Q&A

Are Smart Phones in the Future Realistic?

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Hello, Mythcreants! I’ve been working on a futuristic adventure project, and largely thanks to your articles on worldbuilding and social justice, it’s going surprisingly well so far. However, I’ve come across an annoying roadblock. The characters communicate with cell phones (except much more advanced, with more features, of course, but same basic principle). Is this realistic, for people to communicate in a similar way in 600 years when the landline disappeared in a few decades? If not, what would you recommend for an alternative?
-Evan

Hey Evan, thanks for writing in!

On the one hand, predicting the advancement of technology is notoriously difficult. Scifi from just a couple of decades ago now seems wildly out of date when imagining how people would live in the future. Scientific breakthroughs happen at the most unexpected moments, and at the same time, some advances never come at all (looking at you, flying cars). Just as difficult, the way those breakthroughs are used is a whole other question that has massive implications of its own.

On the other hand, most readers understand this problem on some level, and they tend to be fairly forgiving. A lot of classic scifi stories remain popular well after their predictions of the future have become antiquated, whether it’s Neuromancer treating wifi as an unheard of technology or The Expanse not knowing what crowdfunding is. At the rate technology advances, readers have to be flexible if they want to enjoy a story more than a few years after its release.

In your specific case, the idea of everyone in the future carrying a pocket sized computer seems perfectly reasonable to me. Is that what the future will look like? I have no idea. In a few hundred years, we could all have genetically engineered data-sunflowers growing out of our shoulders for all I know. But the modern trend is toward smaller, more portable electronics, so continuing that in your scifi shouldn’t be an issue.

One caveat: I don’t recommend calling the device a “phone.” Even today, the phone part of our phones is becoming increasingly vestigial. Actually dialing someone’s number and talking to them with your voice feels surprisingly inappropriate in most situations. If voice chat is important, apps like Zoom are becoming more and more popular. Of course, we might keep calling them phones for a long time; nomenclature is also hard to predict. But in your scifi story, acknowledging the current shift with some other name will make your setting more immersive.

Of course, if you want to imagine more advanced forms of communication, that’s also a legitimate direction for your worldbuilding. Your characters might be networked together by implanted wifi chips, or they might communicate through the telepathic waves of their pet psi-chameleons. It all depends on what kind of world you want to build and how much time you have to deal with the implications.

Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your story!

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Comments

  1. Bellis

    I’ve been waiting for foldable or rollable screens irl for about 15 years now, I’d totally put them on my future-not-phones in a story! Or some other way (holographic projection etc) to have the device be both super small for transport (pocket, wristwatch, star trek style communicator, etc) but also have as big a screen as you want, when you want it. (Foldable screens are finally a real thing, but not perfected or widespread yet.)

    • Jeppsson

      Oh, that’s neat! I remember that in Bruce Sterling’s “Holy Fire”, one character had something that looked like a soft, fairly small scarf that could be folded up or worn around your neck etc, but when smoothed out, it was basically a smartphone/computer with a screen on the surface.

  2. Cay Reet

    Funnily enough, I remember that “Phule’s Company” by Robert Asprin had ‘smartphones’ in the late 80s – only they were supposed to be very expensive and only the richest people could afford them. They were described as portable computers which could be used for calls, messages, and other things and would not need to be plugged in anywhere in order to be used – remind you of something

    I think, following the current trend, communication devices in the future are going to be small and able to connect to a network of sorts without being plugged in, if that’s planet-wide (as smartphones today) or system-wide or even galaxy-wide is down to your decision. I agree that they probably shouldn’t be called smartphones, but something else, but there’s enough words you can work with, so that shouldn’t really be the problem. It would be possible that they’d be implanted or that they’d be part of the clothing or something like that, but I don’t think anyone would sneer on your characters using small, portable devices in the future.

