Live Wires

SO, YOU'VE GOT YOUR VOICE MAIL, YOUR OFFICE FAX, YOUR home fax, your car fax, your cellular phone, your car phone, your pager, your laptop...and you think you're totally wired?

Fuhgetaboutit.

You're nothing but a techno-peasant until you've logged on to the network and added your two bits to the cyberchat. More than 20 million friendly users around the world are already Out There, crossing continents and cultures through telephone lines hooked up to computers. Night and day, they're hunched over their screens, indulging in one of the cheapest and possibly safest addictions of the late 20th century. The data stream is awesome: scientific research, political debate, stock tips, advice to the lovelorn, literary criticism. Adoptees look for (and sometimes find) birthparents. Sports fans analyze their favorite team's slump. Inquiring minds want to know the latest on Loni and Burt. There's even a forum devoted solely to the spleen. Recent messages explored the significance of the spleen-removal scene in the movie "Patriot Games." (Maybe you had to be there.)

The net is a communications marvel patched together in an almost anarchic fashion. Lawyers and politicians are still trying to figure out whether to govern or police ultimate social consequences. Dominating the the Internet, a huge international network of located in universities or government research facilities--that have all agreed to use the same connecting software so they can talk to each other electronically. The cost to the participating institutions can be as low as $1,000 a month for an unlimited number of users. Every day millions of people around the world dip into a huge amount of information: with just a few keystrokes, for example, African doctors dial up the latest research on AIDS to supplement often meager medical libraries. It's not all high-minded. Hundreds of on-line forums are devoted to topics banal and bizarre. They're often in the groups whose Internet address starts with "alt" for alternative, as in "alt.beer," "alt.stupidity" or "alt.bitterness" (one entry: "My parents used to work me like a god damn slave").

Public-access services, like the WELL near San Francisco, charge a nominal fee for use of their own electronic bulletin boards (and, in some cases, access to the Internet). Commercial operations, like CompuServe or America Online, are generally easier to use than public-access services but they also charge higher fees, as much as $20 a month. The subject matter is often programmed, providing information services tailored to particular audiences. In one recent question-and-answer session on Prodigy, investment wizard Peter Lynch predicted a dip in the market; within hours, his prediction came true, possibly fueled by hundreds of thousands of Prodigy users eager to cash in before they lost out. The commercial services are backed by big corporations, like Sears or GE, but there's an entrepreneurial wing as well: more than 53,000 mom-and-pop electronic bulletin boards operating out of basements and rec rooms around the country. "It's something a lot of people can do with a fairly modest investment," says Jack Rickard, editor and publisher of Boardwatch magazine, a magazine devoted to the homegrown bulletin-board industry. All you need is a reasonably powerful PC and phone lines. Some of these bulletin boards serve thousands daily; others are geared to specific groups such as teachers, children or farmers.

The users are as diverse as the net itself. "Lurkers" read but never send. "Flamers" are obnoxious correspondents who consistently violate "netiquette." "Proto-hackers," still in the larval stage technologically, look up to "gurus," who understand everything. A look at life on line:

HER NOM DE NET WAS JUNGLE Goddess. His was Billwinkle Moose. After promising electronic interaction on SF Net, a San Franciscobased bulletin board, they finally met and started dating. Alas, computer-generated romances can turn as sour as conventional love affairs. They broke up, but Jungle Goddess, a.k.a. Edith Alderette, isn't bitter. "It's not the net's fault," she says. "It's ours." Alderette, a 26-year-old graduate student, says the net is the center of her social life. She likes the privacy: "You can sit with Cheez Whiz in your hair and chili running down your face...and in the most un-P.C. terms you can get things out."

Alderette has more than 40 net friends--many of whom she's also met in person. She's gone out with about a dozen guys from the net "in various degrees of datinghood." The net would be worth her time even without the possibility of true love at the top of the next screen, Alderette says. She has gotten to know people who wouldn't ordinarily cross her path: an unemployed man who spends most of his time on Rollerblades in Golden Gate Park, corporate lawyers a Ph.D. doing DNA research, even a few ex-cons. The only thing they all have in common is that they have something interesting to say.

