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LAW AND ORDER ON THE INTERACTIVE BEAT RESCUING A REMOTE CONTROL AND CATCHING CABLE REBELS ARE ALL IN A DAY'S WORK FOR THE INFO POLICE

By Published on .

I was having a cup of virtual java in the Denny's off Exit 6 when I got the call. Somebody was stuck by the side of the info highway near the Diller under pass. I drank up, tossed Marge a fund-transfer chit and got my modem out of there at 14,400 baud-plus. You can't move too quickly when the database is being impacted. Protecting it is my job. I carry a badge.

The call turned out to be a woman in distress, standing on the shoulder, wearing nothing but her bathrobe and a dazed expression. Lost, for sure, I thought. But it was worse than that.

"I can't find my remote," she sobbed. "Five hundred options! How am I supposed to find them ... manually?"

On a better day, she would have been worth spending some time with. She had all the contemporary assets: a pair of pink eyes that kind of ran when you looked too deeply into them, a couple of legs you could tell had some passable calf muscles when they were in even infrequent use, and the typical size 38-D index finger bulked up from constant remote work. She even had a hint of color in her hair, which a lot of them don't anymore, thanks to the amount of time they spend indoors.

"How can I find the 2-hour block of `Mary Tyler Moore' on Nick at Nite?" she honked at me. "I can't scroll around ... one channel at a time! I'll go mad!" Here she was swept away by gales of laughter. I hated to slap her back to earth. But I had to.

"A woman is responsible for her own navigation equipment, ma'am," I said, stepping back and tipping my hat, which also functions as a remote satellite dish when the transponder to Central InfoBase is down.

I handed her a loaner. "You go on home now and make sure to drop that in the mail just as soon as you pick up a new one, ma'am," I said, getting back into my vehicle. I left her clutching the remote to her chest.

This job is tough and gritty. It doesn't have many satisfactions, but helping people out of trouble like that is one of them.

With a couple of minutes to kill, I cruised some of the remote corners of the academic net via diagnostic probe, making sure there were no unauthorized people on the system loitering about without passwords. In the future, there will be no unauthorized people, mark my words. Don't ask me where they'll go, but I'm pretty sure we'll think of something.

My Newton palmtop lit up like a house on fire.

"Get to the Red Roof Inn and Interface, and step on it!" said Smitty, who handles dispatch. "We got a tip that a bunch of rogue marketeers from Procter & Gamble are attempting to filch personal demographics from the centralized database."

Before I had a chance to turn that baby over more than once or twice in my mental database, a gigabyte of data core-dumped into my little handheld computer. I knew I would need it if I was going to make the beef stick.

"Departed for scene at thirteen hundred hours," I jotted down on the screen with my digitized pen for immediate cellular transmission to HQ. This simple message, however, was immediately translated by the character-recognition software as "Dingo smells like hot turkey haunches."

The modem also had trouble making a connection via satellite, so the entire transaction was sort of ... unsatisfying. Look, its only 2035. By the turn of the century I'm sure they'll work out the kinks.

Meanwhile, I had no time to lose. I burned fiber and was there in a couple of nanoseconds.

It was a trap.

The gang was holed up in the old Howard Johnson motor lodge just south of Microchusetts. I figured they intended to remain there unless somebody physically appeared on the scene and truncated their connection to the mother cable.

I pulled up in front of the place at 1900 hours.

It was very quiet, but that wasn't unusual. It's very quiet every place these days, what with people locked into their electronic cottages from morning to night, conveniently doing all their banking, shopping and much of their jobs over the electronic spiderweb that connects all living things on the planet. And I tried to send for backup, I swear I did. The computer was down.

I exited my hovercraft and made my way past a 35-year-old Toyota Corolla that had actual paper magazines on the backseat, and even a book. I was amazed to see, lying in the middle of the dashboard, some actual monetary units that people used to employ before electronic transfers went into effect for even the most nominal transaction.

I went to the lobby door. I could see more than a hundred people milling about inside, laughing, eating what looked like tiny meatballs and miniature egg rolls on toothpicks. One of them was playing a guitar.

"Information police!" I yelled as loud as I could. Then there was a bolt of ugly black fire in the back of my head, and the lights went out.

