Jingle Baby Bells

JUST when you thought your mailbox would be mercifully empty after the holiday catalogue and sales crush, a new deluge is forming.It won't arrive till the communications-industry marketers get their competitive campaigns into high gear. But it's likely to be a blizzard.

That deluge of envelopes - plus jingly TV commercials and, of course, telemarketing - may not be welcome. But the combination of services it promises should be. Instead of separate wires (and bills) for phone and cable service, it will bring closer the long-touted convergence of TV, phone, Internet, movies, and special-event front-row seats in your living room. Also, further expansion of wireless communications.

After Judge Harold Green's landmark 1982 decision breaking up the quasi-monopoly phone business, it took a while for Candice Bergen to arrive, MCI to discover friends, and AT&T to find that "trust" meant something Green couldn't bust. The next phase of the revolution will be bigger and more complex. It was set in motion by surprisingly strong bipartisan congressional support for an omnibus telecommunications bill. President Clinton will shortly sign it into law.

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The hardware implications are dramatic. The combination of phone, computer, and hi-fi entertainment center equipment already under way will no doubt accelerate.

But software matters more. Everyone will profit from focusing on content and the impact on people's lives.

We're seeing a striking example of the acceleration of history. From the time of Socrates' complaint about the invention of writing and its effect on oral communication to the invention of printing, both communication and information storage expanded slowly. But the jump from print to the era of radio, film, TV, recordings, and geometrically expanding computer communications has taken place in a mere blink of time's eye.

As each new step takes place, we might imagine Socrates looking over our shoulders.

Yes, Congress made it a crime to transmit "indecent" material on the Net, and gave parents a device to block objectionable TV programming from children. But what about the amount of time individuals spend glued to their new Internet-tainment-fax-phone centers? And what portion of the vast possible content will be what people want and need? Will information outpace misinformation? Will people short real social life for sealed-off virtual life?

Neither Congress nor president can answer those questions. Families and individuals will have to provide the answers. We're not pessimistic, despite the excesses of indulgence that usually attend new gadgetry. There's something basic in the intelligence and questing nature of mankind that prevents humans from becoming slaves to mechanics rather than meaning. So, bring on the new era.

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