Piers Dillon-Scott


From Victorian hackers to modern protesters – why technological disruption needs social disruption

From Victorian bicycles to Firechat – how technology can support social change, but rarely drives it alone.


How many times have you mumbled this to a colleague before your first cup of caffeine in the morning, or speedily blurted it out in reply to a super-friendly shop assistant? We say it dozens of times each week. But we shouldn’t, or more accurately, we were never meant to.

And we’ve the telephone to blame.

In the 1870s, Edison and Bell were busy commercialising the telephone. Over the previous 30 years various inventors, entrepreneurs, and Victorian hackers had been experimenting with ways of transmitting the human voice over great distances. By the 1870s that problem was largely solved. The telephone was a minimum viable product.

Some small problems still remained – the most significant of which was this, how do you get the attention of the person you’re calling.

These early phones didn’t have bells (so you couldn’t ‘ring’ someone), instead users dialled (so to speak) the operator and they then called the person for you – literally, they would call out Hello on the line until the other person heard and picked up.

They could have called anything, but Edison decided they should use Hello – a word they borrowed from fishermen, who would call ‘hallo’ at sea to alert each other of their whereabouts.

Edison’s influence on our language may have been small, but it has been lasting. Edison wouldn’t recognise modern telephones, but nearly two hundred later, the devices are still influencing society (in small ways and big), and society is still influencing the telephone.

As of two weeks ago fashion designers have a big problem – the iPhone 6. Early adopters of Apple’s enlarged flagship smartphone are complaining that the devices don’t fit their pockets (whatever about them bending).

“If none of our pants fit the iPhones, that would be a real problem.” the Vice President for Design at Bonobos told the New York Times’ Nick Bilton. But not all fashion houses are so user-focused, Bilton found that many female-fashion design houses were reluctant to add bigger pockets to their range, for fear of ruining their pants’ svelte style.

If we return to Edison’s time the latest must-have gadget of his era, the bicycle, became a driver and symbol of social change. And it started with fashion.

In the 1880s mass production had lowered the cost of the bicycle to within most people’s reach. With increased ownership came greater freedom, especially for Victorian women – as long as they were willing to break from the social rules of wearing restricting corsets and 5 KG skirts.

Technology was helping to change social norms, but it would be wrong to say that this social change was directed by the technology. The bicycle merely played a part in the larger social campaigns (such as the suffragette, and rational dress movements) to improve women's rights.

Beyond giving us larger pockets, many of us expect that the smartphone, along with social media, will bring the next big social and cultural shift. On the grand scale the received wisdom is that smart and social technologies have helped fuel pro-democracy and civil rights protests in Egypt, Syria, Iran, Ukraine, Ferguson, and elsewhere. But the narrative doesn’t reflect the outcome of smartphone-led protests – from Egypt to Iran – little has changed.

At the time of writing, thousands of people in Hong Kong are protesting against increased Chinese control over elections in the region. As it has been in Syria and Egypt, social media is being used to coordinate protests, and as we’ve seen in these areas, the results have been limited.

But protesters in Hong Kong have a “handy new tool for organizing under a highly authoritarian and censorship-prone government(s)” – Firechat.

Using their smartphones’ bluetooth and peer-to-peer WiFi, the Firechat app can route protesters’ communications away from public WiFi or data service, so they can communicate directly with each other.

The expectation is that this will allow protesters to self-organise and coordinate without allowing the authorities to intervene. While it’s too early to know if this will bring about the change that protesters are hoping for we may be able to look to London’s 2011 riots as a guide. In London, rioters successfully used the Blackberry’s encrypted messenger app to communicate in real-time, initially beyond the eyes of the police.

Authorities adapted quickly, and called for greater control and access to people’s phones, they also investigated if they should have more powers to shut down mobile communications.

The authorities in London, as elsewhere, were able to control the situation. For as radical as most technologies may be, competing institutions and established services have an interest in restricting their growth – what Brian Winston calls law of the suppression of radical potential.

Indeed as it was in 2011, between 1879 and 1884, such was the concern over the telephone’s radical potential, the British Parliament attempted to introduce powers that gave “the Government a right over the telephones which had been invented and brought into use.”

Over the past 150 years our technologies may have changed, but society’s response to them has, with very few exceptions, been quite consistent.

Also this week, Facebook knows when you’re in love, bad design can be good design, and the strange Internet of North Korea.


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