REMEMBER THE story about the guy who fell off the Empire State Building and as he flashed past the 22d floor he caught the eye of a horrified onlooker, shrugged and called, "So far, so good!"
We are seven years away from 1984, and Orwell's world still seems a far off fantasy. So does Huxley's Brave New World, for that matter, except for a few eerie details like Mother becoming a swearword.
I thought the same thing until the other night when I made the mistake of approaching my TV in an analytical mood.
Because what I saw was an ad for an oven that "lets you cook a roast and vegetables at the same time," or whatever.
The machine is letting me do it? The verb is quite fashionable in the ads these days: every new gadget that comes out is going to let me perform some task more easily or somehow enjoy my life the way I always wanated to.
I can remember an age of innocence when we were the subject and they were the object, as in: "Now! With Autohook, you can fish and cut bait at the same time! Simply attach this . . ." and so on.
What I am saying is that They Are Taking Over.
I was raised to believe that the prospect of machines usurping himan prerogatives was the ultimate horror.
Frankenstein, who in the 19th century was essentially a philosophical misfit, became in our time a machine with bolts in his neck. The robot seductress in Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" was finally revealed, when she melted in a fairly sensational denouement, to be made of metal. The message of that mercifully forgotten '30s play "R.U.R.," or Rosson's Universal Robots, was that we'd better watch out.
In fact, the threat was a staple of science fiction. The manmade monster out of control wasn't funny one bit, and even when Disney had Mickey Mouse do the Sorcerer's Apprentice, the effect was terrifying.
Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics were taken quite seriously in those days and became virtually a standard for other science fiction writers: "1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
I suspect it was the nuclear bomb that finished off this particular horror genre. Who cares if Rosson's robots get out of the lab when we've got MIRV for real?
Now, I'm no more paranoid than the next guy. I don't believe that Watergate had any connection whatsoever with Amelia Earhart. But just the same, I do get the feeling that we are gradually being prepared to consider robots as good guys.
Frankenstein has become a comic character, literally a doll.
The Bionic Man was such a hit that they added a Bionic Woman and now a Bionic Dog. I thought it was a gag about the dog until I actually saw it. All right, these aren't proper robots, perhaps. But they're a mechanical foot in the door.
For a long time I wondered why there was so muhc driving of cars in RV thrillers. A chase I could understand. But the script writers apparently think the mere sight of a car squealing around a corner constitutes action. For minutes on end, you see no people at all, just these late-model cars rushing through downtown San Francisco.
Where is it taking us? Disney has already pioneered the concept of the car with personality, from the Blubber series to Herbie the Lov Bug. I'm not talking about cartoons, either, We've had several TV series named for cars, from "Car 54 Where Are You?" to "My Mother the Car" to "Adam 12." We've also had the car as movie villain: Spielberg's "Duel," about an evil truck-tracter, and the ridiculous demon car of "The Car" and even that Aussie gothic, "The Cars That Ate Paris."
How long it be before we get a series with a car as the hero?! And the telephone. I remember when people felt so threatened by dropping the old letter prefixes like GRamercy and ME-ridian that they wrote editorials and wired Congressmen. Today we have Direct Distance Dialing, which "put the world at your fingertips."
It is getting hard to find a real human voice when you dial a number. Half my friends have automated themselves: I find myself talking to a robot-image of the familiar voice I sought.
How long will it be before we are offered computers that will conduct whole conversations for us, complete with bromides about the weather?
And toys. This Christmas the big thing is going to be computer toys. Not content with automating our schools with euphemistically named "audiovisual aids," they are now invading the home itself to persuade our children that the computer is their pal.
Seven years! I'm worried about next month!