by James Myers
Campus folklore suggested many methods for beating the phone
companies, but most didn't really work very well. One of them was to make
the weekly call home on a different day and from a different campus phone
every time, the idea being that this would make it harder for the phone
companies to track you, so you'd only get generic student ads for fast
food places and the like instead of ads targeted at your specific
weaknesses. Tim found that this method wasn't worth the trouble, but he
did use the one that said to avoid local languages on long-distance.
"Why do you always speak English with me now?" his dad asked him
in Dutch. He was charmingly chauvinistic about his tiny corner of the
European Union, even though he worked in Amsterdam, where hardly anyone
spoke Dutch anymore. (His name was Joost. His son's name used to be
"It saves money," Tim replied in English. He figured this would
impress his dad, who was not only a former businessman but was also paying
for his studies in Toronto, including the phone bills.
"That doesn't make any sense," Joost said in Dutch.
"I didn't believe it at first either," Tim said in English. "But
I tested it and it works. Try it yourself. Local language costs almost
twenty percent more."
That boy's a real scientist, Joost thought to himself (in Dutch).
But Joost knew he didn't need to try it himself. He didn't need to be a
scientist, begging for scraps of truth from God. He was Assistant
Undersecretary of Commerce in the European Union Central Government. He
had God's phone number.
"Of course your son is right; I can't believe that you really
didn't know this," Trubetzkoy said in extremely rapid English. Trubetzkoy
controlled fifty-three percent of the company that controlled seventy-six
percent of the companies that controlled ninety-eight percent of the
global telenet industry.
"But --" said Joost in English. Then he heard the advertising
warning bell and stopped talking, as he had been conditioned. It was the
one from that nanotech lobbyist.
Yet almost as soon as it had started, the woman's soft voice was
cut off in mid-spiel. Joost didn't have to ask who had done it.
"You in Central Government, and still not ad-free?" Trubetzkoy
rapidly clucked his tongue. "I'm shocked; you really have no excuse not
to understand the system; you must learn to understand the system or the
system will destroy you."
"Sorry," said Joost in English.
"OK, I've got to go; just read this." Paper started streaming out
of Joost's machine as Trubetzkoy went off-line.
Joost expected a top-secret document, but it wasn't. It was a
reprint of an article that had first appeared over a year ago, in English,
in a telenet trade magazine. Who could keep up?
The article explained why Tim's phone bill method worked. The key
was that the telenet companies liked money. True, after switching to an
all-data-packet system without passing the savings on to users, profits
had soared. And yes, phone advertising had been an enormous success,
surprising even the most cynical in the industry with what the public
would put up with. But now there was a new stock-boosting revolution on
the horizon, one that was made possible, as usual, by new technology:
The roots of the idea went back to the death of dead air. People
talking on the phone aren't always talking. Why pay to transmit silence?
Shunt resources over to another line during the lulls and there's another
phone call you can sell.
And don't neglect the tiny lulls in the middle of words. Sounds
like "t" and "p" are mostly silence; callers never notice when part of
their "nighttime" is used to send a phoneme or two of somebody else's
Even speech can be turned into silence and thus into money.
Speech is sound and sound is waves and waves are often alike. Clip out
the duplicate waves at one end, send the clipped bits in code, put it all
back together at the other end, and a half-hour gabfest becomes a
ten-minute chat, with the leftover time sold to the next user.
"I know this already," Joost said to himself in English as he
turned past an ad to the next page. And then he read some more.
Recently, however (the article went on), the industry had realized
that purely acoustic compression had missed the most important source of
redundancy in phone conversations: conversation itself. It wasn't much
trouble snipping out the hmm's, uh-huh's and you know's, but to achieve
maximum efficiency, the telenet companies decided to rebuild human
language from the inside.
When human language was a cutting-edge technology in the
Neolithic, the fact that it was packed with redundancy was a great design
feature, since the Neolithic was a noisy place. In this age of fiber
optics and data packets and complex systems theory, however, redundancy is
mostly just a waste of money.
Any language will do to illustrate this. Take an English sentence
for example, a perfectly ordinary one, nothing fancy: "Yesterday I went
to the store, and today I am going back". Sixteen syllables of deathless
prose. What could be more eloquent? This could: "Yest I go store, tod
back". Six syllables, and no loss of information. "Yest" is enough to
indicate "yesterday" (the less common "yesteryear" could be "yesty"), and
that's enough to indicate the past tense, and since people usually go "to"
the store, the "to" is redundant (only if they go "in" or "by" it would
you need a preposition), and what's the point of the "the" anyway? And
this is just what you find with an unusually plain sentence.
