Early picture phone concept from 1922. Photo courtesy of the Internet Archive.

Speaking in pictures

I remember my mother telling me about the future. Landline phones, she explained, might gain the ability to do videoconferencing. The “Bildtelefon”, German for “picture phone”, had long been invented. “Unfortunately,” she continued to explain, “adoption is slow.” It was a classic chicken-or-the-egg problem: To use the picture phone, you needed other people to buy it as well. Because what use would it have if you were broadcasting your image into the black nothingness of the analogue phone line?

The technology, as we imagined it then, was a landline phone with a small, stamp-sized display. Nothing we would consider special today, but certainly futuristic in the early nineties. Looking it with the benefit of hindsight, it was clearly doomed to fail, no matter how much I wanted to be able to wave grandparents during a phone call.

Much of how we imagine the future never becomes real1. We think about it with what we know today, picture progress as developments along a straight line leading away from us. But even the tiniest development changes that line’s trajectory and makes the future all different, like two parallel lines that gradually depart from each other.

The thing is that the picture phone did end up becoming a reality: Smartphones have cameras and video conferencing technology built-in, and since they were new, desirable, and backwards-compatible products, they fulfilled that dream we used to have.

And while all of that feels like redemption, like another late triumph, videoconferencing through Skype or FaceTime has never felt revolutionary to me. Before you call me a spoiled millennial, let me explain.

Videoconferencing feels a bit clumsy: the connection is hardly ever great, the picture doesn’t change much and – crucially – you have to be there for it. In a well-lit room, sitting down, with nothing but the screen in front of you. It is the antithesis of what has made communication on smartphones so alluring, namely that it is mobile and consequently takes place in what I’ll call semi-real time: You can write messages anytime you want, aren’t obliged to immediately respond, and you can pick up or leave a conversation without scheduling anything or having to find a quiet spot with a light source. That is why messengers have exploded in popularity, why every large company wants to build their own one and why Facebook is betting it will take off as a platform on its own.

Mobile phones, then, are the anti-landline. They let you communicate on the fly, unhinged of temporal or spatial constraints; while you are doing something else.

So let’s remember the original term we used: Picture phone. In effect, that is a much more accurate description of devices in the messaging age. Because in my own experience, there has been a real surge of picture messages in the past two years. My friends and I have started sending each other shots of things we encounter, anything we find amusing or interesting, anything that reminds us of the other person or that we find online. Not to mention screenshots we take of messages or selected text passages. We share how we experience the world around us, down to the internet in our hands. And not only do pictures say more than a thousand words, they somehow convey a sense of closeness and immediacy in a world increasingly uncoupled from temporal conventions.2

This has not just changed the way I communicate, it has enabled a subtle, new sense of humor, and has made interactions with others tangibly richer than back in the days of plain text messages. Pictures speak to us, and that very fact speaks volumes about how we see the world.3


  1. It’s still fun to return to previous assumptions and see how much reality departed from them. Theoretically, this should aid us in making better predictions in the future, right? 

  2. I have been writing a lot about photography lately, because the medium it is going though such an exciting transformation. We are still coming to terms with its role in the digital age, and I am frequently surprised about my surprise in the face of its usage. When I hear that students form WhatsApp groups to send pictures of completed homework assignments to an entire class. Or when teenagers use screen shots to broadcast their friends’ reactions to selfies

  3. In some countries, like Argentina, voice has gone through the same transformation: Due to high calling costs and low data costs, Argentinians send each other an incredible amount of voice messages. They, too, allow the convenience of semi-real time communication.