• Tag Archives CompuServe
  • 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.

  • Compusex: Reach Out And Touch Someone



    Last spring, I bought a modem and began computing in the fast lane. In fact, it
    was so fast and racy that you could accurately describe my system’s capability
    as downright 1200 bawdy.

    It all began innocently enough when I strolled into my local Radio Shack and
    bought a membership in CompuServe, the information service that (for $5 an hour
    during nonprime time) can hook you up to more than 800 different databases –
    everything from the weather in East Africa to the latest price for gold futures.
    The service’s most popular section, however, is its live, on-line “CB”
    simulation, in which crazed keyboard jockeys from coast to coast get together to
    argue, gossip, joke, philosophize, and make singles-bar small talk. There are
    bulletin boards around the country that offer similar realtime relating, but
    none are as hugh or as geographically diverse as CompuServe.

    It was CB that my two prepubescent daughters were itching to try. Within
    minutes after logging on, they were dragooned into private talk mode by a fellow
    who seemed delighted to be talking to CB’ers of the female persuasion. After a
    cursory chat about their careers (he was an electronics engineer; the girls
    described themselves as “students”), “Anthony” asked, “Are you ladies cute?”
    Then he asked about the length and color of their hair. The kids found this
    line of inquiry fascinating, and went on in detail about their shoulder- length
    blonde and chestnut tresses. From there the “conversation” went something like

    HE: Have you been introduced to compusex yet?
    THEY: No we haven’t, but introduce us.
    HE: Just respond with what ever you feel like.
    THEY: When does it start?
    HE: I love you darling
    THEY: Phtooey!
    THEY: I haven’t washed it for ten weeks!
    THEY: Get the hell off!
    HE: Don’t like it, huh?
    THEY: Anthony, we have a confession to make. You happen
    to be talking to a twelve and nine year old kid!
    We just are very sophisticated because we come from
    New York.
    THEY: Hello?…Hello?

    Poor Anthony’s come-on brought a new dimension to the concept of “touch typing.”
    But at the time, I assumed he was a lone CompuPervert, lookin’ for love in all
    the wrong databases. In the weeks and months that followed, however, I learned
    that CompuSex – along with its less flashy but equally sought-after sibling,
    compufriendship – is a staple out there in t