Is There Anybody Out There?

  1. Living in a World of Text
  2. Can’t get there
  3. Go West, Young Men!

You know their lives ran in circles so small, they thought they’d seen it all, and they couldn’t make room for a girl who’d seen the ocean.--Michelle Shocked, Memories of East Texas

I was in a car accident on the infobahn a couple of years ago. Now, whenever someone’s about to talk to me on the Internet, I get this tingly sensation in my third leg.

‘Talk’ is a combination of the telephone and electronic mail. It’s a telephone with text instead of voice. The screen is divided into two parts, like two people on the telephone in a movie. You type into the top part, and they see what you’re typing as you type it. You see what they type appear in the bottom part, spelling errors, corrections, warts and all.

There are people who use ‘talk’ as if it were a CB radio. I’ll be sitting at my computer writing my latest middle-of-the-night revolutionary manifesto when a message pops on my screen telling me that someone from Columbia wants to talk to me. Or Saudi Arabia. Or even that far away country, le Easte Coaste.

What do we talk about? Incredible things. Mind-blowing philosophies. Such as... The weather. The San Diego Padres. Whether or not I have a penis.

Well, not in so many words. But on the Internet, nobody knows if you’re male or female or other. You can’t tell from someone’s typing whether or not they have a penis. Not unless they’re really good with it. Go look at my name on the front cover. Can you see a penis on it? I’ve deliberately de-sexed my name because I like confusing people. Now, you’ve probably already guessed my sex from my writing style (and you’re probably wrong, too), but you’ve got an entire book to decipher it from. Can you tell from one or two paragraphs?

Talking about sexual things from the safety of a computer screen is a not uncommon pastime on the infobahn. I don’t get to see much of it because everyone’s afraid I’m not the right sex. But I do get to hear about it. And the Internet can really play with your mind. Last year there was a student here at USD... USD is a Catholic school with a high ratio of girls to boys... and she was sitting at a computer in one of the computer labs. There was only one other person in there with her. She decided to get onto the Internet and read her electronic mail before going home.

As she was reading her mail, she got a ‘talk’ request from someone on the East Coast. She responded, and played along when the conversation took a decidedly secular turn. She slowly realized that some of the things this guy was saying were a bit weird--not perverted (or at least, not any more perverted than what she was saying), but more like a local than someone 3,000 miles away.

Then she realized that the typing of the only other person in the room pretty much matched the words appearing on her computer screen. And boy, was he sneaking some funny glances at her.

On the Internet, you have no idea where someone is: this guy was using a computer account on the East Coast. But he was using a computer at the University of San Diego to reach that account. He could as well have been in Russia, using a computer in France, or in Canada using a computer in Texas. And boy, does the Internet get fun for lawyers when that starts happening.

But I’m getting off-topic. There are lonely hearts hitchhiking up and down the infobahn, and if you stay ‘on-line’ until three o’clock in the morning, you may meet some of them. Students in far away lands sneaking time on their school’s only Internet computer early in the morning when nobody else is using it. They’ll scan the infobahn at random, looking for another lonely soul, usually an American computer operator like myself who has been forced to work the graveyard shift. At three, four, or five in the morning, I’m grateful for anyone to talk to, even a slow typist from Bolivia.(Hello!)

Back before the Internet boom, you could, on a particularly busy night, watch the world turn: as morning came around the world, individuals from each part would start paging you. All you had to be was logged on and waiting.

You want to be a little careful, mind you. As the good Dr. Thompson has warned us,

People who work the long distance lines at the darkest hour of the morning tend to be a special breed. When the phone rings at three it will not be the Culligan Man, or anybody else with a straight job. (Swine!)

When the bell on your computer terminal rings at three in the morning, you know it’s someone without much to lose. Or you would, except that it isn’t necessarily three in the morning where they are. Though it colors your perception of them, they aren’t the night owl, you are.

