The Blessings of Science
by Harry Harrison (1982)
“This project is very cultural, Sir John, very cultural indeed.” The big American’s lips snapped open and closed like shutters when he talked, first revealing then hiding his unnaturally gleaming white teeth.
“Britain really has no shortage of culture, Mr Grundy,” Sir John drawled in a very bored voice. “Been rather known for it for a number of centuries.”
“Call me Greg. I’m not knocking your little island, a great place, I read Shakespeare in school. What I’m saying is that USOVIS is going to take that goddam culture out of the classroom and put it right into the home where it belongs. Along with films and sports programmes, cashless shopping, televote and a hell of a lot more…”
“I am sure that it will, Mr Grundy, or I would not have availed myself, at considerable expense, of the new Concorde service Heathrow to Silicon Valley International. But before you go into the details you might explain what your acronym means.”
“Call me Greg. Did you say… acronym?”
“You used the term, did you not, USOVIS?”
“Oh, that acronym. USOVIS. Those are the initials of the United States Optical Visual Information System. This is the heart of it.” He grabbed up a section of thin cable from his desk and thrust it under Sir John’s nose. “Optical glass fibres. See them, hundreds of them right here, the whole bundle of multi-mode step index fibres no bigger than a single copper coaxial cable. This is the communication link of tomorrow. Smaller, cheaper, uses no copper or aluminium, no cross coupling between fibres carrying different signals, immune to static discharges…”
“If you please. My conglomerate owns a number of optical fibre plants so I am well acquainted with the specification. It is the applications that I want to hear about.”
“Applications,” Greg Grundy said, smiling so broadly that Sir John had to turn away from the glare of reflected fluorescents on his teeth. He continued to smile as he ran mentally through his sales pitch to the right place. “Applications of USOVIS are unique, an inspirational blend of microchip technology and the old American know-how. If you will step over here and look at this. Now what do you see?”
“I see a twenty-one inch colour tv with a fly specked screen.”
“That’s not all that you see.” Greg wiped the screen industriously with his pocket handkerchief. “You see a window to the world, to the galaxy. With the addition of this keypad, USOVIS turns any crummy old tv set into a two way communicator. The viewer will no longer have to settle for a handful of channels because he will be hooked to a satellite connection. One hundred channels today, maybe 200 tomorrow. But don’t forget that home entertainment is the smallest part of what is being offered.
“I mentioned cashless shopping – just insert the credit card here, order from the screen – and that is that. And more. Two-way medical diagnosis, ticket and hotel reservations, meter reading, burglar and fire alarm monitoring, why, even subscriber opinion polling. You are looking at the future – and it works!”
“I should hope so. But just how does it work?”
“Chip technology. The miracle of Silicon Valley just one more time. That’s what keeps the price down and the profits up. Untouched by human hands. We’ve already done the pilot survey. We set the whole thing up in Pasadena. First class area, plenty of money around, lots of brains from the university, students, professional people, you know. Lined up twenty-seven thousand subscribers, gave them the whole works at a bargain price. We’re finishing the monitoring of the first month’s use now. This is a winner, you’ll see. And once this system is up and running as well – into every house in the misty British Isles – all you will have to do is sit back and watch your bank balance grow.”
“Quite. But I assume that there will be certain expenses in getting the system started. Cable laying, processors, satellite links as well as a good deal more. I would like some details on these.”
“Professor Zingarelli. He’s the guy with the old know-how. The Prof designed this set up and can answer all your questions. Just down the hall. OK?”
“You wouldn’t want a cup of coffee first? Or tea, I think we got tea. Or maybe be use the john?”
“The professor, if you please.”
“You’ll like the Prof.” Greg led the way along the brightly lit corridor. “Real brains, but a nice guy too. Salt of the earth. He really cares about USOVIS. Lives and breathes it. Here we are.”
He stopped before the door and knocked gently. Nothing happened. He knocked louder still as he flashed a 500 watt smile at Sir John.
“Maybe he stepped out for a minute. I know that he was expecting us. We’ll wait inside.”
He pushed at the door which opened about eighteen inches – then stopped. Something was blocking it. Greg squeezed through the opening, looked down, then gasped.
“Jeezus! Something’s happened to the Prof!”
“It has indeed,” Sir John said pushing inside, then staring at the motionless figure on the floor. He bent and touched the cold skin on the man’s wrinkled neck, searching for a pulse that was not there.
“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid that he’s dead.”
“Dead…,” Greg blinked rapidly. “I don’t understand. He was in great shape this morning.”
“That might explain it.” Sir John pointed to the broken glass by the corpse’s right hand; a white sediment was visible at the bottom. “It could have been suicide. I suggest you inform the police.”
“What’s that in his other hand? A suicide note? No – it’s a computer printout.”
“I wouldn’t touch that if I were you…”
Greg pulled at the stiff fingers, then stood up with the crumpled sheet. He spread it out on the desk.
“It’s the final result of the consumer monitoring survey. Here are the figures, the most used programmes. The stuff that the people were really getting out of the system. This is it, the fruit of modern technology. First… second… third.”
His voice faded and died and the sheet fell from his fingers. “The Prof was proud of his work,” he whispered hoarsely. “Devoted years of his life to USOVIS. Change the world he always said.”
Sir John picked up the paper and read:
Most used service – television entertainment.
Most used programmes –
One: I Love Lucy
Two: Beverly Hillbillies
Three: Sergeant Bilko
The printout dropped from Sir John’s hand as well. The silence of destiny fell over Silicon Valley.
First published in Optoelectronics, a supplement to Electronics Times, 15th July 1982 as ‘Blessing Your Home with Some Switched on Culture.’
Note: The text above is a slightly longer version of the story taken from Harry Harrison’s original manuscript. As published, the story makes no reference to Pasadena as the test area for the technology, and the most requested television programmes are listed as follows:
Two: Sale of the Century
Three: Mind Your Language