone streaming out of the jazz flophouse that abuts Fort Greene Park and felt like I was in a Woody Allen movie.  

Most of all I liked what not having a phone said about me.

In the end, though, I replaced it. I'd like to say I use it less; certainly I don't have as many apps. But basically, right now I'm in the "nothing's changed but for a thin veneer of distaste" camp.

The goal of Typing through Tin Cans is to suss out our camps, to explain them, to embrace or fret over them (as I've done). Each of the writers in this inaugural issue sits in a different camp, though some are more similar than others. Read them, and, if you have a chance, let me know your own. 

 

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