"Science will overcome all things. Even the human emotions." -- Ming the Merciless in "Flash Gordon," 1936.
CONSTANT VIEWER sent to Miami Beach in the foolish hope of escaping television . Fat chance of that. At the airport, his computer-generated ticket was called up after the data appeared on a video monitor. He checked the departure time of his flight on a TV screen.
And a group of passengers in a waiting area sat tranced-out in tiny seats attached to coin-operated television sets.
Viewer could find some respite from the infernal yammering drabble kept up by the networks and stations of American broadcasting, true. But another kind of television was waiting for him in Miami, a kind he had heretofore purely by chance avoided.
It was a more addictive, seductive, reductive form of television than any he had known before!
And before long he was hooked, hooked, hopelessly hooked, on "Space Encounters," one of the video games emitting zarns and zoons from the amusement arcade in the hotel's basement. There were other games, other intergalactic blastoramas (and also a few forlorn and largely ignored pinball machines), but "Space Encounters" was the one that got him.
For what seemed like hours on end (probably more like minutes on end), he stood in front of the screen gripping a steering wheel on which there was a little red firing button. Up on the screen would pop this simulated multicolored canal like the one on the Death Star at the finale of "Star Wars," and along it was propelled, at about twice the speed of the fastest car on the New Jersey Turnpike, a little white ship representing the player.
From out of video space came in rapid succession a veritable galaxy of aliens to be dispatched to Kingdom Come through the use of the firing button. "Just like shooting womp rats in Beggar's Canyon back home," Luke Skywalker had said in "Star Wars." The more aliens one bumped off, the higher one's score.
On the first day he barely cracked 500. By the end of the vacation he had several times passed 2,000 and once even hit 3,000.This was little comfort, since the high score for the previous day, posted on the screen in electronic numbers, was usually in the 6,000 or 7,000 range.
But now here is where the story at last comes thundering to a point.
Some time later our gameplayer found himself driving a rented car up Collins Avenue in Miami. For some reason, the good pedestrians of that fair city are either a suicidal or daredevil lot, and they are forever darting out into streets in front of oncoming autos.
For just a fraction of a fraction of a second maybe, but long enough to register and give one veritable goose bumps of terror , our driver looked through his windshield and saw this profusion of pedestrians ahead and realized his fingers had begun to roam the circumference of the steering wheel.
He was looking for the firing button.
He was going to blast those aliens to kingdom come.
Now maybe this entirely true story is more silly than frightening, but the fact is, video games, which are one of the few genuine fads that can be said to be sweeping the nation, are just one component of a new national mindset about technology. They are part of the plan, an inadvertent plan and not a conspiracy, one assumes, to make people love technology, to condition us all into warmer feelings about the machines that are taking over our lives, making our choices and horning in on our initiatives.
Broadcast television is a key element in this realignment from the technophobia of the '50s and '60s to the technophilia of the '80s. In 1980, the most pervasive or at least most noticeable type of TV commercial was the Tech Chic ad, the revved-up neon bedazzler that showers the viewer with special effects and often sings a subtle or blatant hymn to technology. Among the best of these is the ad for Wang Computers, which shows "information" in the form of light bouncing all over the world and then beneficiently plopping down in a little baby's palm. Other pro-tech ads come from such companies as General Electric, RCA and Zenith.
High-Tech is used even for non-tech products like Levi's and Ford's new Lynx car; the gloss is techhy, the air filled with laser zaps and futurism. Belief in the future, a technological future, is part of the package; "Alcoa can't wait" for tomorrow, the company says. It's like the 1939 New York World's Fair staged in marathon terms, endlessly repeated in commercials that want us to stop worrying and love computers.
Even in an age that has seen the near-disaster of Three Mile Island, popular science fictions are not portraying science as a threat or an enemy, more as a cuddly Teddy. The two most popular fantasy creations of the '70s are robots R2-D2 and C3PO of "Star Wars"; movies about robots that went haywire, like "The Demon See" and "Saturn 3," were flops. Even "The China Syndrome," about a nuclear mishap, wasn't really anti-technology. Bureaucracy was the monster, not something disgorged by science amok.
Part of the quaint past now is HAL, the temperamental and Machiavellian computer of Stanley Kubrick's wonderfully prescient "2001: A Space Odyssey." The film is airing this month on the pay-cable Home Box Office network. And for the first time,it is beamed to viewer's homes from outer space itself, where a communications satellite picks up the signal and feeds it to earth stations, and then to cable-connected homes, on the merry old planet Earth below.
Broadway's recent "Frankenstein" was, to judge from eyewitness reports, less a warning about about mixing physics and metaphysics than a celebration of special effects wizardry, an attempt to duplicate on a stage the high-tech shenanigans of motion pictures. And patrons of the new superdomes and arenas like Washington's Capital Centre shell out money to attend live sports events only to find themselves staring up at giant projection TV screens -- which come replete with commercials during time-outs -- thus opting for the technological replica rather than the readily available Real Thing.
On public television programs like Carl Sagan's outstanding "Cosmos," James Burke's chattery "Connections" and, occasionally, "Nova," are largely laudatory in their assessments of technologies present and future. For American showings of the British "Connections," PBS added chirpy little fillers in which representatives of American corporations and universities appeared on the corporate-underwritten show to say how wonderful corporate technology will make the world.
Wonderful? There's precious little precedent for that. No evidence whatsoever that the computer revolution, the digital revolution, the video revolution or the genetic engineering revolution are going to make life any more universally lovely than the Industrial Revolution did.
What we know in our hearts of hearts about most new wonders to come down the pike is that few of them will work and some of them will be dangerous. It's hard to get very thrilled about the glories of the computer. Banks that have installed new computerized automated tellers give customers the terrific kick of standing in line outdoors in the cold and waiting for a machine instead of standing in line inside the nice warm bank and waiting for a human being.
These machines occasionally work, but never when you really need them. One particularly daft Washington bank closes its automated machine down for half an hour at the same time the bank closes, successfully negating the whole purpose of the thing. Of course this is not the technology's fault. The point is, there will always be plenty of lunkheads to go around. The more technology takes over, the more power to the lunkheads.
The new computerized check-out systems at supermarkets? The often don't work. The new computerized video display terminals used to print certain newspapers? They don't always work. The only thing that works is a Sony TV set. There is no logical reason to believe that at some blissful point in the near or far future, anything will work most of the time. There is not the remotest chance anything will work all of the time.
So you put them all together -- the funsy video games, the high-tech TV commercials, the digital readouts blinking from every nook and cranny, the onward rush of everyday computerization -- and you find yourself in a riotously pro-tech environment established and supported by massive multinational corporate propaganda.
It could be said that what's being set irrevocably in place is the technological and psychological superstructure for 1984. It should arrive right on time. Every time we sit in rapt wonder at a splendiferous TV light show promoting the adoration of technology, another rivet is driven in.
Paranoia went out of fashion with the passing of the 1960s, but there are some people, mainly those who have at least a nodding acquaintance of history, for whom it will always be a cherished and judicious part of life. These people cannot shake from their minds the image of Chaplin at the mercy of the feeding machine or caught, literally, in the wheels of progress, in "Modern Times." They don't make movies like that any more, do they?