I dream of Genie All knowledge as a universal salami

February 09, 1994|By William Safire

FIVE thousand years ago, ancient man invented writing. Five hundred years ago, Renaissance man invented the printing press. Fifty years ago, modern man invented the computer. Five years ago, postmodern man, or person -- by conceiving of all knowledge as a universal salami, sliceable and compressible -- put the world of information at our beck and call.

We have not yet felt the impact of that most recent revolution of communication. Here's a way to grasp the potential of digitization and compression:

You know how all the old liberals are demanding huge expenditures on bigger prisons with no exits, to accommodate more and more criminals? Instead of spending all that time and money on more and bigger facilities, what if we could come up with a way to shrink the criminals? We could get a hundred times as many hoodlums into half the hoosegows.

That's what the salami revolution is already doing with information: slicing and shrinking it so that we do not have to rewire the world or reinvent the wheel. As a result, the old industrial world -- based on corporate or state-owned machinery driven by fossil fuel -- is being quickly replaced by the information world, driven by the inexhaustible intellectual energy of the individual.

This insight was vouchsafed to me last week by the French futurologist Joel de Rosnay at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. I'm beginning to get what's going on with all these global multimedia mergers and infohighway Gorebledygook. We can deal with it in plain words and homely metaphors.

Picture the face of a clock. At the top, 12 o'clock, is a book; at 3 is a computer; at the bottom, 6, is a television screen; at 9 a telephone. Wind up the clock and watch it become what Dr. de Rosnay calls "unimedia."

Within the first quarter-hour, we have desktop publishing; in the second quarter-hour we have the PC-TV, with its on-demand movies and games; coming up toward the telephone at 9:00, we have the videophone, and in the last quarter, between the phone and the book at the top, we have the fax and all the two-way shopping and researching.

Now stop thinking of all these devices individually and mush them all together. No, you don't get a page of print stuck in a computer showing a movie attached to your ear. No linear plodding; take a leap.

You get something that you can tell what to do. Those 10 words are engraved on the key to the Info Age.

I breathed this in wonderment to my son, the software developer, and he ho-hummed, "You mean the 'intelligent agent.'" Old stuff to the cutting-edgy, but to us codgers -- a world revealed. Everybody an Aladdin; a personal genie at the service of every human being.

You program your unimedia device with all your preferences, habits, interests, foibles, capabilities and shortcomings; you command it to learn all the complicated codes to relieve you of the dreary details of communication. You confide to it your bank account and job prospects and arrange for it to respond in your language and at your educational level.

Then you talk or write to this thing in your hand. "Get me to the holistic medicine seminar in Squeedunk on Tuesday and see if there's a dentist in town." It will do its programmed business and reply: "It's cheaper to go Wednesday, which is when the seminar begins, and you can have the aisle seat in the smoking section; after the agenda is faxed to us, I will call the databank for background and brief you on the plane; and whatsamatter, you got a toothache?"

Sounds blue-sky, but unimedia is what's happening now. Your genie will not make simple mistakes (like rooting the word hyperbole in Latin instead of Greek) or permit memory slips (like forgetting it was Francey Lane, not Dinah Shore, who sang on the 1950s "Easy Does It"). Tell it to help you find a spouse and it will match your tastes against another's in an intranet, dial up the date and print out directions to the agreed-upon singles bar.

Dangers abound: President Clinton has cravenly allowed NSA (No Such Agency) to bug the infohighway. Futurethicists wonder if virtuous-reality love can compete with virtual-reality porn. And the big one: how to get our personal genies back in the bottle.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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