Peter Pringle's America: The couch commandos

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THE PROSPECT of 'interacting' with my television set as an all-purpose electrical servant, entertainer and educator is intriguing, but also quite upsetting. Life is already full of interactions with machines. I spend my days, it seems, obeying the dulcet commands of the computerised voices that now answer telephones. After work I like to talk to people; on most evenings the only machines I care to interact with are the kitchen stove and the refrigerator.

Yet these days of minimal human-to-machine connection appear to be ending swiftly. The announcement last week of the biggest media merger in history - between a telephone company, Bell Atlantic, and a television cable firm, Tele-Communications Inc - suggests that the long-held dream of media moguls and computer engineers can now become reality: within a year or two we will come home from work, sit down to yet another computer keyboard to call up a video, keep one eye on the traffic, check the weather, buy a car, pay the electricity bill, learn a language, book a train ticket or call the doctor for a screen-to-screen chat.

For a price, words, images and sounds will be converted into digits and whizzed down high-speed glass fibres to the 'smart box' on top of the television, which will be controlled by a person the wizards of the communications industry have already nicknamed a 'couch commando' - presumably because we will be in the front line of information, storming vast beaches of databanks and communications links on 500 channels.

Yet none of this dazzling technology ever improves the product; quite the opposite. In New York, for example, there are 75 channels on the cable menu, yet looking for a good programme is like looking for a good vegetable in the local grocery store. At first it seems to have everything; then, suddenly, you realise that it is all made of the same, tasteless stuff.

In fact, American television is so bad it is even condemned by its stars. Dan Rather, the CBS anchor who earns several million dollars a year presenting the evening news, recently told a gathering of television news directors: 'We should all be ashamed of what we have and have not done, measured against what we could do.' Mr Rather's argument is that good ratings are being put ahead of responsible journalism. 'They've got us putting more and more fuzz on the air, cop-shop stuff, so as to compete not with other news programmes but with entertainment posing as news programmes, for dead bodies, mayhem and lurid tales.' American television hires 'lookers, not writers' and asks for 'powder puff, not probing interviews'.

Mr Rather condemns market researchers for the 'showbizzification' of news, but the ratings are a measure of what the public likes and dislikes. The fact is, in-depth news reporting of distant lands, economic reports and education stories are not what the public wants. Game shows, cops and robbers, fuzz and wuzz receive the highest ratings. The latest hit cartoon, MTV's Beavis and Butt- head, is about two very stupid, ugly characters who spend a lot of their time picking their noses and urinating. The world is either 'cool', or it 'sucks'.

At least the advent of the new super 'information highway' of 500 channels has a chance of stirring the sluggish debate over the awfulness of television: over who controls it and what they produce. How it all turns out is up to the public. Vigilance is the order of the day.

Huge communications empires are battling for the highest stakes in the industry, which are far beyond the dollars 12bn ( pounds 8bn) video rental market and the dollars 25bn cable television business. The US government would like the cable television and telephone companies to compete with each other to ensure fair market prices and high standards, but in order to produce the cash to put in the glass fibre cables - about dollars 2,800 a home - the two companies are merging. Monopolies loom.

A watchful eye is also required on the computer engineers who are creating these technological marvels. As a breed, engineers have not been so frothy with excitement about their prospects of creating machines from pure science discoveries since physicists gave them atomic power to play with - and we all live with the mess the engineers made of oversized nuclear power stations.

Some years down the information highway a person interacting with a 'smart box' will be allowed entry to the 3-D artificial world of 'virtual reality'. People will fly to exotic lands, play with molecules, swim through the stock market, or compose symphonies with real instruments. Who will monitor the engineers as they create this fantasia?

And will the companies involved in this magical exercise create products and services that people can afford? If the tolls for the super-information highway are too high, the new system will simply widen the gap between the wired rich and the unplugged poor.

The boffins have devised an electronic device called an 'intelligent agent', a robot that does your 'channel surfing' for you, guiding you past the dross and on to the shelf of mind-broadening volumes of information and entertainment. It can select programmes without violence and ones that include dialogue with words of more than one syllable.

But how reliable can this agent be? Where there are agents there can always be counteragents. The advertising companies will always be ready to flag down my robot on the information highway, arrest him for un-American activities and fill him up with yet more fuzz and wuzz. On that you can bet your smart box.