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They Call It Cyberlove : How Can Reality Compete With a Companion That Adores You for Your Mind?

September 12, 1993|Margo Kaufman | Margo Kaufman is a contributing editor of this magazine and the author of "1-800-Am-I-Nuts?," published by Random House. Her last article was on pet parents

"Look what I have at my fingertips," said Jon, who claims to get a thrill akin to an adrenaline rush from the heady sense of power. "I can access a database and retrieve an article in 10 minutes that would have taken an hour to get at the library. And that's not including the drive there and back or the time I'd spend cajoling surly bureaucrats and waiting in line with a bunch of crazy people."

I'm not in that big a hurry to ease humans out of my life. But I was intrigued by reports of futuristic communities. As Dr. Joyce Brothers, the psychologist, who recently went on a cyber-business trip, told me, "In small towns there used to be a general store and you'd sit around the potbelly stove and swap tales and gossip and deal with life. Later, the stove became the drugstore. Now it's the computer network.'

I have no desire to spend one more second staring at my monitor than I already have to. On the other hand, I do have a weakness for anything that simplifies my life. Cyberspace can be remarkably convenient. For instance, to research this article, I used my built-in fax modem to send a message to a service called ProfNet, which connects public information officers on college campuses via the Internet, which links more than a million university and government computers around the globe.

Within 24 hours, the roll of faxed responses stretched from my office to the front door, a distance of some 30 feet. No doubt, I would have received even more input, if I'd had an e-mail address at the time. Folks with electronic mailboxes regard the telephone with disdain, as if it were two tin cans connected by string. (They call real letters "snail mail.")

"We've been trading voice-mail messages," Dave Farber, a professor of computer science at the University of Pennsylvania, said reproachfully when I finally managed to connect in real time (what you and I think of as the here and now). "If you had electronic mail, we could have been trading information."

And the information would always be welcome, since one of the watchwords of this Twilight Zone is asynchronicity. No need to listen anymore; I can communicate whenever I feel like it and you can respond when it feels good for you. "Talking requires both people to be awake," said Farber.

I don't think this is asking a lot. Besides, there are nuances that you can pick up in the course of actual conversation that might slip past in an ephemeral note. From talking to Farber, I learned that the Internet has turned the academic world into one big electronic wine-and-cheese party. More than 15 million students, professors and government employees around the world enjoy nearly unlimited access (their respective institutions pick up the tab), so there's no material incentive for restraint (by contrast, the nearly 5 million consumers who subscribe to national interactive services like Prodigy, GEnie and CompuServe pay a monthly fee and/or an hourly rate).

"I live on the Net," said Farber, who spends four or five hours a day on-line dealing with students, communicating with colleagues as far away as Japan and throwing out junk mail. "I can't eat from it, but I can make reservations. I can order supplies. It's so much easier to deal with someone in Europe who is on the network than someone in the next office who's not."

The hallowed halls of academia are being choked by binary ivy. One of the editors of the Software Industry Bulletin, a computer newsletter, estimates that between 30,000 and 40,000 messages are sent daily on the Internet, and these missals will only increase since the Internet is growing at a monthly rate of 15%. Cyberspace is not just some intellectual hangout. The number of American households containing computers with modems has gone from 300,000 in 1982 to more than 12 million today. The growth in commercial on-line services is equally startling. In 1985, CompuServe had 258,000 members, and today there are 1.4 million subscribers. In 1990, Prodigy reported 460,000 members who signed on 47.9 million times per year. In just the first six months of 1993, 2 million addicts have signed on to Prodigy 131.3 million times.

I asked my husband, also on the Net, if he spends a lot of time on-line. He nodded sheepishly. "It's quite useful," said Duke, whose cyberspace passport has many visas. "I can send messages instantaneously. I can access the Library of Congress instantaneously. And I can waste a lot of time reading the Oingo Boingo Fan News Group or the I Hate Howard Stern News Group." These news groups, which remind me of microchip sororities and fraternities, are bulletin boards that enable a Netster to sound off on literally thousands of topics from 'alt.bald spots' to 'alt.barney.dinosaur.die.die.die.' Or a bored doctoral candidate can download armpit sound effects and erotic pictures. And you wondered why college tuition is going up?

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