Sidney, bring me the future! – computer conferencing

Nick Sullivan

One Saturday night in 1985, Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, was at home in Sri Lanka. I was at home in New York City. We each sat in front of our computers. Every word Clarke typed, I read. Every word I typed, he read. It was like magic.

We were part of a special CompuServe online conference organized to discuss the commercialization of outer space. Besides the participants, which included scientists and journalists, another 1,000 people attending the Space Development Conference in Washington, D.C., were watching the conversation on large video screens.

As this magazine celebrates its 10th anniversary, occasioning a look back and ahead, I think of the Clarke conference as a harbinger of a future that hasn’t yet come. At the time, with people in different parts of the world connected by scratchy phone lines to the noted futurist in his Indian Ocean hideaway, it seemed that we were forging a fabulous new means of human interaction. In reality, of course, the whole thing was primitive, not as satisfying as a good conference call and light-years away from Ted Koppel’s nightly videoconference clinic.

The main problem with computer conferencing is that most people can’t type as fast as they talk, and a lot of people can’t type at all, so we didn’t see a lot of big ideas rolling across the screen that night. How many years will it be before we can sit in houses separated by oceans and take part in a videoconference?

Most change is so slow and incremental that it’s hardly worth worrying about. But once in a while, we get blindsided by change that no one foresaw. No one, to my recollection, told us in 1983 that the fax machine would be a hot ticket in 1986; or that we would be sending faxes from our computers a few years later; or that we would be able to retrieve faxes from electronic mailboxes. Who told us in 1983 that we would soon be making phone calls from airplanes? Or that we’d be able to send faxes from airplanes? All that’s more amazing than typing gibberish to Clarke.

Another dead-end futuristic application from the past: In a raffle at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in the mid-1980s, I won an electronic butler named Sidney. I was sure I had inherited the future. You attached various modules to wall sockets and plugged Sidney into the master module. In addition to some convoluted programming, your main task was to teach Sidney to recognize your voice. After several weeks of intense training, I was able to say, “Sidney, light on!” He would reply, “Yes, master!” and turn on the living room light.

There was more to the future than that, of course. I could call into my answering machine and tell Sidney to turn on the coffee pot or any other device attached to a module. But one of the major problems I had with Sidney, aside from getting sick of having him around the house, was that he often confused on and off. Not good for a binary creature to get his 0’s and 1’s mixed up.

I guess it’s unfair to expect too much intelligence from our machines. The other day I got stuck in a voice-mail system where you had to spell the name of the person you wanted to reach. In this case, I was trying to reach a company president who had a Middle Eastern name I couldn’t even pronounce. I would enter three letters and get dumped into another mailbox. I kept trying different spellings, thinking that the system would sense my desperation and finally let me through. But it didn’t, and there was no way to get a human voice. Can you imagine? That’s like letting Sidney run your company.

“Sidney! Get me the president!”

“Yes, master. In 2001.”

Senior editor NICK SULLIVAN can be reached on America Online (SNICK7), CompuServe (76703,744), MCI Mail (NSULLIVAN), or through a letter to the magazine.

COPYRIGHT 1993 Freedom Technology Media Group

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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