I got an iPhone 6 on Tuesday. I didn’t need an iPhone 6, I didn’t even particularly want an iPhone 6, but the option of having it was priced at €50 as part of the package and the salesman was very persuasive. It was the call package that was attractive – unlimited calls in Ireland and the UK and a generous allowance for usage in Europe. It must be acknowledged that it is a nice phone, slim and versatile, clever enough to be labelled “smart”, it even recognizes my fingerprint in order to be unlocked. Someone told me that my previous phone, an iPhone 4, had a greater memory capacity than the computers at Mission Control Houston at the time of the Apollo missions, whether or not the story is true, the technology now contained in a few square inches of plastic is extraordinary. Telephones have come a long way since our first mobile phone was bought in 1995.
In the late 1990s, it was said that progress had reached such a pace that every two years one could have the same technology for half the price or twice the technology for the same price. Our first PC was bought in 1994, it cost £880 and had a 250 Mb hard drive, ran on floppy disks and had no sound card. More than twenty years later, we would want something very special to justify the expenditure of more than €1,100.
Our internet connection came with our second computer in 1997, in February of that year the buzzes and whirrs of a dial up connection became a familiar sound in the house. The speed of downloads was minimal, pages opened only gradually, email with large files attached were a problem. Having only one phone line meant that time online was time when callers could not get through. Broadband reached our area in 2004 and with it the current age for our desktop activity.
While our present PC has laboured on since 2006, with a new hard drive and a few other repairs, the mobile technology we take for granted has changed beyond recognition. Equipment is expected to be readily affordable and Wifi access is expected to be free in public buildings and even in town centres. Inexorable progress, even faster than the two yearly sequence of the 1990s, is assumed to be the norm.
But what if research had been diverted in a different direction? What if the billions, or, more probably, trillions, spent on consumer electronics and technology had been applied to other activities? It is forty years this year since the Viking mission to Mars. What if research that has been applied to producing consumer goods had been applied to space travel? Where might we be in the solar system if I had not been able to buy an iPhone 6 for €50?