Many times it’s a good geography lesson: you tell each other where you are and then break out the atlas trying to figure out what it means. It can be a bit of an eye-opener as well. One of the folks I’ve talked with is a heroin addict in Britain. He’s a fairly successful writer over there, married, and lives a pretty normal life. Britain, you see hasn’t made it illegal to be a heroin addict. I’ve known this as a fact for many years now, but it didn’t really hit home until I talked to someone. He’d become an addict growing up in Liverpool. In the United States, he would probably have ended his life living on the streets. And he doesn’t really understand why we spend so much time any money trying to kill and jail his counterparts over here. Strange.

For about a year, I edited the gaming magazine The Neo-Anarchists Guide to Everything Else for the role-playing game Shadowrun(*). I still provide the main distribution site for it. (Where?) The NAGEE has spread to gamers throughout the world. It’s been three years since I last edited it, and I still get questions about it. I’ve talked with people about it, from San Diego, in places as far away as Japan and Puerto Rico. In many parts of the world, game stores are rare, and the Internet has become a resource for finding gaming books. In some places, gaming is even illegal. I’ve talked with players in the middle east who are very circumspect about gaming, because, by their laws, gambling--any game that uses dice--is as dangerous an activity as using drugs is in the United States. It’s dangerous by law.

I’m also an amateur radio operator (WD8AQR). I’m familiar with long-range communications technology. I can remember one time, in high school, talking with some guy in Russia, and finally breaking off the conversation because my favorite television show was coming on. I don’t pull off the infobahn for television any more. For a while, the Internet lacked video and speech transfer, but it’s ahead of standard radio communications in a number of ways. For one, it’s not time-dependent; you can leave things lying around in various parts of the infobahn for other folks to pick up.

Even video and sound are here now; they’re cutting edge, and not many people use them, but they’re here. If you have a video camera and the hardware to hook your video camera into your computer, you can converse with other people on the net--while watching them and talking to them. If you haven’t got a fast connection, you can’t move around a lot, and you ain’t going to do this over a telephone line. You need a high-speed, expensive connection, making this more useful for organizations than for individuals. But that, too, will change.

The reason you can’t move around while using this software is that the software that transmits the video tries not to transfer anything that hasn’t changed. That is, if you’re sitting in a chair with a bunch of books behind you, and turn your head, the software will transfer the new view of your head, but unless the books behind you have been dancing around, it won’t transmit them again. This saves a lot of time and ‘bandwidth’, or space, on the infobahn. If you move around a lot, though, you’ll look like George M. Cohan in the colorized version of Yankee Doodle Dandy: lots of ‘trails’ as the computer tries to keep up with you.

Eventually, the hardware will catch up with the software, and, instead of leaving your ‘connection’ on all night to catch lonely hearts, you’ll leave your video camera on while you’re working at your desk, as an enticement for anyone who might be looking for someone to talk to. You’ll even be able to ‘filter’ for those parts of the country that interest you, keeping it local or allowing only those coming in from computers in Prague to see your video.

Just remember the USD student before you do anything too risqué to those folks in Prague.

The Gunter & Ramsey Show

My name, it seems, has appeared in a book called “Navigating the Internet”, and it also seems that it’s some sort of practice address. I’ve never seen the book, but I’m on page 127. Whenever I get a new message from someone claiming to have seen my address there, I have to wonder if it isn’t the cyberspace equivalent of “for a good time, call...”.

For a long time I had a couple of pen pals from Dover, Arkansas, who seemed to have a class devoted to nothing but sending e-mail.

Gunter, Wed, 18 Jan 1995 13:01:10 -0800 (PST)
Hello out there I’m new here and don’t know any other addresses
Jerry, Wed, 18 Jan 1995 13:05:19 -0800 (PST)
Whose addresses are you looking for?

[j--r--y] at [] (Finger/Reply for PGP Public Key)
“If liberals interpreted the Second Amendment the way they interpret the rest of the Bill of Rights, there would be law professors arguing that gun ownership is mandatory.” -- Michael Kinsley

Gunter, Wed, 18 Jan 1995 13:09:43 -0800 (PST)
Jerry, Wed, 18 Jan 1995 13:10:40 -0800 (PST)
Well, here’s the Vice President of the United States...

