WWW: The Web We Wove

WWW: The Web We Wove

by Arlan Andrews, Sr.

You just can’t tell about History.

I mean, things are changing so fast, it sometimes feels like the very past itself is not as solid as it used to be. At least that’s the take where I am. Or is that when I am? The terminology isn’t too precise. And here at AT&T (at least before it got broken up into a bunch of smaller, almost incoherent organizations), we engineers and scientists used to pride ourselves on lucid, accurate, precise, and correct terminology and language. However you say it though, one thing is clear to me: nothing is what it seems to be to all of you who work outside The Phone Company. History, least of all.

Let me try to make that a little clearer.

Have you ever had the feeling, during the last ten or fifteen years, that history just was not happening like we all thought it would? How strange that the world’s bad guys just sort of gave up and went away without a fight? How so many kinds of weird people and unusual ideas and outrageous political movements have sprung up, have even won elections? How even the historians can’t seem to agree on history any more, and how we argue about even our memories of recent events? I’ve got news for you: history hasn’t been what it should have been. It isn’t even staying the same.

And, my friends, that is truly scary.

I first experienced It over thirty years ago, when I got into Bell Labs, and by deep thought and worthy deed and sincere action convinced The Powers That Ought To Be how I was fit to be one of them (or at least on their team), and thus finally got my soul-grabbing alphabet soup of clearances. I accepted It with all my other duties, and took some pride in the fact that we in The Phone Company had undertaken such a cosmic task. Hey, it was the early 1960s (not “THE Sixties,” they didn’t arrive until about ’65 or so), and way back then we did as we were told. Well, more or less.

Anyway, I didn’t know the rest of the world knew anything about It until I happened to be at a drunken party at the 1985 World Sci-Fi Convention in Auckland Down Under. The room was jammed with sci-fi writers of all kinds, and as a guy fairly new to the field, I was kind of hanging out at the periphery, hoping my party trajectory would take me into an orbit that led ultimately to intersect with a Hugo winner somewhere, preferably a hard science type like Jerry or Larry or Charles or Greg or Hal or David or Poul. While I mused so, a tall, dark, and hairy author sidled up to me and whispered, “Where were you when the world changed, Arlan?” I gulped involuntarily and he stared down at me as if I Knew. Of course, I Did.

“You mean,” I replied, looking up as innocently as I could, fighting down the urge to panic, “when Apollo landed?”

He shook his head. “No, not that. When Things Changed.” I could hear the Capital Letters, he was that good. His voice lowered even further, and I practically had to stand on tiptoes to catch his speech, even though I didn’t really want to hear him say it. He was not a Company Man, after all. “I mean, Arlan, when all these alternate universes, alternate histories, started becoming our reality?” Damn it, he Knew! Inwardly I groaned; this would mean stacks of reports to be filled out, and assessments of situations, and loads of other paperwork I didn’t want to think about during the Sci-Fi Con.

“Eric, I don’t know what you mean. You’re talking about the new markets in sci-fi novels, the alternate-history ones you’ve started doing?”

Shaking his head, Eric snorted and grabbed me by the elbow, leading me into the smoking-room section of the Sci-Fi professionals’ party, where a heated debate was in progress. He shoved and squeezed, manipulating me into the heated core of the ongoing belligerence, and I found myself sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of a bedful of various famous, and nearly so, sci-fi writers.

One of them was obviously tipsy as well as loud, but fascinating for all that. “Hellfire, I can tell you when It All Changed—when Hinckley’s bullets missed Ron Reagan, right there in front of the Hinckley Hilton, downtown D.C. In the real world, George Bush became president in 19 and 81 and we didn’t get this godawful arms buildup and the trillion-dollar Star Wars program that’s going to destroy the economy and the world.”

Interesting thought, I thought, but way off base. Behind me a challenging voice chirped up, “No, in the real world, Lennon shoots Reagan. US declares war on Colombia.”

“Colombia?” somebody asked.

