Modems: Close Encounters Of The Computer Kind

This article, written by Lindsey Van Gelder, was published in the
September, 1983 issue of MS. magazine

Last February, MS. published an article of mine entitled “Falling In
Love With Your Computer.” Back then, my computer and I spent days and
nights staring into each other’s eyes with the single-minded intensity
typical of new relationships. But, as these things often go, after
some months had passed and the initial mysteries became familiar, a
certain restlessness set in. I wanted to reach out and touch another

I bought a modem.

My modem is a Hayes 1200, a sleek silver box about the size of a book.
It has three cables connecting it to my computer, my phone line, and
an electrical outlet. Using special software – computer programs
specifically designed to operate the modem – my computer can “call”
other computers anywhere in the world and transfer any information of
theirs onto my screen. If you’ve been following the computer field,
you probably already know that a modem can get you stock prices,
airline schedules, financial news, worldwide schedules, and a whole
host of other services for the business community. Less publicized
are some of the *really* interesting things you can do “on-line”:
making friends, arguing about politics, playing chess, even (bizarre
as it sounds) have “sex” with people thousands of miles away.

Such carryings-on go under the general name of “telecommunications.”
I do a lot of it on CompuServe, the largest “information service” in
the country, which I and nearly 60,000 other people subscribe to. I
paid a $20 initiation fee, and I’m billed at $5 an hour after 6 P.M.
on weeknights and all day on weekends (prime business hours cost more
than four times as much) to sample 800-plus different services. I
would be severely remiss if I didn’t warn you that cruising around in
this infinity of info can be awfully addicting, not to mention
expensive – $5 an hour can add up when you’re having fun. But, come
with me on a typical evening’s foray:

After turning on my modem and computer and loading my software I tell
my system to dial up CompuServe’s New York number. When CompuServe
answers, I’m asked for my ID number and my secret password. Then I’m
officially logged on. As often as not these days, I get a message
informing me that I have “EMAIL” – electronic mail – sent by others to
my ID number (73125,470) waiting for me. After I read and answer my
mail, I’m presented with the “prompt” signal (“!”), and I can type
in where I next want to go. (Beginners who aren’t sure where they
want to go can call up “menus” with different choices.)

My first stop after the mailbox tonight is the Special Interest Group
(SIG) for Family Matters, a sort of electronic bulletin board devoted
to child care and related topics. The 10-year-old child of two of my
best friends is recovering from a car accident and is about to come
home from the hospital in a full body cast; her parents have asked me
to put a notice on the SIG asking for advice from other parents who’ve
had to cope with similar experiences. Sure enough, there are several
long replies, offering both practical advice (see if your health
insurance will pay for an air conditioner, don’t let the child scratch
inside the cast, make sure the child’s modesty is respected in such a
vulnerable condition) and emotional support. I turn on my printer and
automatically make a copy to read to my friends later on.

My clothes dryer is dying a slow death and I want to buy a new one, so
after entering in a few more keyboard commands, my next stop is the
Comp-U-Store. I tell the computer what brand I’m interested in and
the maximum I’m willing to spend; in seconds the computer spews out a
discount price it can get me on a Whirlpool portable. At this point,
my daughter Sadie wanders in, and I’m cajoled into heading over to the
games data base and printing out her biorhythms chart for the month.

From there I move on to see what’s doing in some of my other favorite
SIGs: the Work-At-Home SIG (whose motto is “Take your coffee break
with us”), the Good Earth SIG (camping, ecology, and farming), the IBM
Owner’s SIG, and the Cooks’ Underground, (there’s an urgent message
from a guy who needs to know if a recent recipe for cream cheese pie
was for one pie pan or two).

There are other SIGs and SIG sections for lawyers, educators,
musicians, sports nuts, literary types, disabled people,
science-fiction fans, ham-radio enthusiasts, firefighters, software
authors, and people with medical questions. The general format is the
same: someone leaves a question, news item or other message; anyone
can reply to it, and anyone else can reply to that reply. (When
you, the subscriber, enter a SIG, you can request to read all the
messages on file, only those that have been filed since your last
visit, or only particular messages.) Many SIG groups also hold
regular on-line conferences, in which people all over the country
gather to exchange information, argue, schmooze.

