While President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev win headlines at the Washington summit this week, another lesser-known meeting of American and Soviet minds is taking place--an electronic summit by computer.
Because of the pioneering efforts of Joel Schatz, founder of the San Francisco/Moscow Teleport, American and Soviet scientists, film makers, publishers, designers, teachers and others meet on-line on a regular basis to exchange information and produce joint projects. The result is an electronic community that reaches across space and time and also spans the political gap, "a group that has shared births, deaths and holidays together," as Schatz puts it.
In the fall of 1984, Schatz, then 47, made his first trip to the U.S.S.R. The 6-foot, strapping American innovator with thick, curly black hair, a scruffy salt-and-pepper beard and round wire-rimmed glasses, made his way one day through the winter snowfall toward the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences. Wearing jeans, a white sheepskin coat, rainbow-colored ski cap and gloves, Schatz carried a four-pound Radio Shack 100 computer in a purple cloth carrying case. With fogged glasses and a snowy beard, he arrived at his destination 20 minutes late.
He cracked the door open to see six high-level Soviet officials in dark-blue suits seated around a table, which was backed by a large portrait of Lenin.
Shocked by Appearance
Schatz peered in. The Soviets, shocked by his casual appearance, froze in their chairs. After an awkward pause, Academician Boris Naomov flung his arms wide and said: "Ah, a Californian."
Today, in his San Francisco office, Schatz moves between his MacIntosh computer, which is delivering messages from Soviet colleagues via electronic mail, and a television on an adjacent table, which is broadcasting Soviet programming. Three years since his first tentative efforts toward U.S./Soviet electronic detente, Schatz and his wife, Diane, who was involved in the project from the beginning, run the San Francisco/Moscow Teleport, the only private telecommunications system that operates with the approval of both the United States and Soviet governments to open up choked lines of communication between "qualified customers" in the two nations.
Their track record includes social and cultural exchanges between recovering alcoholics and political cartoonists in both countries; scientific research exchanges on the effects of Chernobyl, the exploration of outer space, and the spread of AIDS; commercial joint ventures in design, film and television; electronic mail services, and a series of formal and informal electronic conferences.
The operation also boasts the only link between the two countries by video phone, a low-cost, experimental form of communication featuring "video snapshots" relayed by telephone in 10 seconds.
The Teleport was originally funded by real estate entrepreneur Don Carlson, former chief executive of Consolidated Capital in Emeryville, Calif. Now it's a project of the Washington Research Institute, a private, nonprofit educational foundation headed by Henry S. Dakin.
Schatz, a former military intelligence analyst for the U.S. Army, was trained in psychology and communications. Earlier in his career, he conducted mental health research at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, and then went on to a five-year job as state energy adviser in Oregon.
The Teleport came about as a result of persistent efforts by him and his Soviet counterparts.
"During 1983 and 1984, I was already working on some U.S./Soviet projects and had sent about 30 telexes to Yevgeny Velikhov (vice president of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences) proposing that we establish a computer link to exchange information of all kinds. I got no response.
Sent Another Message
"In December, 1984, I got my first computer, a Radio Shack 100. I immediately sent another message to Velikhov, this time on the Western Union account."
Two weeks after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, Schatz received four telexes inviting him to the Soviet Union. As a result of several trips, in May, 1985, the computer link was established with Soviet permission.
"A few months later, the U.S. government decided to shut us down," he said. "But by October, we were legalized, and up and running again."
At the November summit meeting in Geneva that year (1985), Schatz said, Reagan and Gorbachev called for broadening contacts between the superpowers, including educational, scientific, and cultural exchanges. "That's what we're about. For us, the timing was fortuitous."
Schatz explained the rationale behind the Teleport:
"My impetus was the realization that, among our other problems, the terrible state of communication between our peoples is a bottleneck to progress. Our countries have 50,000 nuclear warheads, but only 25 telephone circuits between the U.S. and Moscow. This is a situation that calls to be remedied. After all, when you don't communicate, you imagine the worst."