Alderette's network, SF Net, is more inclusive than most, largely because of founder Wayne Gregori, whose goal was to provide access to as many people as possible. In fact, you don't even need to own a computer to use SF Net; Gregori has terminals available in 15 Bay Area cafes where 400 regulars pay 25 cents for four minutes. SF Net's tiers of communication are typical: open forums that anyone can join, private groups for self-selected users and one-to-one E-mail.

Gregori isn't the only provider of easy access to the net. In Santa Monica, Calif., more than 5,000 people have signed up with the city's four-year-old public-access system. It's run like a library; all you need to use it is proof of residence, and even that's loosely defined. Rik Tilton, a 20-year-old homeless man, logs on regularly. He's contributed poems and participated in an on-line conference on "being alone." The network, says Tilton, "helps keep you sane."

The network is also an emotional lifeline for Bryan Lockwood, a school-plant manager who lives in Atqasuk, Alaska, an Eskimo village (population: 260) reachable only by plane. He stays in touch through various bulletin boards and the Internet, where he's a regular in political debates. Last year he flew down to Anchorage and met some of his on-line buddies, who were shocked by his cropped hair: "They expected me to have a more backwoods look."

The net provides an instant affinity group. Members of FREE (Fathers' Rights and Equality Exchange) communicate through alt.dads-rights. "It's like having pen pals, except there's an almost immediate response," says Don Beaver, a 30-year-old Pennsylvania father who has custody of his son Donald, 2. His wife has his other son, Noah, 1. Beaver says he and his net friends "talk back and forth and sometimes vent frustrations."

Like any other community, the virtual community also has its share of wackos. Some are the electronic equivalent of stalkers; they fixate on certain people and start harassing them. Flamers are often drunk or stoned when they log on at 2 a.m. Addicts sneak on during work and stay up late at home, glued to the screen. "Their lives have become so vicarious," says Andre Bacard, who writes a technology column for The Humanist magazine. "They live in a complete fantasy world."

The ultimate fantasies are the hundreds of sexually oriented bulletin boards, which Bacard describes as "computer graffiti" and users describe as liberating. Leigh-Ann Hildebrand-Chupp, who says she's a 26-year-old student and mother of two who lives near Atlanta, is a frequent contributor to a bondage-discussion group on the Internet. "I have a nontraditional lifestyle," she says. "I'm polyamorous, I'm a pagan, I'm into S&M." On the Internet, she says, "there are support groups for each of those parts of my life."

Most networkers are more conventional. Ann and Jim McElhinney married in May after meeting through Odyssey Online, a Los Angeles-area-based bulletin board. Although the couple lived and worked within a few miles of each other, they were strangers before the net. At their first face-to-face meeting, Ann tried hard not to have too many expectations: "Otherwise, you're expecting Paul Newman and you get Quasimodo." Ann's got her man, but she's still on line with friends who are musicians and state senators and even Parisians, an experience she wouldn't have had without Odyssey. "I live in Delaware," she says. "It's like Iowa. We're surrounded by cornfields. Talking on the net has opened up the world."

IT'S NO SURPRISE THAT TECHIES are the tribal elders of the network nation. Until the last decade, scientists and people in the computer industry were virtually the only ones with access to the bandwidth (the net's capacity). The Internet grew out of ARPAnet, set up by the Department of Defense more than two decades ago so that government contractors could communicate easily, With the proliferation of low-cost computers in the mid1980s, some scientists got creative. Two years ago, Paul Ginsparg, a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, set up an on-line archive of articles on high-energy physics theory that were scheduled to be published months later in research journals. It was so successful that he added a half-dozen other archives, for such specialized subjects as general relativity and condensed-matter theory.

Ginsparg says his system pretty much runs itself with software on automatic pilot. This management style fits in nicely with the net's freewheeling culture. "Once you bring in all of the refereeing, you actually need an editorial board," says Ginsparg--and who knows what havoc editors would wreak? The net is cheaper than print journals; it costs about five cents to store each article. Another on of knowledge, the quicker a 89, after two physicists announced scientists around the world used largely unsuccessful efforts to replicate the results. But good news travels quickly, too. In June, mathematicians at a conference in England used the Internet to spread the word that a Princeton professor had proven the long-elusive Fermat's Last Theorem.

