Down the road to electronic fusion

December 03, 1993|By Jon Margolis

INTERACTIVE, shminteractive.

No, no Luddism here. Or is it Ludditism? Who knows? Turns out there wasn't really any Ned Ludd anyway, leading the loom-smashers. He was just a symbol.

Either way, there's no point in trying to hold back the future, and all those who disdain technology are invited to do next week's laundry down at the stream.

So, yes, it will not be long now before we all have, somewhere in the house (not the living room, please!) a . . . well, a thing. A television connected to a computer connected to a telephone connected to a console connected to a keyboard and a mouse and other rodents, all of it connected to each other and the world through a ganglia of fiber opticopia.

Fine. We'll be able to talk and see and call up and ponder and compute all at the same time.

But before we all toodle on down the Information Highway, a few caveats.

First: Anyone who really believes that the merger of an officially monopolistic telephone company (Bell Atlantic) and a semi-monopolistic cable company (TCI) will lead to more competition, please line up to make your down payment on this bridge that crosses the East River in New York City. It's a great bargain.

This is not simply an abstract consideration. In theory, computer technology democratizes information; it goes one better Huey Long's old dream of "every man a king" and makes every person potentially a publisher, an independent purveyor of information.

But not if a couple of large corporations control the wires over which that information has to move. Potentially, the information highway may be open to all vehicles. But that may not be the case if the guys who control the entrance ramps don't like what you're driving.

Second: What's it all for?

Yes, there are things that can be done with these new contraptions. For instance, say its hypists, you will be able to see any movie you want right away.

Wow! But wait a minute. You can do that now if you have a VCR and the movie on tape, and most people already have such movies as they want to see right away. Besides, how many movies are worth seeing a second or third time at all, much less right away? Very few, especially considering that so many of them pop up on TV every so often.

Another thing you'll be able to do is talk back to the anchorman. Or woman.

Well, hold on. You're not going to be able to talk back to Dan or Tom or Peter during the network news, or even to what's-his-face and who's-her-name on the 6 p.m. local rape-and-murder wrap-up. They're too busy. Instead, the TV stations will schedule special call-in programs on which you'll be able to talk back to one of the lesser news readers.

Big deal. Some stations do that now. Those that don't could, with no new technology. Anyone with a TV set and a telephone can call in, even if the TV and the phone are entirely separate. If they come together and are joined by the keyboard, yes, it might mean that a few viewers could zap messages to, say, Geraldo or Oprah while their shows are on. This will not make their shows any less stupid. It would make them more stupid, were that possible.

Now down in Florida we have something called Your Choice TV (part-owned by TCI) on which, for a fee, you can call up one of eight programs you may have missed the day before. Is it possible that there are enough people, anywhere, so dependent for their pleasure on these pieces of fluff that they would pay American money to watch them a day late? Possible and regrettable. Let's hope this experiment fails.

There is, finally, the bulletin board. Sitting at our computers, we will each and every one of us be able to plug into the ubiquitous network, there to communicate with whoever else shares one's particular interest.

Thus, stamp collectors can exchange philatelic gossip with stamp collectors, devotees of the Kansas City Royals can engage in trivia quizzes about Freddy Patek, opera buffs can grow rhapsodic (well, as rhapsodic as one can grow via electronic impulse) about Callas' "Tosca" versus Tebaldi's, and men who get their kicks by engaging in some activity involving the feet of pretty young women can exchange techniques and accounts.

That last is no joke. Kinkiness is already on the network. And it raises this interesting potential contradiction: The interactive information highway is a triumph of the mathematic, the scientific, the logical. Its subversion by the irrational and licentious would be fitting, if discomfiting, revenge on its corporate owners and more proof that neither accountants nor engineers nor the two combined can triumph over the passions.

Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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