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Internet evolution gives 'obsolete' phone boxes a new lease of life

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The first law of technological development - that synergy makes all products evolve towards their own extinction - is indisputable. Which is to say that, as products get better, they also get more vulnerable to a takeover by other products.

The takeover concept explains why structural systems appear to evolve towards lightness and simplicity, while motor cars evolve towards weight and complexity.

For example, a square metre of cold-rolled steel cladding weighs about one-tenth as much as a square metre of old-style hotrolled steel framing; but the Mark IV Volkswagen Golf weighs nearly twice as much as its Mark I ancestor. The former does less for less, while the latter does more for more, yet both are more efficient than their predecessors.

The cladding, having been valueengineered within a millimetre of its life, has become the most economical space encloser known to man, while the current Volkswagen Golf packs airconditioning, ABS and electric everything, not to mention drinks holders and leather upholstery.

Odd though they might seem, these are examples that are worth pursuing to their possible ultimate fate. For example, the cladding might finally be overtaken by climate control - or, more accurately, some sort of outdoor air heating system derived from giant patio heaters - while the car is already itching to become the nucleus of a hi-tech motorhome with add-on inflatable rooms.

But enough of these idle speculations. What we need is a news item to put them to a better test.

Luckily, one turned up last week in the shape of the rebirth of the telephone box, a mere five years after the death sentence was passed on it by the upstart mobile phone.

Now, mobile phones are the best ever examples of the first law of technological evolution. From battery packs the size of suitcases in the 1980s to apparently talking into thin air by the end of the '90s, phone users have never let students of miniaturisation down.

Their evolution has been meteoric and almost all one way, because opposition to their supporting forest of transmission masts, coupled with fears of brain damage from electromagnetic radiation, though widely publicised, have never caused them to break stride.

While the masts are paradoxical accretions (the smaller the phone the more numerous and prominent the antennae), the real casualties have been the network of terrestrial telephone boxes, some very old indeed.

During the 1990s a war broke out between the defenders of 'traditional' Giles Gilbert Scott telephone boxes and the rather more edgy promoters of so called 'contemporary' designs, like those produced by Mercury and Orange; companies that later went so far as to launch a competition to redesign mobile phone masts so as to make them seem less conspicuous, with the aid of Prince Charles as one assessor and the daughter of John Betjeman as another.

In the event, the development of new designs for telephone call boxes turned out to be largely irrelevant to their removal, which came about as a result of increasing complaints about their use as advertising space by prostitutes. If only they had hung on for a few more years!

For today the 'wireless' technology that enables mobile phones to call one another is capable of radio signal performance or 'Wi-Fi'. As a result, Verizon Communications, the biggest US local phone company, has fitted out 150 New York phone booths into 'hot spots'with chairs and counters so that customers with laptops can connect wirelessly to the Internet from up to 100 metres.

By the end of the year there should be 1,000 of them covering all Manhattan.

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