You and I, we’ve got a problem: We’re old.
I think it’s fair to say that we’ve only just got used to the fact that you can hop off a plane almost anywhere on Earth and make a phone call back home.
I remember when you actually had to phone up your mobile operator to find out if your phone would work in the country in question. And even then, the chances on the new fangled technology layers coalescing into working service in your particular area, were slim.
I genuinely remember traveling to France as part of a school party. I was — obviously — one of the only people with a mobile phone. Mine worked. That’s because it was a ‘company phone’ (borrowed from my dad). The teacher’s phone didn’t work in France.
It didn’t work! I think because it was analogue. Something like that.
Nowadays — and this was only a few years ago — nowadays, the conversation has moved from ‘Gosh it works!’ to ‘Geez, that is a stupid rate per minute/megabyte!’
For all my bleating about the cost of roaming, I am still delighted at the ability to be able to make a call whilst abroad. Or send an email.
I do, at a fundamental level, appreciate it. My life is better because of this technology. I remember the days when it was simply impossible, when international landline calls were rather difficult and hugely poor quality.
But what’s wrong with being old?
Well it’s rather simple, we’re getting out of touch rather fast. I do like to think of myself as pretty ‘with it’. I do try to keep my mind open to new trends, new uses of technology and so on.
I am, however, utterly surprised at how my son is reacting to technology, more specifically mobile technology.
Archie is now 13 months old. Mobile phones are objects that he is completely comfortable with, even if the key focus is the bright screen. He was flummoxed this morning when I gave him a Nexus S handset because there was no home button. He searched all over for it, eventually mistaking the camera for it.
The home button means bright lights for Archie. Press it and the screen illuminates. He loves it. He hasn’t quite got the slide unlock mechanism yet, despite me demonstrating it a few times.
And, as previously documented, he loves FaceTime.
Twice, though, I’ve seen him exposed to a telephone call.
Even at 13, he thinks we’re nuts.
My wife’s mother — Archie’s grandmother — was on the phone the other day. Archie was in my wife’s arms.
She put her iPhone ‘on speaker’ [We don’t say, ‘speakerphone’ anymore, do we?] and granny proceeded to say things like, “Hello Archie.”
He stopped playing with his toy and looked up. He looked at the phone.
He stared a bit.
He saw the screen was blank.
He most certainly heard granny’s voice.
I could see some flicker of recognition.
But the screen was blank.
I almost felt a low-level look of irritation-cum-disgust.
“What are you doing with this shit technology,” I felt him think, “Where are the moving pictures?”
He’s so used to FaceTime on the iPhone that normal phone calls that comprise just audio are — well, to put it bluntly — confusing.
Oh, in the fullness of time, he’ll get it. He’ll understand. Parsing interaction from just audio is quite a challenging skill. I remember my little brother Fraser taking quite a while as a young child to master the concept.
It was required for Fraser. He had to learn. He wanted to learn. You could see him willing himself to understand: Phone to ear, listen, speak, listen — yes, even though you can’t SEE Daddy, that’s him speaking to you. Yes, he’s at work, far away. If you think about it, it’s actually quite a strange concept to master.
Archie, on the other hand, well — he’s been brought up with daily doses of FaceTime because for about a quarter of his lifetime, I’ve been out of the country on business. It’s how we’ve stayed in touch.
Only yesterday, one of my wife’s sisters called. During the call she wanted to say hello to Archie. The speaker phone duly went on. This time Archie was standing pointing a bird hoping around outside. My wife put the phone [on speaker] next to him whilst her sister cooed as much as possible, calling his name.
Again, there was a brief flicker of recognition, a stare at the iPhone’s blank screen and then he got on with watching the bird hop along the wall. He had no interest in the telephone call. If anything, I’d say there was a mild hint of irritation — a dismissiveness in his reaction.
Why would he care? Audio is actually rather rubbish. You can’t see expressions. If 80% of communications are non-verbal expressions/movements, no wonder he isn’t bothered.
It’s definitely possible I’m reading a lot more into wee Archie than I should, I know. But do suspend your disbelief.
What I can guarantee is that if both of these relatives had FaceTimed instead of telephoning, they’d have got huge smiles from Archie along with lots of exclamations, some waving and some shouts.
I found it rather fun to watch the medium with which we’re all so obsessed reduced to a brief interruption of abject irrelevance.
I could actually see him processing the experience.
“Mum is willing my attention at that device. Ok. Oh, I can hear my name coming from that direction. I see no one. I see nothing. The familiar screen is blank. Nothing to see here. Back to that hopping bird.”
You know how a lot of parents have actually taken to Facebooking their children because it’s the only way they can get a response out of them (instead of, say, email, phone or SMS)? Well, put simply, if you want to get on Archie’s radar at the moment, you need to FaceTime him. Take note relatives.
This very small example of changing technology patterns highlights a larger, worrying situation for mobile operators in the medium term. Only today the Financial Times reported that Vodafone doesn’t know what to do with it’s money:
Figuring out a use for all the extra cash from the dividends could be a pain. Vodafone’s own history includes several large acquisitions that proved hard to integrate. While chief executive Vittorio Colao could merely expand the share buyback programme, investors might interpret that as a sign that he has run out of ideas.
The company, notes the FT, has already spunked £4 billion on a share buyback programme.
It’s most definitely time for some outside-the-sodding-box innovation and not just from Vodafone.
Although it’s literally early days with Archie, I’m pretty confident that in 10 years time, he’s unlikely to be bothering with ‘minute’ and ‘text’ balances on his price plan.
What do you reckon? How are your children reacting to mobile technology?
[On a related point: Archie is highly confused by monitors (desktop and laptop) that are not touch/gesture sensitive. He expects to see some kind of response when he presses. This is entirely down to his experience manhandling and playing with the iPhones and iPads around the house.]