Never mind how much frantic work must have gone into the preparation of eight hours of Nightline in Primetime: Brave New World (Thursdays, July 29 through September 16; 10 to 11 p.m.; ABC). The on-camera persona of correspondent Robert Krulwich is aw-shucks shambling, as if he were a Russell Baker, an E. B. White, or the editor of some provincial weekly on a bemused visit to the Big City and the Radiant Future. Surfing the sciences, he is our ambassador to dreamscapes of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, microbes, quarks, and Fermi’s Paradox. His interest is diplomatic (cordial relations with the new millennium), commercial (wondrous silks and savory spices), anthropological (such odd behaviors), and, of course, touristic (double helix! superstrings!). But on behalf of the rest of us, he is also homesick. On the one hand, what will they think of next? On the other, check your wallet and count your fingers.
For instance, speed. The first Thursday of Brave New World is devoted to the subject, from cars and roller coasters and video games to instant pudding and instant coffee and instant cameras to Velcro snap-off pants and those television remote controls that permit us to multiply our disgruntlements. Did you know they are reducing the elapsed time between cuts on compact discs – from three seconds to one – for people impatient to get on with the music? That even the Amish, in horse-and-buggy Pennsylvania, are secretly buying cell phones? Is this merely cultural, a by-product of the shocked recognition of self-infatuated boomers that, in spite of so much jogging and all that extra-virgin olive oil, they are going to die anyway and thus miss some gratification they actually deferred? Or is it biological, with cells that tick like taxi meters, cells that listen to time running out – hardwired make-it-snappies?
So Krulwich will chat up such suspects as Michael Malone, the editor of Forbes ASAP (As Soon As Possible), who thinks everything fast is “cool,” and Regis McKenna, one of those Silicon Valley supergeeks who helped create a cyberspace we had never even heard of twenty years ago but whose mysteries our modems are invariably too slow to penetrate. Nothing scares McKenna more than an hour alone in the dark. Whereas Krulwich is obviously more comfortable with the philosopher Jacob Needleman, who speaks to him and the camera under a whale-watch cap, in front of a body of water, with the rugged serenity of a Bay Area Buddha, about solitude and contemplation and an “inner world” where we make love and art and dreams. It’s clear from the expression of affable sincerity on Krulwich’s face that he’s more in favor of contemplation than of Velcro.
But bear in fidgety mind that correspondents like Krulwich have executive producers like Tom Bettag to run around faxing for them. With Krulwich, Bettag arranged for video artists Josh and Adam to impersonate the brain cells of a short-order cook; dug up a silent-screen snippet of Buster Keaton eating a labor-saving breakfast; deployed the time-haunted New Yorker cartoon drawings of William Steig; and commissioned original music for each episode of Brave New World from a group called They Might Be Giants. You have to have a fussbudget to tart up the interstices in an hour of TV interviews, or you’d otherwise be stuck with those embarrassing silences during which someone might expect you to make love or dreams.
For another, related instance, machines. The second Thursday is all about man-machine interface: not just automatic pilots to land our jetliners and anti-lock brakes to prevent us from deciding for ourselves how to negotiate a killer curve, and not only those mechanisms we stick directly into our imperfect bodies to improve and augment them, like pacemakers and artificial kidneys, retinas and knees, but also the machines we’ve so promiscuously created that verge on the sentient and autonomous, that will soon be cogitating for themselves (and maybe against our best interests). Here Krulwich will spend quality time with Danny Hillis, a computer guru (who is, like Krulwich himself, a wholly owned Disney subsidiary), and Ray Kurzweil, the cyberspace pioneer and author of The Age of Spiritual Machines. They disagree on how soon we will evolve a “nonbiological entity” with a machine brain capable of making 20 million billion connections a second – although this disagreement amounts to a quibble about which decade, 2020 or 2030.
Maybe because I’ve read too much apocalyptic cyberpunk fiction, I think Krulwich should be a little more worried about these shadow lands than he seems to be. In Pat Cadigan’s Synners, for example, everybody is plugged in, Netscaped, and Microsoftied up to his brain socket, and a sort of viral stroke goes online, crashing the system, and the Matrix itself wakes up. Whereas, in Canadian wildman Arthur Kroker’s “theory fiction” Spasm, the human body is seen as a terminal function, floating in virtual reality like a chemical afterimage, with no other purpose than to be sequenced into data (the “dryware of sadomasochism lite”). But Krulwich and Bettag have made sure that instead of thinking about free will, false consciousness, bad faith, God’s grace, and a virus with Attitude and Issues, we are distracted by robotic art, animated Batman movie penguins, Deep Blue actually hesitating in a chess match with a living and breathing grand master, and choreographer Bill T. Jones digitizing himself for a ghost dance inside a memory bank that will never even work up a sweat. And this is not to mention the drummer for They Might Be Giants, who must compete with the Ringo dreams of an MIT computer.
Since only three episodes of Brave New World were available for preview at press time, I can’t tell you whether these machine dreams will be counterbalanced by a biological alternative in the August 19 hour on cloning and other forms of genetic engineering, which promises to feature, in a laundromat spin cycle worthy of the old Ed Sullivan Show, Stephen Jay Gould, Jane Curtin, Buck Henry, and that cloned sheep. Nor do I know what we’re destined to learn on other Thursday nights about extended families, mass extinctions, microbial aliens, and the New Physics. But I can say that Krulwich, grazing in these pastures of the virtual, the problematic, and the maybe, like a nomadic cross between Sam Waterston and Alice Through the Looking Glass, achieves something in front of our eyes that no machine so far has ever managed: He scruples.