[vice president] at []

[j--r--y] at [] (Finger/Reply for PGP Public Key)
“You’ll have to excuse me, I’m terribly happy.” - Arthur Dent

Gunter, Thu, 19 Jan 1995 12:10:03 -0800 (PST)
Write me back and send me some more addresses
Jerry, Thu, 19 Jan 1995 13:15:03 -0800 (PST)
Are you familiar with ‘usenet’ news? You can find a *lot* of people there. Try typing ‘trn’, ‘rn’, ‘nn’, ‘vnews’, or ‘readnews’ at your command line.

If you have ‘web’, you can also find a lot of stuff. Try typing ‘lynx’, ‘www’, or ‘web’ from your command line. If one of those works, quit and try ‘lynx’.

Gopher is pretty common. Try typing ‘gopher’ from your command line. If that works, type ‘gopher’.

What are your interests? What kind of people are you looking for on the net?

[j--r--y] at [] (Finger/Reply for PGP Public Key)
“I get mail from people in the Eastern bloc saying how much they appreciate PGP... When I’m talking to Americans about this, a lot of them don’t understand why I’d be so paranoid about the government. But people in police states, you don’t have to explain it to them. They already get it. And they don’t understand why we don’t.” -- Phil Zimmermann, PGP author

Gunter, Wed, 18 Jan 1995 16:12:21 CST
Is that really the vice presidents adress
Gunter, Thu, 19 Jan 1995 16:03:21 CST
Are you there right now I am please send me a message
Gunter, Thu, 19 Jan 1995 16:07:38 CST
Write me back and send me some more addresses
Gunter, Thu, 19 Jan 1995 16:09:38 CST
Where are you from Jerry
Gunter, Thu, 19 Jan 1995 16:11:27 CST
Write back before I have to go
Gunter, Thu, 19 Jan 1995 16:12:34 CST
Hey I gotta go I will have to talk to you tommorow
Gunter, Fri, 20 Jan 1995 11:10:16 CST
I’m not sure how to use any of that will you please send me some information about all that you told me on the last message
Gunter, Fri, 20 Jan 1995 15:21:02 CST
Hello Jerry are you there today you haven’t replied about the last message I sent you please reply
Gunter, Fri, 20 Jan 1995 14:26:37 CST
Hey are you there right now if you are write back before I have togo
Gunter, Fri, 20 Jan 1995 16:06:48 CST
Hello, how are you today please give me some more information about what you were talking about yesterday and please tell me where you are talking to me from
Jerry, Fri, 20 Jan 1995 18:14:13 -0800 (PST)
I’m in San Diego, California, USA.

The other things that I was talking about were

  1. discussion groups. These are places where you can get together with lots of other people for discussions about specific topics.
  2. Internet information services. These are ways that one person can make available some kind of information to the rest of the net.

The most common discussion groups are _mailing lists_ and _Usenet News_. Mailing lists use electronic mail. There is a ‘central’ computer someplace that keeps a list of everyone who is a member. Whenever a message comes to the central computer, it gets copied out to everyone on the list. So if you’re interested in cooking danishes, you could join a mailing list called ‘danish-l’, with e-mail address ‘[danish l] at []’. You would send your message about cooking to that single address. Your message would get copied and sent to everyone else who is also a member of ‘danish-l’. They could then reply, and their replies would also go to every member.

Usenet news is a bit different. There is no central computer and no membership list. Otherwise, it’s basically the same thing. There are usenet discussion groups for discussing almost any topic imaginable.

The most common Internet information services are ftp, gopher, and web. They are ways of making computer files accessible to anyone on the Internet. So, I might have a gopher site for danish recipes. You could ‘hook up’ to my gopher site, get a list of all the recipes I have, and download whichever recipes you want. Often, discussion groups will also ahve an Internet information service associated with them, so that the group can store important information for future reference.

