Humankind has always strived to better communicate with one another, more quickly, over longer distances, from the first postal systems around 2400 BCE, to smoke signals and semaphore flags, to the lanterns that spurred on Paul Revere. Few figures have been quite as influential in this arena as Thomas Edison.
Thomas Edison may not have invented the telegraph or the telephone himself, but his work progressed the technologies significantly. He once said “I start where the last man left off,” and he was true to his word, increasing the capacity of telegraph lines to carry multiple messages concurrently, and inventing an improved telephone mouthpiece which considerably lengthened the distance possible for calls and increased their clarity.
Of course, all communication comes at a cost. There’s always been a price to pass messages between people, whether it be a stamp or a tip for a courier, a phone bill, or more unsettling and subtle forms of payment in our own personal data.
What would Edison, this serial inventor and entrepreneur, have to say about how far communication systems have come since his time, and the price we pay for them? And what we can glean about the work that lies ahead of us from his wisdom? Luckily, he left a trail of insightful quotes about hard work and progress in his wake. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest leaps in communications tech through an Edison lense.
Landlines and Pay phones
Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876, and lines were installed for commercial and personal use. This all incurred expense – for the installation of the equipment and fees to the central exchange depending on the length of calls and the distance covered. Public payphones, first installed in London in 1903, required money coins or even physical tokens to work, followed by calling cards, collect calls, and credit card options. Whether at home or in a booth, there was never such thing as a free call.
What would Edison say:
“There’s a way to do it better – find it.” At first, phones needed a direct link to each other to work, so anyone who wanted a telephone had to pay for a line to be installed between their location and their desired target, like two neighbors. But soon, telephones were connected to central exchanges, enabling one phone to reach a huge range of targets through the central exchange.
The first mobile phone was demonstrated in 1973, but it wasn’t until the 80’s and 90’s that there was mass adoption. The decades in between saw dozens of approaches that just didn’t stick. The first mobile phone was priced at nearly $4,000, and this came with only 30 minutes of talk-time and 6 hours of battery life! And they were clunky, to say the least.
What would Edison say:
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” With new technology, there are always those naysayers who see what’s wrong or impractical about the current iteration and can’t envision a future where they too might adopt it. Although cell phones and their service plans are now a standard, and mostly manageable, aspect of the average person’s budget, they took a long time to become affordable. But it’s only by pushing through less successful iterations that we can reach technology that can offer real widespread benefits.
Email and messaging apps
Text-based communication unrolled slowly over time. Although academic institutions and governments had forms of e-mail quite early, widespread adoption began with the introduction of Microsoft mail in 1988, continued with the first popular webmail platform, Hotmail, in 1990, and grew to ubiquity from there. Pay-per-text options on cell phones (the first was Nokia in 1993) were matched by messaging apps through computers like ICQ (1996), AIM (1997), Skype (2003), Gchat (2005), Whatsapp (2009), and Telegram (2013). Payment for e-mail and messaging platforms varied. Some had subscription fees (for example, in some countries, Whatsapp began as a subscription service) while others were seemingly “free.” However, as with phone calls, there is no such thing as a free email or a free message, all of these come at a price for users that may or may not be evident to them. Whether through advertising, sale of data, or some combination of both, users pay for these services.
What Edison would say:
“When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: you haven’t.” One problem with this method of payment is that it’s reached such massive adoption, many seem to think it is the only way. That in order to use a communication platform one must tolerate a certain amount of invasion of privacy, or that advertising is harmless if our data is only used to target ourselves. And for those platforms, such as Telegram, which do not charge nor advertise/sell data (as far as we know), the price we pay is uncertainty. Telegram is funded by donations, meaning someone is paying, and may someday stop. Furthermore, Telegram, like all platforms, is centralized and thus vulnerable to service interruption or censorship by its own decision or external factors like governments. But Edison’s quote reminds us that there is always another, better way.
The future of communications: decentralized networks
The next serious frontier for improving the quality of human communications is taking advantage of blockchain technology to host communications on decentralized networks. This will enable secure, unsurveilled, uninterrupted messaging and data transfers that cannot be shut down by a single body like other existing systems. Some challenges remaining to actualize this progress include that cryptocurrencies have not yet solved the pay-as-you-go problem of streaming, audio/visual calls, and file transfers, and no current platforms have answered the needs of both confidentiality and know-your-customer compliance issues.
What Edison would say:
“Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.” Many blockchain endeavors remain highly theoretical, with applications too arcane for practical adoption. A saleable decentralized communication network must have a practical solution for payment of services and for incentivizing stakeholders to maintain the system. The key will be to take Edison’s advice and, when implementing any system, keep the ultimate utility of the end user in mind.
If we learn anything from Edison, it’s that we must never accept we’ve come to the end of the line. He made a career from improving technology and seeing what’s possible, acknowledging all the while that there was absolutely more to be done than he could ever do. It’s up to us to see that through, and continue to evolve our tools and our relationship with technology.
We are at this moment extremely close to new breakthroughs that would see faster, more equitable, more secure and private communication than ever before. We must push forward and continue even beyond that, and be careful not to stagnate. As Edison said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”