Open forums attract all kinds of opinions, not all of them valid. "You have to be alert," says Phil Wherry, a frequent Internet user and a member of the technical staff at The Mitre Corp., a government contractor. "You get a lot of bad science along with the good." But the advantages of being able to access data so quickly outweigh the disadvantages, researchers say. Ginsparg puts his project in a historical perspective: Los Alamos was the site of the Manhattan Project that produced the atom bomb. "Now," he says proudly, "I'm releasing something with much more positive fallout."

WHERE DID YOU LOSE YOUR technological virginity? For millions of people, it was in the office, probably about seven years ago, when PCs became as common on desktops as telephones. Before too long, modems connected colleagues in far-flung outposts--and helped build careers and companies.

Jane Divinski got her job on the recommendation of an E-mail contact. Now, as director of engineering at Phoenix Technologies in San Jose, Calif., she posts her own help-wanted ads on line. She also reads her competitors' listings. "I like to keep an eye on who's hiring," she says. E-mail makes it easy for Divinski to stay in touch with clients in Japan: she can send messages before she leaves for the day and the information will be waiting in Tokyo first thing in the morning. Divinski especially cherished her E-mail during her maternity leave. "It kept me feeling in touch with my colleagues," she says, and--perhaps even more important-- satisfied her craving for adult conversation.

The net is an all-purpose library. Mary Ann Graf, president of a health-care consulting firm, uses CompuServe to do research. She talked on line to Toronto doctors and nurses to find out about the Canadian health-care system. And before going to Japan on a business trip, she asked for advice on the proper attire for businesswomen. Tokyo's dress code was similar to New York's, she learned, but the south of Japan is more conservative (there, maroon is a bold fashion statement).

The net has also become a new medium for entrepreneurs and established businesses alike. The San Francisco-based Pandora Systems is advising companies in the former Soviet Union on how to establish a computer infrastructure. The Boston Globe recently created Voxbox, an E-mail address where readers can talk about how the Internet works with reporters, who occasionally write columns about the correspondence. The Globe has also printed E-mail addresses for editors and reporters; so far, they're getting about two dozen messages a day. In California, the San Jose Mercury News has teamed up with America Online. Subscribers get the paper and extras, like the full text of speeches.

What will the future bring? The net's commercial potential is vast but still largely untapped. The entrepreneurs of the 21st century will probably find even more creative ways to turn screens into gold. In Dorchester, an inner-city neighborhood of Boston, MIT graduate student Alan Shaw is giving some kids a head start. He has created MUSIC, a small neighborhood network operating out of residents' homes. With the help of the network, kids have organized a summer festival and developed the business plan for a food cooperative. Shaw is also planning to set up a new listing so teenagers can advertise their services for odd jobs. Today they want to work for you, but maybe someday you'll be working for them -or hearing about them on the net.

WASHINGTON IS USUALLY THE place where new ideas go to die, but the Clintonites have embraced the Computer Age. Clinton (president @ white house.gov) and Vice President Gore (vice.president @ whitehouse.gov) now receive up to 4,000 E-mail messages a week. That's still only a fraction of the weekly 60,000 to 80,000 pieces of snail mail--the stuff with stamps--but Steve Horn, director of presidential E-mail (that's really his title), predicts that electronic communication will become even more important as more staffers learn their way around the keyboard. Unfortunately, a fully wired White House won't mean a hand-tapped response from the big guy; aides say Clinton is a mere babe in cyberspace, clinging to his beloved yellow legal pads.

Still, Clinton is never far from a modem. During the cold war, the key person traveling with the president was the military aide carrying the codes to launch a nuclear attack. A code carrier still goes along on White House trips, but his importance has been eclipsed by another aide toting a powerful communications weapon: a laptop computer and a modem for sending documents back to the White House instantly by E-mail. Recently a federal court ruled that the president's E-mail--from his speeches to his private messages had to be saved as a permanent record. But how do you breakground in cyberspace for the Clinton presidential library?

Other political groups also log on: the conservative Heritage Foundation and the National Review--run Town Hall (Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett are front runners in their poll on the 1996 GOP nominee). Then there's Peace Net, for peace and human-rights advocates, and EcoNet, for environmental activists. Around the world, the Internet is a vital connection. During the 1991 coup in the former Soviet Union, users all over Europe passed the news of world outrage, fueling the rebellion that reversed the coup. More so than ever in the Computer Age, knowledge is power.

