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
computer.

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, b