Statistically, the typical English sentence consists of even more useless
fat, fat that could become profit if it were trimmed away.
The problem was that there was no single language trimming
algorithm that would work for all languages, since each languages packs
its cellulite in different places. Russian may have no "the", but it has
three genders and six cases; Chinese may not have any genders or cases
(nor tenses and suffixes for that matter), but it's filled with compound
words where each part just repeats the meaning of the other; and so on for
every other language in the world, an efficiency consultant's nightmare.
It was decided, therefore, that the most economical solution would
be to compress just the most popular languages, and the obvious place to
start was with the most popular language in the history of the world.
Temp linguists were hired to create a maximally efficient
English-like language, dubbed English-Minus or E- for short, and temp
engineers were hired to create software to compress regular English into
E- and decompress it back out again. Then the linguists and engineers
figured out how to translate E- into and out of a universal semantic code
that could be sent essentially instantaneously. Voice quality information
was encoded separately, so when your sister's lisp or your psychiatrist's
accent came over the line, you had no idea that the whole thing was
Once it was up and running, the language compression system saved
the telenet companies such a bundle that this time they felt generous
enough to pass some of the savings on to users. Of course, this was only
if they spoke English (or some big local language like Chinese or Spanish
which were also worth the cost of hiring linguists and engineers). And
here was a tip that Tim had missed: users also saved if they stuck to
common topics that were readily translated into the universal semantic
code. This didn't violate anybody's freedom of speech; you could still
discuss things as far off the beaten path as you wanted. It was just that
you'd have to pay extra for it.
"No wonder Tim has sounded so strange lately," Joost said to
himself in Dutch, defiantly in Dutch. "He's being computer-generated."
"Isn't that what I already told you?" Tim said on the phone a
moment later. He, or whatever it was, still spoke English. "I'm saving
money, so why does it bother you?"
Joost hesitated, and wondered who got his dead air.
"I don't know."
He stopped again before he knew why, as he had been conditioned.
The ad bell. This time it was one he had never heard before, but it
seemed familiar. It was the ad he'd seen in the article: Dutch speakers
were wanted for a temp project in Toronto.
When it was over he asked if Tim had got the same ad.
"Yeah, and it's weird. I already work there part-time."
The machine in Joost's office spit out another piece of paper. It
began "We regret to inform you...." The rest was redundant.
Father and son were reunited, live and in person, the following
week. Joost rented an apartment outside Toronto an hour by subway from
the Local Language Compression complex and he spent this hour trying to
believe Tim's words of encouragement.
"My generation doesn't speak much local language anymore, so they
really need old guys like you. Your job should be pretty secure. At
least until the technology advances again."
His new office was a lot smaller than his old one, but it had a
machine with buttons on it in Dutch. It also had explanatory screens that
scrolled open when needed, and they explained in Dutch. His new
supervisor came in from behind and talked to him. He talked in Dutch,
more precisely in the musical tones of Flemish, the Dutch of the Belgian
Region. Joost turned from the machine with a smile but the supervisor had
gone to greet another new arrival. They needed a lot of Dutch speakers
working in parallel on this.
The job was to hand-compress Dutch call packets into Dutch-Minus.
Apparently for a dying local language it was cheaper to have semi-skilled
labor hand-compress on-line than to hire more linguists and engineers to
automate. For five hours a day he listened to snippets of conversations
between callers who seemed about his age, snippets just long enough for
him to catch the basic meanings of sentences but not the whole
conversation, and as he listened he pressed buttons labeled with guesses
about common words and phrases and grammatical properties like tense that
he expected to come later in the sentence. He wasn't as fast as a
computer, but each button press meant that the acoustic compressors could
be more savage with the rest of the sentence, and each was added to a
growing database that would make possible future automation that much
He did this for five hours a day, as quickly and accurately as he
could, because he hoped this was all just a test and he would get his old
job back when he had proved that he understood the system, but also
because he felt sympathy for the hundreds upon hundreds of anonymous
voices which passed through his earphones every hour, discussing shoe
prices and weddings and pains in sides and people named Mirjam and the
secret of a good pie and the phone bill and strange dreams and a small
multicolored insect someone's daughter had brought home from the park, and
he wanted to do a good job so they could express themselves in the
language they chose to speak because it was the language and the speech of
their own voice and mouth and mind and heart and living breath.