The Summer of ’78 | Technology and Magic

Preface: In Profiles of the Future (1962) Arthur C Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey and others) postulated his three laws. Also an inventor, a philosopher, and a futurist the author’s glimpses into the future changed a lot of opinions. Clarke’s famous three laws best describe his ideas:

  1. Law#1: When a distinguished scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. Law#2: The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Law#3: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

At nicer hotels in the Middle East I had a breakfast buffet along with a copy of the International Herald Tribune. On one particular morning at the Amman Intercontinental I found an interesting article in the Herald to go along with my stuffed omelet. The scientific piece was one of those “look into the future” type articles that I enjoyed. The gist of it was that computers would digitally translate analog electronics—radio, telephony, and entertainment. Radios would become small computers that transferred data by radio waves. TV’s would be single flat screen units with depths of less than a couple inches. Computers would run activities in homes. Even cars would have a small computer in them to run things. After finishing the article I kind of hoped it would all take a while to happen.

Radio: The Best Example of Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law

The article mentioned that the first mobile phone call was made about five years ago. On April 3, 1973, Motorola employee Martin Cooper stood in midtown Manhattan and placed a call to the headquarters of Bell Labs in New Jersey.It claimed that thefirst mobile phones, referred to as First Generation or 1G, would be introduced to the public market before the mid-80’s, about five years from now. The heart of the “cellular system” was a high capacity computer “switch.” The Motorola Company’s first mobile phones would utilize analog technology affected by static and noise interference, but would still be a huge improvement over two-way radios in current use. The first mobile phones would be confined to car phones, permanently installed in the trunks of automobiles. After a few years, they would introduce handheld types and quieter, higher capacity systems based solely on digital technology.

The main purpose of this “First Generation” technology was for voice traffic, but consumers felt insecure about commercial operators listening in on their conversations. These new mobile phones were also rather expensive, many of them costing hundreds of dollars. They were more of a status symbol during the decade rather than a means of convenience.

Computer technology would eventual dominate the activities of my current job as a radio technician in the Foreign Service. The writing was on the wall. Meanwhile, I would continue to service the American embassy’s communications needs while traveling around the mysterious Middle East, sampling the various cultures and their cuisines, and avoiding illness, terrorists, and my own misconceptions.

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