Speaking in pictures

Picture phone concept from the 1920s

I remember my mother telling me about the future. Landline phones, she explained, would soon gain the ability to do videoconferencing. The “Bildtelefon”, German for “picture phone” had already been invented. But its adoption, she continued to explain, was hampered by the classic chicken-or-egg problem: Nobody was buying this technology because you needed other people to buy it first. What use was the picture phone if you were broadcasting your image into the black nothingness of the analogue phone line?

The technology, as it was imagined back then, was a landline phone with one of those stamp-sized displays. Nothing we would consider special today, but certainly futuristic in the early nineties. Looking at it with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that it was doomed to fail, no matter how much I wanted to wave at my grandparents during a phone call.

Much of what we imagine for the future never becomes a reality. We imagine based on what we know today, picture progress as a straight line leading away from us. But even the tiniest development changes the trajectory of that line and makes the future all different, like two parallel lines that gradually depart from each other.

The thing is that the picture phone, did end up becoming a reality. Smartphones have cameras and video conferencing technology, and since they were a new, desirable, and backwards-compatible product, they fulfilled that dream of the nineties.

While all of that feels like redemption, like another late triumph, videoconferencing through Skype or FaceTime has never felt revolutionary. Before you call me a spoiled millenial, let me explain. Videoconferencing feels a bit clumsy: the connection is hardly ever great, the picture doesn’t change much and — crucially — you have to be there for it. In a well-lit room, sitting down, with nothing but the screen in front of you. What has made smartphones so alluring is that they are mobile and consequently exist in a space I’ll call semi-real time. You can write messages anytime you want, aren’t obliged to immediately respond, and you can pick up or leave a conversation without ever scheduling anything or finding a quiet spot with a light source. That is why messengers are exploding, why every large company wants their own messaging platform and why Facebook is betting it will take off as a platform on its own.

Mobile phones, then, are the anti-landline. They let you communicate on the fly, unhinged of temporal or spatial constraints, while your are doing something else.

So let’s remember the original term we used in German: Picture phone. In effect, that is a much more accurate term to describe our devices in the messaging age. Judging from my own experience, there has been a surge of picture messages. My friends and I send each other shots of things we see, anything we find amusing or interesting, anything that reminds us of the other person or that we find online. Not to mention screenshots we take of messages or selected text passages. We share how we experience the world around us, down to the internet in our hands. And not do pictures say more than a thousand words, they convey a sense of immediacy in a world increasingly uncoupled from temporal conventions.

This has changed the way I communicate, enabled a subtle sense of humor, and has made interactions with others tangibly richer than back in the days of plain text messages. Pictures speak to us, and that speaks volumes about how we see the world.


Originally published at larsmensel.com on December 4, 2015.