This article originally appeared in “The Mashup,” my weekly newspaper column for Florida Weekly.
I’ll admit to this: in my youth, I may have had a tendency towards narcissism. Maybe not in the super-human supply found in certain actors or politicians, and less in the self-admiration “my goodness, but don’t I look fantastic, and aren’t I brilliant” sense than in the self-centered “I operate in a sphere that only I affect” sense, but one could still argue that I had a slightly skewed sense of my own place in the world.
Let me be clear: I never, not since I was 9 at any rate, believed that actions didn’t have consequences. Instead, I enjoyed the illusion that I was the captain of my own ship, that good and bad times were both results of my actions, and mine alone. That’s changed with time. I still firmly believe in the importance of taking personal responsibility for one’s own life (you plant an orange seed, don’t expect an apple tree), but I’m also aware that there are factors beyond my control that do have an influence on me.
Discovering that hidden hands (I’ll avoid puppetry analogies: I’m not paranoid – much) contribute to important moments in my life can still surprise me though. I’m not talking about the big picture influences here; we all grow up with the knowledge that many aspects of our lives are decided by people we’ll never meet that work in rooms we’ll never see.
From something as simple as the school bus route to the rules required to register a car, from how long your grass can be (at least in some overbearing municipalities) to how much you pay in taxes, being told what and how certain parts of our lives work is something most people understand and accept, if begrudgingly.
The things I’m talking about are those that people, or this person at any rate, believe take place in small bubbles that only we and a select few are privy to. No one wants to meditate on the fact that events unknown may affect our lives, but every so often we’re reminded that there are people influencing our lives at levels we may have been completely unaware of. It can be a bit of an eye-opener, particularly the first time it causes some sort of major shift in your life. For Dorothy, it was the moment that Toto pulled the curtain aside to expose the true nature of the Wizard of Oz. For me, it was finding out in high school that a young lady I had been courting had been warned away from me by a mutual friend that thought I would be a poor choice of boyfriend (still up for debate: feel free to contact my wife for her thoughts on that one).
Not all of these unseen machinations are negative of course. I got my first job as a recording engineer in New York City thanks to a recommendation given, unbeknownst to me, by a well-known drummer that happened to be an acquaintance of mine (a positive and negative: I was flattered that he went out of his way to make the call on my behalf, it was an ego blow to learn that someone thought anything more than my charming personality would be necessary to win the gig).
And neither do these sorts of invisible influences affect events on merely personal levels. There are thousands of hidden factors, unknown to most people, that have shaped things from the development of musical styles to changes in technology.
Take a Windows-based computer for example. Some of us are old enough to remember the bad-old days of MS-DOS and what it meant to have to create a business document. Graphical user interfaces were found on Apple computers in the early 80s, but the vast majority of business machines were PCs.
So that meant learning how to use programs like WordPerfect which were completely text based, giving documents names like what-a-drag.txt and dealing with files called autoexec.bat and config.sys. Then there was the dreaded “Abort, Retry, Fail?” screen that appeared often enough to enter the lexicon as an example of poor usability. Oddly, I can’t remember a time that choosing any option helped one bit.
But then came Windows. It sat on top of DOS at first, and it wasn’t great, but it was better than simple text with no intuitive usability. In the 90s, with the releases of Windows NT and Windows 3.1, it got better, and by the time Windows 95 came out it was good enough not just for businesses and geeks, but for retirement-aged parents, contributing to the widespread adoption of personal computers.
About now, Apple fans are screaming that Microsoft stole the idea of using a GUI from Jobs and company, and Microsoft would be nowhere without Apple. And about NOW, a smaller group of people are mumbling to themselves that it wasn’t Apple at all. And it wasn’t. It was Xerox. Building on the work done at Stanford that used hyperlinks (sound familiar?) for navigation, developers at Xerox PARC built the Xerox Alto computer, which had the first truly graphic-driven computer interface – one that certainly blazed the trail down which Apple and Microsoft ultimately would travel.
Even more interesting, and far lesser known, was the Carterfone. There weren’t many of these made (just about 3,500 total), and the device itself didn’t have much impact on the world as we know it. Nonetheless, its existence had enormous influence not only on telephone use, but on cable television and the growth of the Internet.
Invented by Thomas Carter, the Carterfone was designed to link two-way radio systems to phone systems, and was used by, for example, oil companies that needed to reach workers in the field. A phone call made to a Carterfone-equipped base-station could be patched into a radio network, and direct communication could be carried out with people in areas where no phone lines existed.
This was all a bit too much for AT&T, who felt that they should control phone lines end-to-end, just as they had for years thanks to FCC Tariff 132, which prohibited connecting anything to the phone system that hadn’t been purchased from, you guessed it, the phone company.
In response to both AT&T and General Telephone (the last independent phone company in the country at the time) telling customers to keep their damn hands off the Carterfone, Carter sued in federal court, claiming that such restrictions violated the Sherman Anti-Trust act. Before ruling, the court asked that the FCC take another look at Tariff 132. While at one time that would have been an easy layup for the giant telco, the FCC had just been reprimanded by an appellate court which found it had made a ridiculous ruling when it banned the use of the Hush-A-Phone.
The Hush-A-Phone was basically a cup that fit over a phone’s the mouthpiece into which you could speak quietly and “safeguard privacy.” The court found that outlawing a device that replicates something a user could do with his hand was absurd, and the FCC, fresh off that embarrassment, found that not only should the Carterfone be allowed, but that Tariff 132 should be stricken.
Once AT&T could no longer tell users what was and wasn’t a “prohibited interconnecting device,” there were plenty more things attached to phone lines besides the Carterfone. In addition to the ability of other manufacturers to supply telephones, the market for answering machines opened up, as did the market for modulator/demodulators, or modems. And that easy access to digital data transmission was critical to the explosion and adoption of the Internet. It’s not far-fetched to say that were it not for the modem, we wouldn’t have the Internet, and were it not for the Carterfone decision, modems might never have been made widely available.
The Carterfone decision has also gone beyond the simple “what can I connect to my phone line?” question as well. It’s been instrumental in FCC decisions that allow consumers to use things like DVRs, chose the kind of cable box they wish to use, connect whatever they want to their satellite radio connections, and use purpose-built media devices for Internet-streamed radio and the like. It’s even been used by Skype to try and pressure wireless carriers to give consumers (and Skype, obviously) more freedom of choice in handsets.
So the next time you’re sitting on your computer checking email while you’re recording two shows on your DVR and screening the call from your mother-in-law on the answering machine, take a moment to thank the invisible hands of Xerox PARC and the Carterfone. Without them, you might be adjusting your television antennas and looking at the flashing 12:00 on your VCR while your phone rings endlessly in the distance and you remind yourself to mail those letters on your way to the library to do some research.