    @ Bellis and Jeppsson: I’m looking forward to foldeable screens, too. For reading, for smartphones, there’s so many uses for them

    • LeeEsq

      It always amazes me how wrong people got the future. A person from 1900 or 1950 reading a novel accurately depicting 2000 technology would find the thing more preposterous than the more usual predictions. Going into the political-social changes, even something like the Great Informalizaiton in clothing so you have CEOs in hoodies let alone something really big like same-sex marriage, would come across as weird beyond belief.

  3. JXMcKie

    In Peter F. Hamiltons “Nights Dawn” trilogy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Night%27s_Dawn_Trilogy) most people have a combined Nano-scale pc/cell phone directly embedded into their central-nervous system/brainstem. In the “Nights Dawn” Universe it is called “Neural Nanonics” and beside functioning as a highly advanced pc/cell phone combi, Neural Nanonics also allows the wearer some conscious control, over the autonomous nervous system of their bodies. This technology however also opens up for some rather disturbing, or even outright horrific possibilities, one of them being the use of “virus” tailored for invaded and taking over or sequestering someone´s Neural Nanonics and controlling them like a puppet. Though illegal this kind of “sequestering” is of course used by organized crime, and some of the nastier intelligence agencies. In another Sci-Fi series I am reading right now, there is a corresponding technology just called “links”, which almost all “Core-world” inhabitants, and many on the frontier planets have embedded into them. A merging of human and machine to some level is a very likely future tech development, but then again it also comes with some nasty possibilities for abuse, so maybe a direct human/machine interface will eventually by shunned, but heads-up displays of either holographic nature or more likely directly projected into the user retina or even directly into the brain of the user (as with Neural Nanonics and Links) is a rather likely technological trajectory, especially if the story takes place several centuries into the future.

    • Rose Embolism

      Oh yeah. The Internet of Bodies. Hooking the nervous system directly to wireless enabled computers. THAT’S going to go well. Talk about Blue Screen of Death….

      I mean never mind the illegal stuff. Think of the legal problems:

      “Hello. Your neural architecture is no longer supported. All peripherals will be shutting down. Please make an appointment with your neurosurgeon to make an upgrade.”

      “HI! We see you are trying to . Before you try that, would you like to upgrade to our deluxe sensorium application? We guarantee up to a 240% greater…”

      NOT READING CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM: ABORT/RETRY/FAIL?

      Seriously, I think direct brain-computer interfaces are going to turn out to be one of those ideas like civilian uses for nuclear weapons. Nice in theory, but with a closer look, we’ll… we COULD use nukes for things like digging harbors, but for some reason we passed that up.

  4. Kenneth Mackay

    I wonder if we’ll still be looking at screens (foldable or not) in the future.

    Perhaps it will be more like entering a shared holographic virtual reality – though that would make those people who walk along looking at their phones or have loud conversations on public transport even more annoying!

    • Jeppsson

      With the caveat, again, that we’re always crap at predicting things, it seems unlikely to me that you’d like to enter some kind of VR world every single time you want to send someone a really short message or look something up. I can see why people would like to “hang out” in VR space rather than zooming/facetiming/skyping, and how it would be cool to do in a computer game, or if you wanna spend time learning something maybe… but not go into VR space and then back out in the real world for every small thing.

      • Cay Reet

        I agree. It would be great to virtually meet with friends or family you can’t visit in real life (especially at the moment, but also in general) for a long chat together, but if you just want to call someone on the way to somewhere else, as you can with a smartphone (bear with me, I grew up in pre-mobile-phone times, I know what they were like) or look something up, you don’t want to drop into some kind of VR for that. You want a screen to look at or you really just want to send voice and/or text. The main point about having a mobile device for reaching others or go online is that you can do it while doing something else outside the home at the same time.

        • Jeppsson

          I also know what premobile times were like, I’m 43.

          • Cay Reet

            45 We lived a dangerous life as children.

  5. SunlessNick

    I think phone-analogues will continue to look more or less like phones until or unless they’re replaced with implants, because nothing else is particularly convenient in comparison.