ALEX CHUN, A 30-YEAR-OLD computer programmer in Philadelphia, was looking into a clinical trial of a drug to treat his multiple sclerosis. But data from his Internet support group (alt.support. mult-sclerosis) convinced him that he should avoid the drug. Because MS sufferers often have trouble getting around, they can be shut out of traditional groups. On-line help is always there. "I can log on at home," says Chun. "If I don't feel strong enough to listen to someone's wrenching story, I can just go on to the next message--without hurting anyone's feelings."

Technical expertise, privacy and convenience are the main reasons support groups are flourishing. The generic alt.support is a sounding board for the sad and lonely. David Sprow, a Los Angeles computer-graphics artist, wrote in almost daily after he broke up with his girlfriend last year. "That really made a difference, having people who were sympathetic," he says. Now Sprow has moved on to another group: soc. singles.

The more than 600 members of the Dead Runners Society (named after the movie "Dead Poets Society") could probably find a guy down the street to swap tales with in the fitness wars, but they like jogging and then logging on. Member Douglas Dodds, 52, a Cambridge, Mass., software engineer, says he and his electronic jogging partners concentrate on "the experience of running." Real runners, he explains, enter a P state," a feeling of being totally at peace, surrounded by like-minded souls. just like life on the net.

YOU'VE HAD A BAD DAY. GO straight to alt. life. sucks and unload your troubles. Then it hits you: there is no God. Head for alt.atheism, whose archives boast a document on logic, lest you waste time with a feeble posting that will only get you flamed. By this time you're thirsty, so you're off to alt. beer. After a quick trip to the store for the recommended six-pack, you settle back for a few cold ones behind the keyboard. By now all that beer has got you flushed, so you sashay over to alt.sex to get your pulse rate cranking. In a lather now, you jump to alt.sex.wanted to advertise your needs. No luck, so you spend a few minutes with alt.meditation.transcendental before calling it a night.

There's lots left for tomorrow. Like alt.angst, site of a debate on whether sex can cure angst (we're beginning to notice a theme here). And alt.culture.electric-midget, which makes no sense: "Midgets are a great hobby. You just have to keep an eye on your supply of lime Jell-O." Many appear to be nothing more than funny names (like alt.bitemybutt). Then there's alt.skinheads, which is more about music and clothes than blacks and Jews.

You hear the old-timers talk about how the net is getting crowded with wanna-bes. They worry that the authentic electronic-frontier experience will soon be filled with preprogrammed on-line activities. "The culture is at risk," says Ed Krol, author of "The Whole Internet." The net can be a wonderfully free and raunchy place. The collective consciousness bounces between that of a sex-starved teenage boy and a habitue of the most erudite literary circles. It's nightmarish to contemplate millions of day-trippers edging out the net.gods and net.goddesses. Tourists bring with them the threat of censorship, the taste police trashing the cosmic salon. Sounds like time for a new group: alt.support.what-have-we-wrought?

Something that is nonfunctional or stupid, as in, "I'd like to go to lunch with you but I've got to go to the weekly staff bogon."

By the way.

A cracker breaks security on a system; a hacker enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems. True hackers look down on crackers not only because they commit crimes but also because they're usually not very good hackers.

Frequently asked questions (an FAQ list is a compendium of accumulated lore, posted frequently to high-volume news groups in an attempt to forestall FAQs).

To post an E-mail message intended to insult or provoke; to speak obsessively about a boring subject.

(Often abbreviated to frob): To manipulate, adjust or tweak something, as in "Please frob the light switch."

Ha ha only kidding

Ha ha only serious.

In my humble opinion.

A Rube Goldberg device, in hardware or software.

An unexpectedly bad situation, program or person.

A visual pun on Internet addresses, parts of which are separated by dots. This refers to anyone who has made a name but hasn't yet achieved the status of net.god or net.goddess, people who have been visible on the network for many years and have played an important piece of software.

(Adapted from "The New Hacker's Dictionary." edited by Eric S. Raymond. 433 pages. The M.I.T. Press. $12.95.)

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