I can’t really be any more specific. How individuals get access to these discussion groups and Internet services depends on their Internet provider. You would have to ask your system administrator, whoever that is, for more information about how to use these from your computer account.

By the way, where did you get my address?

[j--r--y] at [] (Finger/Reply for PGP Public Key)
“The problem is that the only thing worse than Guns n’ Roses is censorship.” -- The Economist, 12/23/89

Gunter, Mon, 23 Jan 1995 09:15:01 CST
Jerry my girlfriend wants to know what you look like
Ramsey, Mon, 23 Jan 1995 09:15:56 CST
Hi how are you Why are you talking to Greg. You should be talking to a pro. How do you like guns n roses. There cool.
Gunter, Mon, 23 Jan 1995 11:35:06 -0800 (PST)
Hey you really should tell me when you are on the computer and when your not
Jerry, (to Gunter)
I’m on the computer all day, but I only answer personal mail in the evening (California time--Pacific Standard Time in the U.S.)

[j--r--y] at [] (Finger/Reply for PGP Public Key)

       Nine mile skid on a ten mile ride, hot as a pistol but cool inside.
       Cat on a tin roof, dogs in a pile,
       Nothin’ left to do but smile, smile, smile!!!!
					   He’s Gone
Gunter, Mon, 23 Jan 1995 16:09:53 CST
Hello jerry how are you today and tell me what adresses you answer to
Gunter, Mon, 23 Jan 1995 16:12:00 CST
I got your address out of abook called navigating the internet. And I’m from a small town called dover arkansas
Jerry, (to Gunter) Mon, 23 Jan 1995 21:36:11 -0800 (PST)
Generally only one, which is the one you got.

[j--r--y] at [] (Finger/Reply for PGP Public Key)

       Silver threads and golden needles cannot mend this heart of mine
       And I dare drown my sorrow in the warm glow of your mind
       You can’t buy my love with money ‘cause I ain’t never been that kind
       Silver threads and golden needles cannot mend this heart of mine
		       Silver Threads and Golden Needles
Jerry, (to Ramsey) Mon, 23 Jan 1995 21:37:19 -0800 (PST)
Guns ‘n Roses? The only thing worse than Guns ‘n Roses is censorship. Maybe Abba.

[j--r--y] at [] (Finger/Reply for PGP Public Key)
“So this is the sword of immortality, huh? What’s it doing in a crypt?” -- John S. Novak, III

Gunter, Tue, 24 Jan 1995 09:18:42 CST
Do you mind me writing you messages
Ramsey, Tue, 24 Jan 1995 12:59:19 CST
I just don’t know what a crypt is you don’t have to tell me though. Where do you live Greg said it was California is it?
Gunter, (from Ramsey’s address) Wed, 25 Jan 1995 15:18:20 CST
This is Greg I am just using somone elses acount to write you a message because I forgot my code
Ramsey, Mon, 30 Jan 1995 12:58:39 CST
Jerry this is Dustin can we be friends
Gunter, (from Ramsey’s address) Mon, 30 Jan 1995 14:22:18 CST
Hey Jerry this is greg just writing to you because you don’t write to me very much
Ramsey, (or maybe Greg) Mon, 30 Jan 1995 15:53:33 CST
Hey are you going to answer my mail or not because I am gettin bored just writing people in Dover
Gunter, (from his own address again) Wed, 1 Feb 1995 10:13:22 CST
Hey Jerry how are you today sorry i haventt written you lately
Ramsey, Wed, 1 Feb 1995 13:00:33 CST
write something back to me. Greg found his password so be writing to him. Or me
Gunter, Wed, 8 Feb 1995 15:58:42 CST
Jerry are you on that penpal thing I am and it is pretty cool except I get to many messages like yestarday I got one from Australia

Well write back

Greg Gunter
Dover Arkansas

Gunter, (from David’s address? Who’s David?) Mon, 13 Mar 1995 16:03:22 CST
Hey jerry is there any way that you can figure out my code from your online computer because I forgot mine and can not use my account right now. By the way how old are you? I am 15