    To illustrate what I mean, I once read a novel where the characters were described as having finger watches, presumably to make them sound more advanced than wristwatches – but this took me right out of the story, because it just seemed so counterproductive. Anything small enough that putting it on your finger wouldn’t make using your hand difficult would also be incredibly fiddly to use or read the display, while anything large enough to be usable would interfere with using your hand. I found it far more rational that miniaturisation would lead to more features packed into wristwatches than the watches migrating to fingers.

    I think the same thing about smartphones. At most, they might get small enough to be wrist-mounted, but unless they project a holographic display, that’s too small not to be fiddly for the amount of data they display compared to a watch.

    • Cay Reet

      There’s also the question of whether they can still be handled by someone with regular hands. Even modern smartphones are sometimes fiddly if you happen to have thicker fingers. As long as it’s still us humans using them, they won’t become smaller than a certain size – which, I think, we’ve already reached by now. You want suitable space on the display, especially with video calls getting more and more frequent and the phone also serving as a computer, you want to be able to control the phone without always calling up the wrong apps, and you want to find it in your pocket when it rings.

      • Rose Embolism

        I can’t help but think of the tricorders in Star Trek, with their incredibly tiny screens and controls. And then in Next Generation they made them even smaller. I really wondered how anybody could really use them, sans smart goggles.

        • Bellis

          That’s true, especially since even those who can speak out loud would not always want to use voice commands – it’d be annoying and diminish privacy.

          And even foldable or holographic screens and interfaces would need to be big enough when folded up to be found in a pocket and activated. So yes, wristwatches with holographic displays/interfaces or foldable screens/keyboards that pop out of them would probably be the smallest that’s still usable.

          Plus if it’s on the fingers, it would just get in the way all the time. Even if it’s waterproof, it’d be annoying.

          • Bunny

            Privacy is a good point. The Search for WondLa series had a version of tech called omnipods, which projected holographic images above or around them and worked by voice command. The user would say something to the omnipod, and sometimes it would speak back or follow the user’s command. At one point the characters come to a city where everyone has one of these implanted in the palms of their hands and are constantly talking into them and pulling up holograms. I enjoyed the book series but whenever the omnipods came up I couldn’t help but think how uncomfortable I would be using one. I don’t want my entire phone screen displayed for all around me to see or my text messages dictated for all to hear if I have the option not to! It makes me uncomfortable just thinking about it.

  6. Alex McGIlvery

    For me, it isn’t so much the shape of the technology in the future, but what shape will the technology my particular future needs look like?
    If you have augmented reality, something like google glasses would be needed (only cooler looking) maybe contact lenses.They would also be important for any kind of ‘hologram’ communication.
    One idea I like is the notion of decentralized hardware. Glasses or contacts for vision. Earbuds for audio, a ring for health monitoring, The CPU could be anything that travels with you, or the whole thing could be web based with all the computing in the cloud.

    How important is it to the story? If a plot point hangs on the tech, you will need to be more careful, otherwise just ensure it won’t leave a plot hole if someone needs to be incognito.

    • Rose Embolism

      Our smartphones right now seem more and more like central hubs for an array of devices, for what it’s worth. It just needs to be easier to connect them to various sensors, actuators, etc.

      And I think you have a good point- orient the tech toward the needs of the story. Try to be too predictive and you get something like Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net.

      One thing I see coming down the road is a need for data and communication management before it reaches the user. Something that can prioritize and analyze communication. Something like the Satisfactorily Intelligent Avatar systems of the Aeon Trinity games- very smart systems designed to protect the user from the rest of the internet.

      Aeon Trinity also points out that developments can go sidewise or regress- computers are larger than we’d expect, because they tend to have major redundancies, and the net relies on landlines because the satellite networks were destroyed.

  7. LizardWithHat

    I’m here for the pet-psi-chameleon… take all my money!
    X3
    I have nothing substantial, sorry.

    Exept that i love the idea of organo-punk(?) or bio-punk(?) with all tech being biological. That sounds cool X3

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