Note to readers: The author and editor of this series of posts would like to be Matrix-style cool, competent, stylishly-dressed world-changers with superhuman abilities. In reality we are much closer to the protagonists of Johnny Mnemonic: always frantically improvising to stay one step ahead of disaster with a mix of clunky technology. (And we don’t even have a cybernetic dolphin helping out.) So, um, yeah. This post is out of order. Sorry. Please pretend you haven’t read Cyberspace: the Hardware yet. OK. On to an analysis of the phone system.
The video phones in Johnny Mnemonic all seem easy to use and reliable, but this is generally true of all phones in film and TV, video or otherwise. The audience want to see the characters communicate, not struggle with technology – unless difficulty or failure is necessary for the plot!
Rather than look at individual devices, I think it is more interesting to consider the video phone system as a whole. In Johnny Mnemonic the user experience of the phone system is more a software service than a hardware device.
In the film, phones range in size from the giant wall-mount screens to Shinji’s tiny handheld device, and from fixed locations to moving vehicles or handheld. Any computing and display device, wired or wireless, can act as a phone. The system has followed the same evolution as the web-based applications such as Facebook and GMail we use today that are available anywhere there is a web browser. The Internet makes ubiquitous software services possible.
The alternative path, which with the benefit of hindsight we can see is what happened with our current day phones, is personal devices. Instead of expecting computing devices running software to be available everywhere, we have one hardware device with our software on it that we carry everywhere instead. (Obviously this is over-simplifying a bit: the mobile phone system does require cell towers and/or base stations!) It’s an interesting choice for designers.
The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Within the film we see Takahashi using a hand tracker, a specialised piece of hardware built into his desk, to control a puppet avatar, a real time photorealistic avatar. Nobody else seems to have such capability, nor does Johnny consider the possibility that the person he is talking to might not be real. This gives Takahashi an advantage over others – but only while he makes all phone calls from his desk.
Why does the phone system still exist?
Current day phones, including the few remaining public phone booths, are all dedicated devices. Even though our mobile phones have become portable computers, the phone capability is still restricted to a manufacturer-installed application. In Johnny Mnemonic the phone system is more like the Ethernet jacks in a hotel room or convention centre, allowing users to connect their own devices. Since every call appears to be digital and is recorded in cyberspace, why have a phone network with numbers instead of, say, email addresses?
While the phone system in Johnny Mnemonic is very flexible in how numbers can be dialed and what can be used as video and audio sources, we only see it used for video phone calls, nothing else. Convergence of the phone system and Internet is often predicted but hasn’t happened because the one advantage that phone networks have is low latency and guaranteed resource allocation. Current day phone calls don’t have the occasional stuttering or delays that occasionally affect Skype sessions. (Your non-Internet phone call may be cut off entirely, but it won’t slow down.) In 2021, the phone system may be entirely digital and with video added, but still carrying traffic on separate, dedicated links to ensure quality.
At the time of writing WebRTC, a collection of standards for Web Real-Time Communication including audio and video, is starting to appear in prototype form in widely available browser software. Perhaps by 2021 the future phone system of Johnny Mnemonic will seem much more realistic.