The Final Word
There is little doubt in my mind that the modern day Computer Revolution, like its predecessor, the Industrial Revolution, brought about great social change in the world. At the beginning of the current millennium, a vast network of communication, entertainment and information became available to any and all who had access to a personal computer. By the end of the twenty-first century, every business, school, home and government agency was incorporated into NetWeb, the mammoth international cyber network, and by the middle of the twenty-second century, the more traditional forms of communication had been abandoned.
Not only was NetWeb faster, more reliable and more versatile than television and radio, it was also interactive. Letters, too, became obsolete. The delivery of both foreign and domestic mail had been slow and expensive, so postal services were limited to packaged goods only--items usually purchased from on-line vendors. Newspapers and magazines vanished from store shelves. News stories were better suited to web sites in that they could be updated quickly and inexpensively, without consuming vast quantities of paper. Eventually, the entire publishing industry perished, and bookstores and libraries were forced to close due to lack of interest in printed materials.
By the year 2300, only one man practiced the lost art of reading books. Boston-born Neville Farnsworth was one of those rare individuals who, like Henry David Thoreau, marched to the beat of a different drummer. Several generations earlier, the Farnsworth family had great social position, wealth and political influence, but over the years the later Farnsworths suffered a reversal of fortune. Neville, although educated at the best schools in England, chose to retreat to the old family home on Beacon Hill after completing his studies rather than seeking a high-paying job or going into government service.
Upon returning to America, he devoted his life to filling the immense brick mansion with countless stacks of books. The once-grand rooms contained thousands of volumes of reference and nonfiction books, as well as some of the world's greatest literature: Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dante and Chaucer, just to name a few. Farnsworth, considered an eccentric hermit by the good people of Bean Town, spent years haunting recycling centers and searching through mountains of garbage for salvageable books to add to his vast collection. It's a lot like hunting for buried treasure, Neville thought as he dug through decades of trash to find discarded paperbacks and hardcover texts.
When Neville wasn't rummaging through one of the city's waste management facilities, he was kept busy sorting, cataloging and maintaining his enormous collection. The main floor of his house contained nonfiction material. Books on the sciences including chemistry, physics, biology and astronomy filled the giant living room and spilled out into the hallway. Biographies cluttered the kitchen, leaving Neville just enough room to cook his three squares a day. Books on art were piled high in the formal dining room where presidents, governors and leaders of industry had once been entertained. All available space in the mansion, including the six bathrooms, the closets, cabinets, basement and attic, was overflowing with books.
* * *
One day Neville entered his house, proudly carrying his latest find: a hardcover edition of Lost Horizon, the classic utopian novel by James Hilton. He took the old, discarded book to his upstairs office where he strengthened its broken spine and taped its yellowed and torn pages. As he prepared a catalog card, jotting down all appropriate information for this particular edition, Neville compared himself to the High Lama in the novel.
"We're in the same line of work, you and I," he boasted, as though mentally conversing with old Father Perrault.
While Boston was in no way the fabled Shangri-La, Neville nonetheless considered himself a self-appointed custodian of mankind's culture, and like Hilton's High Lama, he envisioned a day when society would undergo a great upheaval, and the world-weary people would long for the treasured volumes he had so lovingly maintained in his mansion. The only problem Neville foresaw was that, unlike Father Perrault, he wouldn't live for hundreds of years. Who would care for his books after he was gone? he wondered.
Little did Neville know that as he skimmed through the pages of Lost Horizon, three thousand miles away a computer genius in the Silicon Valley was preparing to unleash a virus that would bring an end to the technological behemoth known as NetWeb.
Edwin Jacobs had served in the trenches of the computer wars before the anti-trust laws were repealed and computer manufacturers merged, creating the existing colossal monopoly. After he graduated MIT at the age of thirteen, the child prodigy spent years trying to make Microcom the leader in its field. It was not an enviable position since Edwin found himself in a never-ending race with his competitors to see who could provide faster processors, greater memory, higher quality and lower prices. Undaunted he persevered and became one of the wealthiest and most successful men in the world.
Edwin's emotional problems did not stem from the pressures of his business, but rather from his personal life. When he was a vulnerable young man of seventeen, Jacob fell in love with Microcom's vice president of sales and advertising. After eight months of dating, which Edwin managed with some difficulty to squeeze into his busy work schedule, the two were married. Sadly, Edwin had even less time to spend with his wife as the years passed and he climbed the corporate ladder. Two months before their fifth wedding anniversary, Vera Jacobs left her husband for a man she'd met through a NetWeb dating service.
Since the day he lost his beloved Vera, Edwin had been plotting his revenge--not on his unfaithful wife or her lover, but on the technology that had brought the two of them together. Finally, the many long months he'd spent secretly developing and testing the doomsday virus were about to end in success. Edwin took the chip out of his pocket and inserted it into his computer's megachip drive.
"There ought to be a drum roll or trumpet blast heralding this great moment," he said with a bitter laugh, as he touched the EXECUTE icon on the screen. Then he sat back and waited. A smile appeared on his face when, five minutes later, he heard people shouting throughout the office complex. One by one, then a thousand by a thousand and a million by a million, computers all over the world shut down. In less than an hour, NetWeb was dead.
The following day world leaders met at the United Nations building where the president of International NetWeb addressed the assembled dignitaries.
"Yesterday, at 3:35 p.m., Eastern Standard time, the entire NetWeb network was destroyed. We cannot begin to assess the damage, to estimate how many years of work or trillions of dollars we will need to restore it."
