December 01, 2008

As recently as two years ago, it was the common (if unpopular) wisdom that cellphones with a visual component would never catch on, because cellphones (and the telephone generally) were about maintaining distance rather than eliminating it. By way of illustration, everyone pointed to the unexpected success of the text message. Futurists as famous and established as Matthias Horx of the Zukunftsinstitut were calling it one of the best examples of a "future flop".

Today ... well.

As it happens, I don't have a cellphone and I don't want one, but as it also happens I know that I am not typical in this sense or others, not in the Monty Python way ("Yes! We are all individuals!" "I'm not.") but in that I have stood outside trend and on the edges of society for my entire life, and thus have never evolved a need to conform or excuse or put on blinkers to protect my place within it. Especially, I have learned not to extrapolate what I do or do not personally have any use for to the wants of others.

My only experience with a cellphone, and with a pager before that, was as a leash to a workplace. Thus I never learned to think of a cellphone as a thing which bound together social circles outside the workplace; and yet at the same time I could see exactly that happening: but not for me, and not for those I worked with. This was a thing evolving in the youngest echelons of the universities and then in the high schools, not in the generations which thought they controlled the trends. The major drives here are simultaneously for independence and to develop a comfortable peer group. Like the Internet, the cellphone allows both. More: the cellphone cannot be easily monitored by parents or other authority figures -- and the text message can be monitored least of all.

So why should the success of the text message and now the camera phone come as any surprise? Have you never passed notes in class? Have you never dreamed of your first car?

Trends are not driven by the monied generations but by those below them, trying to assert their own independence and their own identity. For society-driving technologies, teens cannot be dismissed as a limited niche market. If we are capable of self-honesty we ought to know and understand the root of their desires, because once we were them. It remains only for the price of the new technology to drop sufficiently that it can become accessible within a teenage allowance.

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