Of wireless telegraphy, Model Ts, and mobile devices

Of wireless telegraphy, Model Ts, and mobile devices

To catalyze transformative innovation, consider the history of sociotechnical change, the user as innovator, and the impact of technologies’ relationships to the past.
Part of
Issue 18 August 2021


The late 19th century marked a watershed moment for human communication, ushering in the age of wireless telegraphy. Just like wireline telegraphy before it, the dissemination of message-carrying signals by radio waves allowed information to be transmitted at the speed of light rather than the speed of horse, train, or carrier pigeon—but now, without the need for laying telegraph line infrastructure.

Despite this advancement, wireless telegraphy was initially used for the same long-distance social communication practices as before, such as sending updates to family members. Near-instantaneous conversations didn’t immediately become the norm, despite being technologically possible; it took time for people to absorb the possibilities, and for social norms to change in response to the technological shock. It wasn’t until the ham radio mania, circa 1910, that people began using wireless telegraphy for synchronous conversations, and not until the Titanic sank in 1912 that ship-to-shore distress calling became standardized and regulated. By the 1920s, wireless transmission had developed even further, reimagined as mass media that broadcast news and entertainment to the general public through the medium of radio. 

This stop-and-start pattern of innovation occurred again for both wireline and mobile telephone networks, which for decades were used only for point-to-point voice communication. Only later did telecommunications engineers, inspired by the abstraction in Claude Shannon’s information theory that any message can be treated as bits, reinterpret the telephone network as a carrier for voice and data more broadly. This reimagining came to full fruition in 1994 with the V.34 modem standard for data transmission over the telephone network, which not only approached the Shannon limit for error-free communication, but also enabled the proliferation of dial-up internet. 

Mobile devices have followed this same trajectory. By 2013, smartphones had achieved over 50 percent market penetration in the U.S., as well as in large swaths of Europe and parts of Asia, and 4G technologies had become prevalent. Suddenly, mobile devices were capable of much more than voice calls and texting. Their interpretive possibilities had radically expanded to encompass internet access, GPS navigation, and photography, each largely unyoked from the idea of the mobile device as a medium for making phone calls. 

The history of innovation and sociotechnical change is full of such examples, demonstrating how we initially draw on the past to develop and employ the technologies of the future. Embracing inspiration from people who’ve put technologies to unexpected use, or from serendipitous combinations of ideas and artifacts across history and industries, enables us to imagine new futures and expand technology’s possibilities. With smartphones having universal computation abilities and working with the universal currency of communication—bits—mobile developers may now have a general-purpose technology akin to printing, the internal combustion engine, and electricity which they can push in new directions. To create transformative technologies that evolve by leaps and bounds, we must understand when and how to untether ourselves from what’s come before.

How interpretive flexibility drives innovation

Although new technologies are initially interpreted in terms of old ones, the relationship between old and new is complex. Oversimplified views of technological development often assume one of two models: patterns of simple replacement, in which new technologies overtake obsolete ones, or of straightforward progress, in which new technologies are more advanced and therefore more useful according to performance metrics people already understand, such as speed and reliability.

These oversimplified models, however, obscure the fact that technological artifacts can have distinct interpretations that are simultaneously held and equally valid. Bicycling, for instance, is both a sport and a means of transportation. As philosopher of technology Wiebe Bijker discussed in his 1995 book Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change, technologies are not fixed on a given path by their physical nature; rather, they interact with the social environments in which they’re produced and used. They have interpretive flexibility, such that for different social groups the technology can literally be different.

Importantly, innovation is not just restricted to producers of technologies; it’s also within the ambit of those who modify technology as they use it. These users may have greater interpretive flexibility, since they’re not governed by market forces that may cause one use case to predominate. 

In the early 20th century, for example, Ford built the Model T as a passenger vehicle, but rural Americans put it to use as a power source for washing machines, butter churns, cream separators, corn shellers, water pumps, hay balers, fodder and ensilage cutters, wood saws, grain hoists, cider presses, and corn grinders, and modified it to function as a snowmobile and tractor. Ford later advertised the Model T as a “universal car,” an interesting bit of foreshadowing for the universality of today’s smartphones, which can record videos, locate parking spots, measure objects, serve as remote controls, and even provide vibration for massage.

