2013.12.11 Time to update the future

Nov. 17, 1993

Is there a superhighway in your attic?


I was there at the New York World’s Fair when the amazing video telephones were unveiled. I suppose back then it was almost like science fiction come true.

You could sit in front of a special telephone, call someone across the country at another special phone, and then actually see them talking to you on the small video screen there in New York. It was unbelievable. So futuristic. What would they think of next?

Those contraptions finally went on the market last year, almost three decades after the fair. You can buy one from AT&T for under a thousand bucks, and they’ve sold thousands of them. They produce a jumpy, fuzzy image on a 3.3-inch screen, which doesn’t excite me. Besides, I wouldn’t know who to call.

But it’s only 1993. Everyone will have one in a few years, because it’s all part of the Electronic Superhighway. I have some concerns about finding my exit, or at least finding a clean rest stop.

You shouldn’t have to turn to an old-fashioned paper and ink product such as the Morenci Observer to learn about the future Information Interstate, but I have some details that have escaped the other media reporting on this story. I’ll save those for later.

The information superhighway has been big news lately. When Bell Atlantic agreed to spend $22 billion to buy TCI, the world’s largest cable television operation, everybody knew it was time to start packing for an electronic trip. Life would never be the same, but I guess that’s no big deal because life never has been the same. Life and change are somewhat synonymous.

Here, take a glimpse down the superhighway.

• Movies on demand. From your television, select a movie and save yourself a trip to the video rental store. Videotape? Forget it. Movies—like encyclopedias and other books—will all be on disc. And if you missed Seinfeld this week because of a meeting, order another showing. For those who still haven’t figured out how to use their VCR, it’s easier to pay a dollar for a re-run.

• Replays on demand. You’re watching the Lions football game and you think you spotted a clip that the refs missed. Order up an instant replay. Or get a replay from a camera on the other side of the field. You’re a baseball fan? Choose whether you want to watch the game from behind home plate or over by third base. All of this stuff is known as interactive TV.

• Shopper’s paradise. The zirconium rings of the Home Shopper’s Network are nothing compared to the vast video shopping malls of the future. Interested in buying a house that’s for sale across town? Take a tour of the place from your living room.

• 500 channels. Cable TV will offer 500 channels with about 395 dedicated to home shopping. By the time you cruise once through the channels, the show you wanted to see is over and you have to start again.

• Customized newspapers. There are people in my field who are worried about the future. That’s why the big papers are buying cable companies. When newspapers appear on computer screens, the owners want to own the cable lines that deliver the product.

With an interactive, electronic newspaper, you’ll never have to look at this column again. You can go directly to the obituaries. Probably the most popular version will consist only of headlines and photos. Plus the obituaries.

It will definitely be a different world when the phone companies commingle with the cable people. You won’t have to go anywhere; you can just sit there on the couch, a new variety of potato fried by the choice of all those shopping options.

The secret to this future is fiber optics. New Jersey will become the first totally fiber-cabled state by the year 2010. You wonder what the impact will be on us in dinky-town where a superhighway exit might never be built.

Remember those amazing plastic flowers from a few years back? Not the dancing ones. The kind you plug in and they mysteriously burst into a thousand points of light. It’s all fiber optics. Go to your attic. Search your basement. Plug in your flowers. Your future is now.