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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

Life in cyberspace is not always romantic. One night, on my way to the Trivia Room, a merry bell tinkled and an Instant Message appeared on my screen from a character named "MacDeSade" (not a good sign). "What are you wearing?" he asked. A moment later, the bell tinkled again, and "ThknMeaty" asked for my measurements. I felt like I had wandered into the electronic version of the Tailhook convention. Luckily, creeps are easy to deal with in cyberspace. I clicked my mouse and they vanished in the void.

Not everybody clicks though. Nightly the electrons were jumping in cyber pick-up spots such as the "Romance Connection," "Guys4Guys," "Married but Lonely," "Deep Dark Secret," and "La Pub." Some cruisers were looking for love, but others were looking to "go private." A couple choose a password and check into the electronic version of the Bide-A-Wee Motel, where they have cybersex. I was told this is essentially like phone sex, except that you type. There's even a protocol for faking orgasm: You type a lot of O's and AH's in capital letters. (A San Francisco company has since put out a CD called Cybergasm).

Suddenly, I realized that life in cyberspace was even weirder than life in Venice Beach. "It has somewhat of a black-hole quality," said Brotman, the communications consultant. "The more you're into it, the deeper you go. At some point it begins to conflict with real life." True, I'd been getting worried phone messages from friends and relatives with whom I hadn't talked in weeks.

I asked Jon what he'd given up. "Let's put it this way," he said. "I was seeing this woman and we would get together religiously once a week. She somehow became disenchanted when I failed to call for the month after I got my new Mac. She actually accused me of seeing someone else."

"When was the last time you left the house?" I wondered. We hadn't had lunch for months.

"Does taking the trash out count?" he asked.

AFTER A MONTH I DECIDED that I had to escape. I accepted an invitation to visit Caltech, ground zero of the Information Age. It was the first campus I've been to where there were no students tossing Frisbees in the quads or couples rolling around in the newly mown grass. Bo Adler, an amazingly bright 23-year-old with otherworldly energy, led me to a computer lab, where guys with complexions the color of acoustical tile gawked at behemoth Hewlett-Packards.

"Here are the people with no lives," said Bo, who got his first computer when he was 8. I asked him what he found most appealing. "I love information," he said. "I spend my life trying to find the answers." Recently he pulled down Hillary Rodham Clinton's official schedule "because it was there." But he assured me he could tell when he was on a cyberbender. "It's when I don't see the light of day for several days because I stayed in the computer lab until late at night. When I haven't touched a person for a week and have to ask for a hug so I remember what people feel like." That was a little scary, but it was nothing compared to what followed.

Bo's friend Brad Threatt, 22, showed me an interactive game called "Revenge at the End of the Line," one of many bizarre entertainments that exist on the Internet. In these virtual dungeon-and-dragon-type amusements, players choose a form to inhabit--What's your pleasure? Troll? Wood Elf? Halfling? Squid?--and have bizarre adventures with other outlandish beings, many of whom are real-life students from around the country who are cutting class to play. (Students of the '90s use these games to escape, much like their counterparts in the '60s and '70s used sex and drugs).

I decided to be an Imp, and Brad logged on. At 11:30 on a Friday morning there were 47 creatures on the line. "Nine are wizards," said Brad, who would like to be one of these programming black-belts but has yet to contact the Wizard Board of Directors and beg for an internship. Wizards create the space; they also construct the intricate and arcane series of moves and countermoves that define the game. As near as I could tell, my objective was to go on some sort of quest. According to a text description, I, well, the Imp, was in a "lounge filled with easy chairs and lots of couches for weary adventurers such as yourself."

Brad, who used to play eight hours a day but has since cut back, assured me that this area was safe. "But there are places outside where it's dangerous," he said. 'You'll need armor and maybe a weapon."

"Where do I get them?" I wondered.

"At the store," said Brad, as if it were obvious.

He typed a command and I was transported to a medieval Nordstrom. Let's see. What should I buy? Leather breastplates? Clog breeches? Scale mail shirts? Moose blood? "They have everything," Brad assured me.

"I'd like a four-carat emerald," I typed.

"I don't think that's going to work," he said.

"Huh?" said the powerful computer. (Funny, my husband said the same thing when I asked him.)

I couldn't take any more so I told Brad to attack the guard in front of the Castle of Doom. "But you'll be killed," he said. I insisted. He typed in the attack command, and in an instant the computer announced that the Imp had been stabbed in the head. I didn't feel a thing. I was already brain-dead from future shock.

Bo walked me to my car. On the way, I showed him my tiny cellular phone. It got him thinking. "Is talking to you on the phone a virtual reality?" he wondered. "And if it's not, why is talking to you on the computer virtual reality?" I must have looked puzzled because he tried again. "You know humans are just great big walking databases . . . ."

Suddenly, I had an overwhelming desire to walk on the beach and watch the waves and listen to the birds sing. I drove like hell out of cyberspace. When I got home I found a message--a voice message--from Jon.

"Do you want to have lunch?" he asked.

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