For feminists, the heart of CompuServe is likely to be the Women’s
Issues SIG (actually, a subgroup of a national issues SIG, which also
has sections on politics, religion, and eight other issues). To get
there I type “GO HOM-132” at the prompt. Then I electronically “leaf”
though the bulletin board, where a debate is raging over whether one
can ethically judge a male politician by how well he treats his wife.
One person argues that delving into a politician’s private life is as
unconscionable as the government’s prying into ours; we should judge
the man purely on performance. Somebody else replies that a man
who would lie to his wife would lie to the nation. Various people
have added their two cents to this one.

Tonight is Thursday, and at 9:30, the weekly women’s live, on-line
conference takes place. Lori, Georgia, Pamela, Connie, Alex and I
are at tonight’s session. There’s no agenda, but as one thing leads
to another, we get into a “discussion” about street harassment and how
we handle it. As each of us at home at our keyboards types a line
and presses the Enter button on our computers, the line shows up on
everyone else’s screen. (It takes a little while to get used to the
rhythm, but once you’re used to it, it seems very comfortable – far
more immediate and spontaneous than letters but more demanding of
one’s thought processes and verbal skills than the phone. It combines
what I like best about writing and talking.) Lori tells a funny story
about faking out a lecherous guy on the street by pretending to be a
prostitute. Georgia and Pamela want to know what Lori would have done
if the guy had pulled out his wallet. I say that the desire to put a
woman in her place on the street is different than the desire to have
sex, and Lori agrees. Then Pamela admits that she minded the street
harassment more when she was younger. Our bicoastal
consciousness-raising group electronically chews this particular piece
of fat for a while.

When the conference is finished, I head on over to CB – CompuServe’s
version of CB radio, and, along with its multiplayer games, its most
popular service. Like the women’s conference, CB is live. The first
thing I’m asked when I enter is my “handle,” and I enter my usual CB
name, “Lynx.” (I chose it because it’s androgynous, but slinky – and
because it sounds like my real name.) Then I’m asked which of the 36
CB channels I want to tune in to. Channel 1 is the “adult” channel,
33 has been unofficially taken over by gay men, 17 is developing into
a channel for teenagers, and most of the rest are open. By simply
writing “/tun” and the number of the channel I want to go to, I can
move from channel to channel. Another company – “/ustat” – gives me
an instant list of the ID numbers and handles of the other people
tuned in to my channel or to all of CB. If I want to request a
private talk with someone that no one can overhear, I can send that
person a message using the “/talk” command; they can either agree to
“/talk” or ignore the message.

I “/ustat” to see if anyone I know is on CB. My best CB friend goes
under the handle of “Lady Editor.” Her real name is Pamela Bowen, and
she’s feature editor of the Huntington (West Virginia)
‘Herald-Dispatch’; she’s also the Pamela of the women’s SIG and a
charter subscriber to ‘Ms.’ We met on CB when I happened to notice
her handle and figured we’d have something in common. Lady Editor and
I have now been talking via our computers for months – about our work,
how she met her husband, how I met my lover, why we like computers,
how we got to be feminists, why I wnated kids, why she didn’t, where
we grew up…in other words, the usual things that new friends talk
about. One night about two in the morning, we started to get very
sentimental. It seems strange to me, I typed out on my keyboard, that
we have this intimacy – but I wouldn’t know you if I fell over you on
the street. Lady E. agreed, but said that there’s something special
about CB friendships. In ordinary human discourse, people relate
through categories of age, gender, race, appearance, and disability or
lack thereof. Communicating on CB, she added, is different – it’s
like getting past all that other stuff and speaking directly, one mind
to another. Lady Editor and I can talk all night, and sometimes do.

Another CB friend is Changeup. He came on line one night during an
argument between me and someone whose handle was “Stormtrooper.” I
was strenuously objecting to Stormtrooper’s Nazi-chic (he eventually
agreed with me, changed his handle, and stuck around for a discussion
about World War II), and Changeup backed me up. We later went into
“/talk” and I discovered that he, too, was a former newspaper
journalist, now working for a California software house. But if Lady
Editor and Changeup are probably people I’d gravitate to at a
real-life party, I’ve also met people on CB whom I’d probably never
meet anywhere but CB – and I like that, too. I’ve had long talks with
an Atlanta psychiatrist (we started by comparing the analyst-analysand
and interviewer-subject relationships, and ended up discussing our
feelings about aging, death, and dying); a just-coming-out Chicago gay
man who spoke of his worries that his straight male friends won’t feel
relaxed around him any more, even if they accept his gayness; and an
Arizona farm woman who has seven children and 36 cats and who tried to
explain her feelings as an antiabortion feminist – among others.