Greg Gunter
Dover arkansas

Gunter, (from an address called Mothboy) Wed, 3 May 1995 14:57:26 CST
Hello Jerry can you write me back something. Please

They may sound a little inexperienced now, but, as Gunter will tell you, they’re “only fifteen years old.” In ten years, they’ll have a job and I won’t. These kids, growing up on the Internet, are the future of the infobahn, whatever it turns out to be. Past generations have grown up in worlds their parents didn’t know. Gunter and Ramsey are growing up in a world their parents could not even have imagined. Mothboy is a good choice for a name. Huddled around a light, you might get burned, but you’ll see a lot more than you did as a caterpillar.

It’s not bad being in a book. I haven’t heard from Gunter or Ramsey in a while. I assume they’ve graduated to other e-mail addresses. Perhaps they’re carrying on a lengthy conversation with the vice president. More recently, I received a message from a man in South Africa:

Organization: SOS Computer Centre, Mamelodi
Date: Tue, 22 Aug 1995 10:11:44 GMT+0200
Subject: Re: Hello America

Hi Jerry

Thanks for allowing me to keep contacting you as my friend through this technological mail. I would like to know better than knowing you only your name throught the book “Navigator”.

First I am South African stay at black residential area called Mamelodi near the capital city of South Africa called Pretoria. I am working as business tutor. The institution I work for is an NGO its main aims is give abadoned children home, food and to educate them, is an International Organisation called SOS Children’s Village. So we ran a project of acquaring local youth with computer and business skills. South Africa is country were unemployment rate is very high.

I am introducing myself to you please if your are interest to me please you my write often.

It’s no wonder that Greg gets too much mail.

I signed on to America On-Line to check out the competition (you can read all about it in Timed Obsolescence when I get that on-line or published). “Jerry” was already taken, and rather than go for the obvious (Jerry1, Jerry2, or, more likely, Jerry169), I chose “Stinz”, after a comic book character by artist Donna Barr. I’m not sure if “Stinz”, being a half-horse, was troll-bait, but I caught a fine carp on the end of my line without even trying. Somehow, they confused me with some (woman?) named Michele:

Subj: How about some fun and excitement?
Date: 95-08-05 17:29:56 EDT
From: I’ll be nice and take their address off...
To: Stinz

Hi Michele,

My name is John and I’m on travel here in Sierra Vista..I’m staying at the Ramada, Room 255.. How about us getting together for some fun (DINING, DANCING ETC.)? Give me a call or send me an email...

See you soon,


Love that etc., John. And your use of all-caps really, I mean, really, turns me on.

Subject: Fwd: Ft Huachuca
From: Yet another person who is going to be really glad I took his address off
To: [s--i--z] at []
Date: 95-08-21 19:02:06 EDT

HI Michelle

I live in Sierra Vista and I am new to the area. The reason I wrote you is that I am running a live action role playing game here in town adn was wondering if you might be interisted. We have a number of military people plaaying and always like new members. If you might be interisted please reply and I will forward you the information

Everyone wants action on the net. Especially if they think you’re a woman.

  1. If you’re reading this, slow typist from Bolivia, Hello! If you’ll remember, I’m not a teacher :*)
  2. Hunter S. Thompson, Generation of Swine .
  3. A game well suited to the Internet, it’s based on a dark future, much like William S. Gibson’s Cyberpunk novels. With magic thrown in, and Elves, Orcs, Trolls, and whatever else their demented minds have come up with in the few years since I’ve played the game. Published by FASA Corp. Look up ‘games’ in your yellow pages. Do I have to do all your work for you?
  4. The site is, in Role-Playing/Shadowrun/NAGEE. The current editor is [r--o--o] at [], [a--oo--o] at []
  5. Call Sign Whiskey Delta Eight, Alpha Quebec Radio: WD8AQR. Advanced Class. That’s as high as I got in the Boy Scouts.
  1. Living in a World of Text
  2. Can’t get there
  3. Go West, Young Men!