I woke up tied to an actual chair. All my remote hookups had been removed from my head, and my cellular phone, notepad and portable modem had been disabled. I was as electronically naked as the day I came into the world and, for the first time in my life, miles off even the most minuscule capillaries of the superhighway-with no chance of rescue. With my lines cut, who could possibly know where I was or even, when you get right down to it, whether I existed at all in any meaningful, contemporary sense of the word?

The room was jammed with people. Many of them were reading things on paper. Some were even talking to one another. In the corner was a tall, bushy-headed man of about 50 who was quite obviously a serious underviewer of exercise programming. On his chest was a little plastic stick-on that said, "Hi, I'm Ralph. Thank you for not bothering me about my smoking." He was smoking a large Macanudo.

He was also, to my amazement, reading what looked like a physical newspaper. I wasn't sure at the time, because I had never seen one, but that must be what it was. It had some pictures on it, true, but a whole lot of words, too. And he was reading without moving his lips.

"In the name of your government and the group of eight corporations that now own all significant business operations in these United States, I urge you to cease and desist your non digital activities and release me at once," I said in as commanding a voice as I could muster. "You will each be issued a punitive bar-code status, but beyond that no harm will come to any of you."

I might have saved my breath for all the good it did me. The group gave a lusty laugh and settled back into its variegated activities. The guy with the smokes strolled over.

"Hi," he said. "As you might have guessed, we live here. There are others like us in a lot of places. Most of us are former employees of companies that no longer exist.

"Davis over by the window was at Paramount, for instance. Welch, there next to the salad bar, was something at GE before it became a part of BellSouth. I was at Hearst Magazines before Barry Diller decided he wanted it as the foundation of a new shopping service."

"Where are the women and children?" I asked.

"Don't worry. They're someplace ... safe."

There was a pause as we both scoped things out.

"We try to throw a monkey wrench into the system," he said softly. "Like ... we call up for information on the database and request a search that will take months to complete. We sign on and off the HBO and Showtime mini- and maxi-packages, which drives the cable company crazy.

"But there isn't a heck of a lot that we can do to restore a rational standard of living except to ... not participate, that's all. Which, by the way, is what we're asking of you. Want to join us?"

"Never," I said.

"Let me ask you a couple of questions," said Ralph, leaning in now. I could smell the tobacco on his clothing. It was a smell of long ago, of old comic books and discontinued after shaves. I liked it.

"Do you really enjoy reading your newspaper on television? Or would you prefer to go back to poking at it while sipping coffee in the kitchen? Do you want to work, play games and watch movies on the same monitor in the same room, or would you like to go back to having different monitors for your computer, television and game cartridge, like they did in the old days?

"How about the monitor in your bathroom that Whittle Communications put in to replace your magazines? Like that?

"Of the 500 channels of entertainment available to you, how many do you really watch? Sixty? Eighty? Three? Do you miss watching the World Series and Super Bowl on free TV? Do you miss shopping for your clothes in a store? Do you miss stepping out for a couple of minutes to make a deposit at the bank?

"Do you remember what it was like to take Volume S of the World Book off a shelf and find the entry for Sweden-without instituting an electronic search that also pulled up all associated topics from REINDEER to SUICIDE and assembled the results into a coherent but totally mediocre report? In fact, bud"-his nose was almost touching mine-"are you tired of interacting? Did you ever really want to interact at all? Did anyone ever ask you if you wanted to interact? Or did they just do it without asking you? Did they do it just because ... they could?"

I think I was kind of bewildered by that point. Anyhow, he must have picked up something, because he untied me, gave me back my modem and cranial network implant and told me I could go.

And yet, I didn't go, you know. I will. Soon. I know that. I have a job, a life, to go back to. But right now ... I think I'm going to go and ... read a book. Maybe talk di rectly to some people, instead of doing it through an elec tronic bulletin board. Interact with them, you know.

And after that, I think I'll turn on the TV and just, you know, watch something. Not do anything with it, you know. Just veg out. Yeah. I'll just surf the eight or nine channels that aren't scrambled in the 500-channel sys tem, and later maybe I'll play some computer games. They have an old IBM here that isn't even networked at all. Isn't that amazing?

Not to say that all the fabulous stuff we have today isn't. Great, I mean. But for a while, I'm pulling off the highway into this little rest stop. Tomorrow, maybe I'll send for my family. Ten-four, gang.

Over and ... out.

Stanley Bing is a contributing editor for Hearst Corp.'s Esquire. This article is reprinted with permission from the February 1994 issue.

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