Producers and users as distinct types of innovators

Writing in the journal Research Policy in 1994, Eric Von Hippel, a scholar of technological innovation at MIT, and colleagues took note of the distinct types of innovations producers of a technology and its users pursue. Producers work toward innovations of interest to the entire market, typically along a fixed dimension such as speed, price, or reliability. As such, they may reify oversimplified models of technological history; think of rulers that offer increasingly precise measurements. In contrast, active users pursue innovations to achieve functionally new uses without much concern for whether the market will respond, since they’re mainly motivated by self-interest. Yet this lack of concern for market fit may limit initial traction and growth. For example, amateur mountain biking enthusiasts modified road bikes for this purpose for many years before mountain bikes became mass produced. 

Computing historian Martin Campbell-Kelly, writing in Telecommunications Policy in 2015, together with economic consultants from Chicago, argued that mobile operating systems such as iOS and Android can be interpreted as multi-sided platforms where consumers, smartphone manufacturers, network operators, app developers, advertisers, and chip manufacturers come together to constitute a smartphone experience. They found that smartphone users point to network quality, the features of the operating system, and the selection of apps available on each platform as critical to how much they enjoy using a smartphone. Optimizing for one or more of these dimensions implies particular business models for the makers of operating systems, which in turn structures relations among social groups using these technologies in particular ways and can constrain or enable the technology’s evolution. 

Open-source operating systems such as Android, for example, allow for modification, and therefore enable greater possibilities for user-driven innovation. In contrast, iOS is closed source, which limits experimentation by users outside Apple. Here’s a simple example: On an iOS device, a user can’t change the system font without jailbreaking the phone, which constrains the creative flexibility with which they can express themselves. The business model embedded in the social relationships of an operating system may therefore promote differing kinds of innovation: improvement on standard performance metrics for iOS, for instance, and functionally new applications for Android. 

It’s important to note that the boundary between social groups can be porous. Although engineer and entrepreneur Phillipe Kahn led a mobile software company, he apparently created the first camera phone from a hospital room while his wife was in labor in 1997 by soldering together parts from his laptop, cell phone, and digital camera and writing some glue/wrapper code, making him both a producer and a user of the technology. By 2006, high-resolution cameras had become standard features of cell phones, a transformative development that some have argued enabled the business models underpinning Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat, Instagram, and Tumblr, among others. 

Toward untethered exploration

The history of electrical communication technologies, and its interpretation through the lenses of sociotechnical change and user-driven innovation theories, suggests that although technologists may initially tether new technologies to existing social practices, they must free themselves from past definitions in order to explore novel and disruptive ways of building new products and services. Furthermore, they must look to users for inspiration, as these communities play an equal role in driving functionally new uses of mobile technology. 

Such untethered exploration is especially important for informational systems like mobile technology and mobile software development, where the immateriality of computation and communication reduces the physicality of creative constraints (compared to, say, car engines, which rely on manipulating physical parts). As mobile developers, we must think of users as innovators, and consider open innovation approaches, in which a whole ecosystem of innovation can be created beyond the original manufacturer, as well as business models based on platform economics, which generate value by bringing numerous social groups together. We can accomplish this by scouting user forums or hosting crowdsourced innovation contests, among other strategies. 

Maintaining this interpretive flexibility is also important for absorbing new elements into the mobile hardware landscape, be it holographic displays, artificial intelligence–based network management, or labs-on-chips that attach to mobile phones for pathogen diagnostics. These technologies have the potential to expand the conceptual space in which mobile developers build new applications. This same principle of openness to absorption holds for new ideas in information theory, such as harnessing wireless power and information transmission to recharge and use smartphones at the same time and bringing connectivity to remote regions of the world in order to reduce the digital divide, as well as for new use cases such as virtual and augmented reality, which have the potential to become a completely new interaction pattern to complement speech and text.

By untethering from the past, we can unlock more transformative human experiences in the future, prevent interpretive closure, and allow mobile technologies to be reinterpreted in myriad unexpected ways. It’s often passionate users of technology, rather than producers, who uncover these functionally new applications. Maintaining their involvement in the process of innovation can help unleash that immense creative potential.

About the author

Lav R. Varshney is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


Artwork by

Matteo Berton


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