One of the more thankless tasks in the contemporary discipline of history is surely to pen an authoritative account of the origins, development and impact of the mobile telephone. The sheer scale of this device’s global penetration and the velocity of technological advance means that any book on the subject is likely to lose relevance with extreme rapidity. But there is one transition a successful treatment of which is likely to pass the longevity test: the disappearance of the keyboard from mass electronic communications.
Given the near-complete lack of historical perspective prevalent in much of the media, it seems almost gauche to rewind back less than a decade to a time when touchscreen-defined smartphones and tablets were virtually non-existent. Advertisements for cutting-edge mobile phones vaunted their email capabilities. The BlackBerry was the icon of the epoch: the countless imitators that it spawned testified to this. Keyboard-based productivity was the leitmotiv – even if the reality of always-on communications engendered a certain tension between stated ideals and praxis.
Then one day towards the end of June 2007, the iPhone was promulgated. Since that time, the keyboard has been all but expunged from mobile telephony. Even BlackBerry is now a niche brand which has disappeared from public view. People now think nothing of placing their fingers and thumbs directly onto an electrostatic field for hours at a time.
But this technological change has come at a certain price – or at least a shift in values. And it is this that we at Mediolana find so interesting: a paradigm shift from productivity and ambition to some other model which has elements of the former embedded within a broader matrix of aimless, endless leisure. That this shift has occurred virtually unquestioned makes it all the more remarkable.