Getting wired up

The cable television trucks have reached the suburbs. They move down the tree-shaded streets slowly and confidently, like tanks invading a town already occupied. Almost before the flyers blitzed into the mailboxes, it was all over. The cable drums are unreeling in the driveways. The ladders stand propped in place.

An endless cable seems to be snaking through America. It scales mountains, fords rivers, crosses deserts to get from one rooftop to the next. It simply quivers with nonstop transmission. Have we got communication! Somewhere at any given moment someone is ''uplinking'' a program to a satellite circling the earth. Somewhere someone else is ''downlinking'' another program. In the most literal sense the world is turning into a network.

For those of us who are not yet wired, Raymond Sokolov has described in the Wall Street Journal under the heading of ''Click and Flip'' the life of one who consumes cable-TV - or is consumed by it.

Click. 1978 Wimbledon tennis, narrated by James Mason. Flip. A Spanish film, ''El Coyote y La Bronca.'' Click. A class on the martial art of stick-fighting. Flip. A blackboard lecture on biorhythms.

We have seen the future, and it is a rerun -- but on a cable of gold. Counting advertising as well as charges and surcharges, the industry will be doing a projected business of $21.3 billion by 1990, which would make the cable-TV giants of the next decade as rich and powerful, as, say, automobile manufacturers in the 1960s.

Nor is the cable television all we are getting wired into in 1982. This also promises to be the breakthrough year for the home computer. The retail sales of 1981 ($120 million) are expected to multiply six or seven times over. By 1985 that figure is supposed to reach $3 billion.

There is a sort of poetry to getting wired up. The very universe seems to abstract itself into a giant screen - a seamless electronic horizon on all sides. We become our own science-fiction characters as we plug into all the systems.

No trade or occupation, no possible use of leisure will be exempted in the end. First the scientist got wired -- after all, who did the inventing? Then it was the businessman, converting high finance into a subsidiary of the computer industry. Now it is the turn for the arts.

Wired-up English scholars can tell you the ratio of proper nouns to intransitive verbs in ''Paradise Lost,'' thanks to the computer.

Wired-up composers compose by computer.

Wired-up painters can choose, it is alleged, from 16.9 million computerized colors. Computer-graphics is one word. ''Just think if Leonardo da Vinci had had a computer,'' an awed artist from Carnegie Mellon was heard to whisper.

All the temptations of Faust lie in cable wire, software, disks, and cassettes. Here is the ancient dream of drudgery terminated, and of omni-knowledge and even omni-experience effortlessly acquired - if at second hand.

The old fogies may grumble. What will become of reading? What will become of books? Will anybody do anything -- even jog -- without being wired into something?

Most of us try to think of The Potential. Aren't we better off for the automobile, the radio, the airplane? But somehow this seems different -- not just another invention or a series of inventions but a change in the environment itself. We wonder if we are being processed too, along with all the data and the words.

The world, a professor at St. Joseph's University suggests, is dividing into cyberphiles and cyberphobes -- the cyberphobes bead with cold sweat before those little green screens. They become almost superstitious in the presence of a power they cannot control. Faced by a video game, they suffer the terrors of a primitive.

The cyberphiles, on the other hand, never feel more in command than when logging on. Their only anxiety is about getting unwired, like the cyberphile who confessed: ''I can't think when the system is down.'' At worst, they feel they do not exist unless they are plugged into a system. Any system.

Well, we have until 1990 to work out other responses, and we'd better get to it. Neither the cyberphobe nor the cyberphile seems fully human. And in the decade of the wired-up, ''human'' is as good a word to stick to as any.

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