There may be help for the technologically ignorant--in a future Utopia . . . maybe

My recent confession that I am a technological illiterate, not even knowing how the telephone works, has brought me some help from Larry Mobbs, a media relations man for Pacific Bell.

He has sent me a brochure titled, simply, "How the Telephone Works," expressing the hope that it will "help clear up the telephonic mystery" for me.

I did read the brochure, knowing full well that when I finished it I wouldn't know any more about how the telephone works than when I started.

It was the same old story, about how it takes a Power Source, an Electrical Apparatus, a Conductor and a Switch. Your Power Source--such as a battery or a generator--sets your electrons in motion, "much as a pump sets a stream of water in motion."

(I've heard that comparison before; but the minute I start thinking about a stream of water, I can't think of a stream of electrons anymore.)

Your electrons operate your Electrical Apparatus, such as a motor, a TV set or a telephone.

Your Conductor is a "pipe" through which your electrons flow from the Power Source to the Electrical Apparatus and back again. Your pipe has to be a good conductor of electricity, like copper.

Your Switch completes your circuit, turning the stream of electrons on and off, "much as a faucet turns the water on and off."

Well, I knew all that. When I was in junior high school I had to make a doorbell, and I learned all about the Power Source, which was a battery, the Electrical Apparatus, which was a bell, the Conductor, which was a copper wire, and the Switch, which was the button you pushed to make the bell ring. (I got a C on my doorbell, by the way. I can't remember whether the class was wood shop or physics, but I was poor at both.)

What I didn't understand, and what I still don't understand, is what electricity is, and why it makes the bell ring.

The brochure goes on to explain how your telephone turns voice sounds into electrons, so that they can travel over your Conductor. It doesn't say what electrons are, though.

Being a media relations man, Mobbs isn't satisfied with simply trying to educate me about how the telephone works. He naturally wants to get in a plug for Pacific Bell.

"For most of us," he says, putting himself generously in my shoes, "it's enough to know that the telephone does work. Pacific Bell's 9.2 million customers in California average well over 100 million calls every day of the year."

That's what fascinates me about our world. We live in an advanced technology, and yet almost none of us knows how anything we depend on works. How many of Pacific Bell's 9.2 million customers in California have the slightest idea how their voices are converted into electrons 100 million times every day?

To put it on a much lower plane, how many of the state's 10 million car owners have the slightest idea how their carburetors work?

Here we are, spending millions of hours every day, driving about in our cars, smashing into each other, calling each other on the telephone, and watching baseball games and cop series on television, and we don't really know how any of those machines work.

I keep reading that in the future nobody will have to do any hard work. Robots will do it all. Presumably they will pick up the trash in front of our houses, slaughter our hogs and snap fenders and bumpers onto new Chevrolets and Pontiacs, or more likely Toyotas and Mitsubishis. Everyone else will be in what are called "the service industries."

I have always imagined that the "service industries" would mean waitresses and doormen and taxicab drivers and shoeshine men; but I see now that people in the service industries will be engaged in the repair and maintenance of all the machines that the rest of us depend on but don't understand.

Undoubtedly, for example, there will be a robot repair industry, bigger than the Roto-Rooter people are today. You're giving a party and your robot bartender goes on the blink; don't panic, call Robot Repair and a man or woman or a robot from the service industry will come out and fix it.

According to Mobbs, it's going to be even more wonderful as soon as "outdated" federal restrictions are lifted.

"Future uses include: Pacific Bell central offices serving as an answering service to store and forward messages for you; the monitoring/load control of gas and electric usage in homes; improved listings via electronic Yellow Pages."

I guess that means I can get rid of my answering machine, which I have had for two years, at least, and never have bothered to turn on, and get Pacific Bell to keep our air conditioning system on the mark, so that I never get too hot and my wife never gets too cold.

That does sound like one more step toward Utopia.

For every 10 people who own a videocassette recorder there will be one person available in the service industry to repair it, or show you how to make it work in the first place.

Society will be entirely synergistic. Nobody who owns a machine will be able to function without the service industry, and of course the service industry will be entirely dependent on a mechanized populace. Cities will be great whirring motors.

And I'll bet you anything that one-third of the telephone calls I get will still be wrong numbers.

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