Heated arguments broke out among many of the delegates assembled. How could this have happened? Why were there no backup systems? There would be an immediate investigation, and heads would roll. Some of the leaders, however, voiced more practical concerns. How long would it take to restore the postal service? How badly had the world's telephone equipment deteriorated? What about television and radio? Could these outdated systems be up and running within a reasonable period of time?
While their leaders valiantly sought the answers to these questions, most people, whose daily lives depended on NetWeb, walked about in a dazed stupor, much like soldiers suffering from shellshock. The moment their computer screens went blank, their lives irrevocably changed. As technicians hastened to repair or replace downed telephone lines and long abandoned broadcasting equipment, the average man, woman and child suffered from acute despair, anger and boredom. Unemployment, crime and suicide reached an all time high, as people desperately sought a way to either fill or end their empty lives.
* * *
It was Neville Farnsworth, the eccentric hermit of Boston, who had spent decades rooting through heaps of trashed paper, who proved to be mankind's savior. It started with a single young boy whose school was closed until such time as the board of education could devise an appropriate curriculum in the absence of the school's NetWeb learning programs. Faced with an abundance of free time and no constructive pastime with which to fill it, the young lad began vandalizing local buildings. One day he tried to break into the aged brick mansion of the man his schoolmates had disrespectfully called "the mad librarian." Much to the boy's surprise, "Crazy Farnsworth" was at home at the time of the break-in.
"Hello, there," Neville said with a welcoming air when the boy crawled in through the window he'd just broken. "Please don't run off," Neville told the frightened child. "I never get any visitors these days."
The boy eyed him warily. "Come in and sit down. I was just about to have tea--a habit I acquired a long time ago when I was at Oxford."
The child accepted a chocolate chip cookie and glass of milk. While he ate, he looked around the room at the huge stacks of books. "What do you do with all these?" he finally asked Neville.
"I read quite a few of them myself, but mostly I save them for other people."
"Who in their right mind would want a book? Everybody knows books are low-tech and old-world."
"Yeah. Old-world. They belong in the past. They serve no purpose in our modern, technological society."
"Have you ever read a book?" asked Neville with a smile.
"Never even saw one until now," the boy replied, picking up a volume on the history of architecture.
"What about at school? Haven't you read Shakespeare or Dickens in your on-line English lit classes?"
"Schools stopped teaching literature years ago. Fictional stories don't offer anything of value to a growing mind."
"What do you study then?" "Computer science, mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering--all the information we'll need to take our place in the world once we graduate."
"What about music and art? Did you ever listen to Beethoven and Mozart or see a painting by Van Gogh?"
"Never heard of either of them."
Neville retrieved a book from the dining room hutch. He turned to the back of the book, scanning the index with his finger.
"What are you doing?" the boy asked.
"I'm looking for Van Gogh in the index."
"What's an index?"
"It's a little like a search feature on your computer. And this," he said, flipping to the table of contents at the beginning of the book, "is like a menu screen."
The boy seemed fascinated and took the book from Neville. "What are all these pictures?" he asked.
"They're paintings by some of the world's finest artists."
The boy's eyes widened as he beheld the works of da Vinci, Picasso, Rembrandt, Monet and Renoir.
"If you promise to bring it back, you can take the book home and read it."
That was the beginning of the New Renaissance, for not only did the boy come back three days later to return the book on art and borrow a copy of Dickens' Great Expectations, but he also spread the word of Neville's generosity throughout the neighborhood. Other youngsters and later their parents and grandparents came to the old mansion to borrow Neville's books. Soon there were so many volumes coming in and going out that Neville found it impossible to keep track of who had borrowed what.
"What does it matter?" he exclaimed with a laugh. "Books were meant to be read, not cataloged, cross-referenced and stored away on shelves."
The idea of reading as a form of entertainment--a novel idea in an age dominated by databases and information retrieval systems--became increasingly popular. Books were no longer thought of as low-tech and old-world. Works of fiction, classic literature and poetry were once again considered essential to a growing, healthy mind. People all over the world soon began searching their attics and basements for printed materials. Community volunteers explored old warehouses and abandoned schools and library buildings for lost or forgotten books.
By the time the phone systems were finally up and running again and mail delivery was resumed, people had already become adjusted to their new, non-computerized lives. The worthless computer hardware left over from the NetWeb days was disassembled. Chips and boards were reprogrammed to perform printing and publishing functions. Men and women previously trained for technical jobs began writing mysteries, romances, science fiction and poetry.
* * *
When an older Neville Farnsworth entered the new bookstore on Boston's Boylston Street, he encountered the man who, as a young boy, had tried to break into his house years before.
"Hello, Mr. Farnsworth. Do you remember me?"
"Yes. I haven't seen you in quite some time. How are you?"
"I've been keeping very busy. Do you like this bookstore?" he asked with a smile. "I own it. And in my spare time I'm writing a book."
"No kidding! What's it about?" Neville asked with genuine interest.
"It's about the greatest minds in history: Galileo, Plato, Edison, Einstein...." The young man led Neville to his private office where he kept a draft of his manuscript. "It's not finished yet," he apologized.
Neville skimmed through the pages, recognizing the names and photographs of the world's most famous philosophers, scientists, inventors, artists, composers and statesmen.
"It's quite a job. It must have taken you...."
Neville stopped speaking as he stared down at the manuscript and saw a photograph of his former Beacon Hill home, which had since become part of the Farnsworth Library of Harvard University. He was amazed to see below that picture a photograph of his own face, albeit years younger.
A tear came to his eye as he read the caption the young man had written below the picture: The Great Neville Farnsworth, the "Mad Librarian" of Boston. He tended the flame while the rest of us lived in darkness.
I can never have the final word with Salem.