Friday, May 18, 2007

Writer and Producer of Connections: AT&T's Vision of the Future

As a writer and producer for the 1993 video Connections: AT&T's Vision of the Future, Henry Bassman has a fascinating link to the paleo-future. Bassman worked at AT&T for almost thirty years. While there, he worked on technology videos, the introduction of cellular telephone systems, UNIX, optical communications systems, advanced microprocessor technology, among many other things.

I sent Henry a few questions and he was kind enough to send back some answers.

1. Who was the audience for Connections and how was it distributed?
The audience was highly diverse -- from young adults in universities to successful business people. We wanted to demonstrate our technology vision for the future of communication and enlist people into signing up for that future. We gave away hundreds of copies, offered them to schools and other institutions on loan and sold copies.

2. How were the “technologies of the future” conceived?
First I convened a group of technology-savvy communicators since scientists and engineers tend to be poor prognosticators. We developed a number of scenarios that we thought were possible. I developed those scenarios into one or two paragraph capability descriptions and circulated them among AT&T's leading scientists and engineers in Bell Labs, Lucent, and AT&T headquarters. We winnowed out the ones the experts said were unlikely in our 12-14 year timeframe, made changes in others and came up with a list of potential new capabilities. Then I went to Universal Studios and Disney Studios to interview writer/directors and production companies. We chose Universal because they gave us the most creative script ideas.

We wanted to demonstrate that people and their basic needs would not change in our timeframe but that new technology would help them achieve those needs in a more fulfilling and less stressful way. Then we wrote a script that incorporated most of the scenarios we had developed. We showed people going through their normal lives - working, getting married, fishing, having community conflicts, going to school and used what we knew to be the technology possibilities to accomplish those purposes. We even demonstrated how something as mundane as buying a rug could become a more satisfying experience with technology of the future. We did not include people having their refrigerators restocked automatically for example because we guessed a) there was too much investment in brick and mortar for supermarkets and b) food shopping is as much impulse buying as planned buying. Besides, for many people a trip to the supermarket is an outing rather than a chore.

3. What technology did you hope would catch on but didn’t?
I sure wish I had a dungeons and dragons game. That would be cool. Incidentally I based the game concept on Adventure, which used to come with every UNIX tape. I also wish I had one of those intelligent agents who I could command verbally to do all my dirty work. I still do most of my input via keyboard. Only the agent would look more like Pamela Anderson than Sidney. When Sidney says "I am sorry Ian, I am not permitted to divulge that information," it came straight from UNIX permissions.

4. What technology featured in the video was the most prescient?
The ubiquitous use of computers for networking, accessing information, accomplishing work, shopping and socializing. This video was made several years before Netscape. There was no common awareness of the Internet. Internet is not even used in the video. At the time even email required some sophistication to use. Some people thought we were exaggerating the central role computers would play in people's lives, but you can see we may have even underestimated in that regard.

5. Were there any technological advancements you thought about including but were too far-fetched for the time?
Teleportation was not included because it defies physics. "Beam me down Scotty" is a wonderful fancy, but not possible based on our present knowledge of physics.

6. It seems that the networks AT&T envisioned at the time were much more centralized than the current version of the Internet. Was AT&T working on the infrastructure of such a network at the time?
The voice telephone network and the video networks are still centralized and to some extent hierarchal. The phone companies are just now talking about building Internet Protocol infrastructures. Cable television is also centralized as is satellite television and radio. My understanding is that the Internet is a backbone network that operates in a non- hierarchal way but is accessed by ordinary users such as ourselves through these traditionally hierarchal networks. Large businesses bypass the traditional networks with private digital networks they either build themselves or lease from network providers. So, communications continues to be controlled by the network owners who provide access for a fee. Once on the network, you can use as much as you want and can for the access fee. Even then, providers, like Comcast, reserve the right to restrict your amount of usage or terminate service if you use too much.

7. Is there any more info you’d like to give about Connections?
Making the program was a highlight of my career at AT&T. I made lifelong friends during the project and felt more creative and unrestrained than at any time in my AT&T career. I am delighted that people are still watching the program and that we hit the mark on some developments that have already come to pass and others that are still in the future. I am sorry that we failed to see how ubiquitous, convenient and affordable wireless telephony would become. A mobile phone was extremely expensive to buy in those days; it was bulky and the minute by minute rates were very high. Today I own five mobile phones (one for each member of my family) and would not leave home without my Palm Treo, which is a hybrid telephone/computer. Who knew?

See also:
Connections: AT&T's Vision of the Future (1993)

1 comment:

Le Master said...

Nice interview. Great questions and those were good thorough responses. Enjoyed reading it.