Without question, Thomas Alva Edison and Alexander Graham Bell were two of the greatest geniuses ever. They practically invented the Industrial Age and paved the way for our modern technological era. Listen to a music recording - thank Edison. Make a phone call - that's Bell. But which of these geniuses is greater? As the realm of consumer electronics evolves, and as different technologies inevitably dominate others, one of these techno-titans is starting to dwarf the other.
Edison is the king of cool. He's the granddaddy of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. He invented music recording and playback, and there's nothing cooler than that. Whether it's a scratchy old Miles Davis record or a shiny new U2 CD, nothing stirs our emotions like music. Our music collections are as individual as our DNA.
In comparison, Bell may seem as exciting as a dial tone. Not nearly as cool as music, a phone call is a utilitarian thing. Phones are purely a corporate business, one without drugs and rock & roll. I suppose phone sex counts for something, but Bell mainly conjures up images of faceless conglomerates and service plans, telephone poles and roaming charges.
The interesting thing is that over time, Edison's invention of music recording will be largely forgotten, and Bell's phone will be remembered. Philosophically, this is because a phone connects people, and a live human link is more powerful than a connection to a recording. Technologically, as is more and more obvious every day, cellphones are vacuuming up all other media applications. Their ability to access any kind of data, and bring it to you anywhere you are, is simply astounding. More to the point here, a phone can access songs, download them, and play them for you. You never even see the recordings. You simply make a phone call, and there they are.
The CD represented a triumph for Edison, but it also carried the seeds of his invention's destruction. Digital audio sounded great, but digital technology also allowed the compression of audio and video. With video compression, the DVD pushed the CD and music-only playback into the back seat, and audio compression allowed the efficient transmission of music. Then came the ramping up of the Internet, a system of copper lines and fiber optics - a telephone system. And the stage was set for Bell's takeover.
Eventually (and it's already happening), phone calls will bring us everything we need: TV, the Web, music, and of course, conversation. We'll look at the phone as the supreme invention, and probably the most indispensable gadget. The Edisonian model of buying records at record stores and playing them at home will fade away. We'll forget about recordings and see music as just another aspect of phoning. Ironically, phone calls may be the least interesting aspect of future cellphones - but those gadgets will still be seen as phones. Bell's telephone will thus win out over Edison's music player.
That's kind of sad. In fact, it's really sad. When music becomes just another $9.95-a-month surcharge, I hope it won't be taken for granted. When everyone buys music from a soulless telecom service provider, I hope music itself will still have a soul.
Probably more than anyone, Edison understood the march of technology, and how technological evolution redefines genius. And if he were around today, he'd have at least one consolation. There's still the light bulb.
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