Living in Science Fiction

People didn't always react positively to swift changes in communications technology, Ron found. Here's a sample from a chapter on Changing Technologies:

SHAKING WITH SUPPRESSED EMOTION, the company’s vice president demanded, "You’re from Northern Telecom, right?” I nodded, adding that I was a consultant, not an employee. He picked up the phone from his desk, shoving it towards me. The phone required two hands; it was one of the sleek new Meridian phones big enough to have both a dial pad and a string of soft (programmable) keys linking it to a digital Private Branch Exchange (PBX) which would forward calls, put them on hold, send them to voicemail, conference in other people and do numerous other esoteric or previously unheard-of things.

I prepared to duck or dodge, thinking he was going to throw the phone at me, but he simply held it out, pleading, "Get rid of this. Take it away. Give me my old phone back. I haven’t done a decent day’s work done since they installed it. Half my calls get screwed up or lost. It’s the biggest time-waster that’s ever been forced on me.”

telephoneUnable to help him, I sympathized and later kept my promise to mention to my boss back at NT headquarters that not everybody was adapting easily to the new technology.

It was the mid-1980s and digital technology was mind-blowingly new. Digital switching was suddenly allowing the transmission of data, text, images and sound over telephone lines. Today, if you interrupted someone watching a movie on their smartphone to inform them that "in the digital world, sound, text and images are all the same,” you might get a response like, "I never thought of it that way, but it’s true.” In the mid 1980’s most people would give you a blank look or wonder out loud about your sanity. The revolution in technology that would usher in the 21st century world was difficult to comprehend and disruptive to accommodate in everyday life.

I was there just as it started affecting people, the business community first. I was writing about digital technology when the leading edge commercialized device was a Displayphone, a dumb ASCII terminal hooked up to a phone line. Transmission was so slow that speed was measured in baud rates, not gigabytes per second. I would travel to various locations writing up applications for NT marketing who were trying to sell Displayphones that the company manufactured.

Only a year or so later, when sophisticated digital PBXs came into widespread use, researching the marketing applications became more interesting. I visited hotels in Toronto, distilleries in Eastern Ontario, law firms in Halifax and schools of dentistry. I wrote about the use of PBXs in digitizing dental x-rays, managing hotel guest registration and saving time for executives who could make their own long distance calls rather than wait for the company switchboard operator to place them.

It was exciting to deal with novel ideas that would become everyday commonalities. When Caller Line Identification was introduced, for example, it was used in an upscale hotel at the Toronto airport to allow hotel staff to greet by name guests using telephones in the hotel. Big deal! Today, we can glance at the display screen on almost any phone we pick up we know who is calling. In the 1980s, it was new and exciting, almost magical; it impressed hotel guests who were greeted by name.

I attended telecommunications trade shows in Toronto and Montreal, which gave interesting glimpses of the future. One in Montreal had an amazing demonstration of video-teleconferencing for businesses – something that is now an everyday household reality called Skyping. Back in the 80s, it required the use of eight telephone lines to transmit the data – voice accompanied by jittery pictures of the speakers.

In retrospect, working for NT was like writing science fiction that would come true almost immediately. NT encouraged me to be an early adopter to the internet, using a modem for filing stories when computer-to-computer communications was done through electronic bulletin boards and modem-to-modem telephony.