“Hell, yes. It’s Lennon’s Colombian coke that makes him do it!” The whole room roared in hilarity, marking the high point in the conversation, after which time the roomful of brilliant, creative, and weird minds latched onto other emerging subjects and the theory of How Things Had Changed evaporated into the stultifying mixture of smoke and air and body odor.

I uncrossed my legs and motioned Eric to meet me outside, on the patio past the sliding glass doors. Outside, he picked up the conversation. “Arlan, there you go. They know it, too. We’ve all of us sensed that things have changed. Trouble is, we just can’t pinpoint exactly when.”

I started to speak, but Eric held up a palm. “No, hear me out, really. I think we in the sci-fi field are just more attuned to alternate history, and I’ll be damned if I don’t think you and I and the rest of us”—he gestured toward the laughing crowd back inside the room—“are off on some kind of tangent, a bifurcated history or other weird timeline.”

I breathed deeply, controlling my initial fears. He doesn’t Know. He’s only speculating. I took comfort in that thought, but a more disturbing one took its place. But he does feel it, they all do inside there. 1 shrugged mentally. I can’t tell them, but they ought to feel lucky to be in one of the Seven Known Alternities. What godawful things might be happening in all the rest of the Infinitude?

Let me interrupt here to tell you The Story: How Things Were, How Things Got Cross-Wired (Literally), and How Things Came Apart. And ultimately, how that has to do with What We (Used To) Do At The Phone Company.

Time: July 1964. Scene: Bell Telephone Laboratories, Murray Hill, New Jersey. A secret chamber, half a mile below the surface, bright fluorescent lighting, walls daubed a dull light green. At the head of a class a lecturer speaks.

“Lady and gentlemen, you have, every one of you, successfully completed all the intensive coursework, endured the extensive barrage of testing, and secured your comprehensive security clearances.” The neatly dressed preppie scientist—all dark suit, white Oxford-cloth shirt, shiny thin tie, and blond crew cut—smiled at his little wordplay and several of my class of ten new recruits nodded and returned the smile. I didn’t; I felt like we were on the verge of some spectacular revelation and I leaned forward to catch every word.

“You have taken all the courses, you have understood the growth of the Bell System, all the way from Dr. Bell and Mr. Watson, through Mr. Vail, through the step-by-step Strowger switch up to today’s Electronic Switching System, the ESS Series that we are this very day installing for the first time.

“Does anyone know why we have spent billions and billions of dollars to replace perfectly good seventy-year-old technology, switches that have operated almost failure-free since they were invented by that undertaker who wanted to ensure that no human operator would take away his business by plugging them into another mortuary’s phone line?”

“To make more efficient the U. S. of A. phone system,” one greenhorn volunteered. An Indian. From India.

“To make more money.” “To get calls through faster.” “To service the customers.” At each of these rapid-fire answers from the audience, the lecturer smiled and shook his head, pointing at yet another raised hand.

“You’re all correct,” he finally said, pacing up and down in front of the lectern, “those are good reasons, and each of them will happen. But,” he spun on his heel, splaying all ten fingers at us, “each of you is also Wrong. The real reason has to do with our vast wired network, the millions upon millions of interconnections we have made, the untold quadrillions and quintillions and octillions of possible interconnections among these customers that are possible.”

His voice now a whisper, the lecturer turned and pressed a large red pushbutton on the wall behind him. The entire wall rolled away, revealing a rough surfaced rear-projection screen. “I am now ready—you are now ready—to understand the whole truth behind The Phone Company. Why it must remain one unitary system, at least in the U. S. of A., why we must maintain our interconnected network as the world’s leader. The rest of the world, backwards as they are, they’ll never catch up. And for us, that’s good. They won’t get the Alternities goodies like we do.”

The class, me included, gasped as the rear-projection screen suddenly filled with the five words that changed our lives: There Are Seven Parallel Universes. The lecturer smiled at our gasping reactions.

“How can there be?” the Harvard man said, standing and pointing to make his point.

“Simple,” came the answer, “the Many-Worlds Theory of Quantum Mechanics allows an uncountably infinite number of parall ...

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