My usual m.o. is to channel-hop until I find an interesting
conversation, chime in, and later perhaps, go into “/talk” mode with
someone who seems intelligent or funny. There’s a certain code of
politeness among CBers. When you come on to a channel, you’re not
supposed to “lurk,” i.e., hang around just eavesdropping. When people
come and go, it’s considered rude not to say hello and good-bye.
(This can get pretty boring if there are lots of people on the
channel.) The CB equivalent of “come here often?” is “what’re you
using?” in other words: What kind of computer do you have? Since we
can’t see each other, it’s customary to describe what we’re doing and
how we’re feeling; for instance, if someone doesn’t want to go into
“/talk” with you, you might type: “sulking” or “looking downcast.”
It’s de rigueur to respond to someone’s joke with at least a
“he-he-he,” if not a “falling in the aisle, wetting pants.” People
also tend to get fairly effusive when they know each other, blowing
lots of “kisses,” “hugs,” and “warm fuzzies” across the screen.

In describing some of this to people in recent months, I’ve frequently
come up against knowing raised eyebrows; ‘ah,’ say the eyebrows, ‘this
is all ersatz. Probably a bunch of nerds who can’t relate to people
in real life.’ There’s undoubtedly a grain of truth in that view –
although I must admit that I find it suspeciously akin to the
scared-rabbit things parents said in the 1960s about hippies smoking
marijuana only because they couldn’t hack “reality.” CB is a modern
reality. As computers become as common as phones, the truth is that
“real life” may involved more and more telecommunicating – possibly in
forms we can’t even now imagine.

Still, I was unprepared for the phenomenon known on the CB grapevine
as “CompuSex.” The first time someone suggested it (to my 12-year-old
and 9-year-old kids, who were masquerading as cool grown-up ladies), I
thought it was a one-shot, perverted fluke. (The kids, of course,
thought it was hilarious: when their CB correspondent typed “I’m
French-kissing you now,” they typed “P-tooey!!!”) Later on, after
several other come-ons, I decided to admit I was a reporter and ask
people about it. One man who does it often (sometimes one-on-one,
sometimes with his girlfriend in the room in an on-line orgy with
another couple) described it as “like having a dirty book that talks
back to you.” Another man pointed out that you can’t get AIDS or
herpes from a keyboard. A woman told me that she even passes on the
names of men who are “good CompuSex lovers.” (No, I didn’t try it –
somehow it seemed to qualify as genuine infidelity.)

Occasionally, the desire to meet one’s CB buddies face to face
culminates in a party somewhere. There have also been a few on-line
friendships that led to real-life romances and marriages. Last
spring, the ultimate coupling occurred: an on-line wedding between two
people who had originally met on CB, conducted with the bride and
groom at one terminal, the minister at another, and dozens of
assembled “guests” – CBers who had watched the relationship developing
for months – at their terminals all over the country. In true CB
fashion, the “organist” played “dum dum dee dum” at the appropriate
moment, the official wedding photographer went “flash,” and there were
lots of “sniffs” and “wiping eyes” during the ceremony. Afterward,
the guests threw “”””””: CB rice.

One of the things that puzzles me is why I like CB *so much*. In my
civilian life as a typical New York glazed-eyed, fast- walking,
don’t-lose-a-second-racing-through-the-revolving-door kind of person,
I do my best to *avoid* strangers. True, I’ve met some lovely people
on CB. But I’ve also met a few dullards and two or three truly nasty
people, and on a couple of occasions (like the incident with
Stormtrooper), I’ve run across folks who think nothing of spouting the
most retrograde sort of racist and sexist comments. Still, a basic
politeness on CB seems usually to prevail. Once when I was on
the gay men’s channel, someone burst onto the screen and began hurling
absolutely mindless abuse around, telling everyone they were sickies
who were going to hell. I quickly did a “/ustat,” wrote down the
abuser’s number, and followed him to another channel, where I heard
him bragging about what he’d done to the CBers on line – and then
heard *them* criticizing him for being out of line. The CB world is
essentially a friendly one, full of people thrilled to be sitting in
their bedrooms at 2 A.M., yacking intimately to a total stranger
thousands of miles away.

I have also noticed that there’s something about the medium that
brings out the most patient side of me. Instead of flying off the
handle and calling someone a moronic asshole, as is my wont in real
life, I usually reason with people who offend me – and I’ve usually
gotten an apology. Perhaps I feel less defensive at my keyboard, I
can’t be raped, beaten, or bought out. CB is a democracy – we’re all
equal here, reduced to some verbal essence. We are our brains and our
emotions – and our typing fingers. It’s a fair fight.