Calling Dr. Pager July 18, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV100, STV202 , trackback
Without meaning to, I seem to have started on a thread about obsolescence on this blog. Today’s addition concerns pagers, those little devices that beep when they receive a short message from a central source. As this piece from NPR points out, pagers were commonplace in North America in the 1980s. Many people, from rappers to Wall Street bankers, carried a pager. Carrying one meant that you were “on call”, that is, that your presence was critical to the functioning of some enterprise. Usually, the beeping of your pager meant that some crisis had erupted in your absence from work, and that your intervention was necessary to put the fires out. So, when someone received a page, they often had to run to a payphone in order to contact their colleagues and get the scoop on the problem.
If you are unfamiliar with pagers, that is because they are now mostly considered obsolete. Mostly, people use cell phones to perform the functions that pagers used to perform. However, pagers are still common in some niche settings. The NPR piece points out that pagers remain common in hospitals, where doctors and other staff often continue to carry them. When a crisis erupts, the paper beeps and the doctor has to drop everything and contact someone. According to the report, over 90% of American hospitals continue to use pagers.
The pager is now facing increasing competition from the smart phone. Not surprisingly, many doctors now own smart phones, which are able to provide essentially the same functionality as the pager, and more. Thus, many doctors would prefer to use their smart phones instead of pagers for communication purposes.
Although many hospitals are experimenting with smart phones, the pager is not dead yet. It still has key advantages: it is cheap and reliable, it is highly standardized, and it does not bring the data security issues that apply to data kept on smart phones. Although the report does not mention it, I would think that another problem would be that many hospitals prohibit cell phones from certain areas in order to prevent interference with medical equipment. In brief, pagers work and are safe and simple, which slows their slide into extinction.
The story of the pager illustrates a seeming conundrum of obsolescence. The pager survives in a niche setting because it is simple and its potential replacement, the smart phone, is what Bruce Sterling calls a gizmo:
“GIZMOS” are highly unstable, user-alterable, baroquely multifeatured objects, commonly programmable, with a brief life span. GIZMOS offer functionality so plentiful that it is cheaper to import features into the object than it is to simplify.
Because it is a gizmo, the smart phone can replace all the functionality of a pager. Yet, because it is a gizmo, the smart phone presents many challenges to designers looking to adapt them to the role of pagers. Eventually, the gizmo will win, especially if its advocates can find new and additional functions for it to fulfill. The increased utility would justify to hospital administrators the increased headaches that come with the transition.