Wanted: a Refuge From Interactive TV

LAST week USA Today published a thumbnail survey called "Do We REALLY Want to Interact with TV?" It found that 32 percent of adults in the United States said they'd be likely to suscribe to an interactive television system, with certain demographic groups more likely than others to say yes.

Some of us apparently can't wait to be interactive. Corporations large and small are in the midst of rather frantic dealmaking to capitalize on the prospect of electronic linkage with practically every last person and group. Earlier this week, for instance, AT&T said it had bought into a company that lets people all over the country play video games with each other on personal computers.

Such interactivity may be marvelous, but its appeal depends on the unspoken premise behind the USA Today question: that the viewer is the one who would be in control. The more I read about how the purveyors of this technology are poking into the nooks and crannies of our lives, the less control I suspect we'll end up exercising. Already they can get you in your home, in your car, in the woods, on the ocean. You are theirs by one device or another - satellite-linked portable phones, octopus-like home-comp uter networks, or some other merciless messaging system.

I was canoeing with my younger son the other day and realized that half the pleasure was our unreachability. The old line in pop songs about "no more telephones" sprang to mind. But in the brave new world of electronic connectedness, no such respite will exist. Don't think you can escape to some blind corner like the character in Orwell's "1984" who avoided Big Brother's control this way. The messaging mania doesn't even require two people these days: Some beepers are activated by a remote computer that "anticipates" trouble and signals you in advance, before another human even knows. With desktop videoconferencing systems, you can't even duck a soporific business conference. The meeting follows you to your work station, where you must be ready to make a personal appearance - a kind of captive show-business personality prepared at all times to go on camera.

And at home they can get you through the TV set. You can no longer sit there and vegetate like a contentedly passive slob. You're expected to respond. Two of the more ambitious companies - Interactive Network and TV Answer - are planning to hook up Boston TV viewers so they can - as one Boston Globe article put it - "order a pizza, compete in an electronic trivia game against hundreds of other people, or play along with the New England Patriots' coaching staff - all without leaving the sofa."

But that's what the sofa is for, isn't it - to get away from busybody technocrats who increasingly act like cruise-ship social directors bent on making you participate? Isn't there a corner of the couch - or the mind - left to relax in?

A few refuges remain, but I suspect the truly committed communicators among us have an eye on those places also. Who knows? Someday they may be invaded by futuristic devices like these:

* Messagers You Cannot Refuse: If you think those computer-run phone-dialing machines that keep calling you back are persistent, how about a message system that really won't take "no" for an answer - let's call it a beeper that gets your attention. It involves a wrist device against your skin in which an electric charge can be remotely triggered to make you acutely aware there are data to be dealt with. The charge grows increasingly strong until you drop everything and give it your attention.

* Snoozeline: Playing taped audio lessons under your pillow is an old practice, so why not electronic messages introduced directly into your dreams, to be considered and sorted out during the night? In the morning you can check your subconscious log and take appropriate action.

* The Posthumous Post Office: Through Cryonic Communications Inc., you will be able to get messages to people who decide to be frozen and thawed out a few generations from now. Their future waking experience will be a long-term version of returning to the office after vacation to find a pile of memos. Although by then millions of items may have accumulated, many of them will be quickly disposable electronic junk mail from companies that went out of business, oh, perhaps 200 years ago.

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