Many an armchair futurist seems absolutely convinced that Google Glass might soon render street crime obsolete. The thinking goes that when everyone is under the watchful eye of a web-connected faceputer, your common street hoodlum will no longer be able to rob with impunity. We've been down this road before.
Virtually every shiny new future-pushing technology —whether it's metal detectors or smartwatches—briefly becomes the foolproof tool for crime-fighting and personal safety. The results are inevitably mixed. In fact, predictions similar to those being made about Google Glass today were made nearly a century ago about a similarly alien innovation. So what was the futuristic crime-fighting tech of 1923? Radio, of course.
Writing in the September 1923 issue of Radio News magazine, inventor Aubra R. Dunham imagined that people of the future might carry a flashlight-sized push-button radio beacon, making most street crime a thing of the past. Dunham even included some illustrations for how to make your own "radio gun." These "guns" weren't offensive weapons, but rather hollowed out flashlights that could act as a radio transmitter, alerting nearby listeners (and perhaps one day the police directly) that help was needed.
Less than 10-percent of American households had a radio receiver in 1923. But with the rapid expansion of radio technology in the early 1920s (it wasn't just for early adopters anymore), people like Dunham were getting excited about potential new uses. Before broadcasting would be seen as radio's primary function, there was plenty of boundary-testing in other directions.
As Dunham wrote in Radio News:
It is certainly true that there is no "future" for the criminal. Radio can, and will, be a great crime preventor [sic], as the radio detective is coming into his own.
There are thousands of radio sets in every city, and thousands more are being installed every day. There are several in every city block.
Now, a man carrying a miniature sending station in his pocket, as a flashlight or gun can be carried, would be dangerous prey to the criminal no matter how dark the night. For all he would have to do in order to obtain assistance would be to press the button on this simple little device which it is now possible to construct. Even his location can be ascertained without any further effort on his part than to press a button. Think what a device of this nature will mean to man for protection of his life and property!
The cover of the magazine (top image) included a home protection set which sent a distress call to the fictional Radio Protective Corporation—a bit like the private security companies we know today. But the handheld models were the main focus of the article, and a cut-away illustrated version of the device was included below. Battery-powered and portable, it would summon help with little more than the push of a button.
People will always be obsessed with making the world safer through technology. And in some cases it undoubtedly has. I'll admit to feeling a bit naked whenever I leave my apartment without my smartphone, though perhaps something as simple as the landline telephone is a better—or at least, earlier— example of tech that has unquestionably saved many lives.
But as with every new technology of the 20th century, nothing of the 21st century will make us completely safe or stop people from doing terrible things to each other. Which doesn't mean we should stop trying, but it should perhaps put terribly tone-deaf blog posts that speculate otherwise into perspective. Portable communications technology may indeed help to prevent or solve crimes. But with 1.6 million smartphones stolen every year, those handheld technologies are sadly just as likely to be the target of any mugger today. Even more so when you're talking about a $1500 pair of Glass.
Images: scanned from the September 1923 issue of Radio News