"If I step in too often and say 'stop this' and 'don't do that,' my valuable users will go elsewhere."
Mank Larson, a San Diego writer, claims he'd be useless without a computer. "I bought this thing two years ago just for word processing.
Now it's taken over my life.” Larson (who prefers not to reveal his real name) gazes out the window of his computer room. It's a sunny day, fresh from a recent cleansing rain. Wedging his coffee cup between stacks of computer books, manuals, magazines, floppy disks,
"I read someplace that Timothy Leary believes computers are more addictive than heroin.”
Larson returns to his passion, his XT turbo clone. With a few quick keystrokes, Larson types a command to the XT's modem, which links the computer to his household telephone lines. He sits back and waits for the system to complete its task: a dial tone, the musical beeps of a telephone number rapidly tapped out by the modem, the ring of a distant phone, a click and exploding hiss as another computer answers the XT's call. The XT's amber monitor comes alive with screens of text that welcome Larson into a local computer bulletin board system. Once again, Larson is logged on, connected.
"I can spend 10, 12 hours a day on this thing, easy. My wife was pissed at first."
"I can spend 10, 12 hours a day on this thing, easy. My wife was pissed at first. Now, I guess she understands.'' He speaks in chopped sentences; keystrokes fill the pauses. "I've been waiting ... to get on this board ... all morning." Lines of text and ornate graphics flow onto the monitor. The computer emits a muffled beep.
Larson is now hooked up to one of the more than 300 public electronic bulletin boards (called BBSs, in computer jargon) currently based in San Diego County. Logging on to one of these boards is like entering a combination public library, computer store, game room, and neighborhood bar, where you're free to wander around sampling the goods — pursuing information on a special interest, copying software, chatting or playing games with the other customers. Most local BBSs can be used free of charge and consist of nothing more than a single computer, humming away in someone's spare room. The system operator — the designer, manager, maintenance man, and general ringmaster of a BBS — often picks up all the costs related to the bulletin board, presumably in return for the rewards he gains from his hobby. The impulse behind many of these boards stems from a need to communicate, not unlike the energy that animates amateur-radio and CB-radio buffs.
In addition to the games, data files, discussion groups, and other features provided through locally run BBSs, some provide access to nationwide and international commercially run boards offering stock quotes, news, weather, sports scores; systems for ordering books, clothes, food, magazines; open discussion groups on specific topics (called conferences) for ongoing debates or information gathering. Through the vast French Minitel network, for instance, users can browse through the Paris phone book, confess on-line to Catholic priests, engage in high-tech sex talk with a dominatrix.
Larson rolls back from his desk and reaches for his coffee mug. "I read someplace that Timothy Leary believes computers are more addictive than heroin. I can't argue with him.”
After months of exploration, Larson now spends most of his time on a few local BBSs. He calls each daily, at least once. "A class BBS," he says, mirrors the person behind it. "Personality and a sense of purpose will be reflected in a system that's been around for a while. You feel like you're tapping into something human, not just a stupid machine."
John Dwulet is system operator (or sysop, as they say online) of the San Diego PCBoard BBS, one of the largest general-interest games-files-messages boards in the county. Once logged on to the PCBoard, users can proceed through various electronic doors to play chess with other users, participate in conferences on dozens of topics, copy (download) useful software programs from extensive libraries, and add new programs (upload) to the PCBoard's software cache. In any given week, Dwulet receives hundreds of new files. Recent uploads include a crossword-puzzle maker, new communication programs, a database rating the nutritional value of various fast foods, file and directory managers, a program to teach musical notes, a Morse code transmitter-receiygr routine for computers, an America's Cup sailing game, a math game for kids, a warning about a new commercial software release, a color picture of a harbor scene.
Like the exhaustive nature of his BBS, a simple conversation with Dwulet quickly expands into a sprawling discourse on all things computerized. Discussing telecommunications, Dwulet speaks less of a need for communication than he does of something more personal and particular: techno-lust. "No; matter what anyone tells you," he says, "this BBS stuff is a passion."
Dwulet, now a computer consultant, used to be in the car business, working 12-hour days in the loan department. "Then some guy at the dealership brought in a computer to run some accounting software, and I thought that was the slickest thing I'd ever seen. I had to get one for myself. Later, when I realized how powerful they were and how endlessly customizable, I really got sucked in.”
Dwulet began the PCBoard four years ago with one computer and a single modem. "When I set up my first BBS, it took me about six months to get the thing to answer the phone. After I got that small problem straightened out, I really got going. Back then I had a 40-megabyte hard drive, and I thought that was a vast wasteland of storage. I couldn't conceive how anyone could fill up that much space. But I did. So I bought more. And more." He now has 725 megabytes of on-line storage, roughly enough space to hold the data in a closet full of phone books; five phone lines attached to six different computers running eight hard disk drives, six modems, a compact disk reader; and "lots of wire."
The entire BBS — a shrine to techno-lust itself — purrs away in Dwulet's home office. "It's dismal," he admits, with the wry acceptance common to addicts of all stripes. "You'd die if you knew how much money I have invested in this equipment.”
Dwulet's self-admitted obsession, fueled by an unrelenting worship of precision, is mirrored through the meticulous on-screen presentation of his system. "I'm really into performance," he affirms.
"Tell me there's something I can’t do with my computer, and I'll find a way to get it done. I call it the Quest for a Better Mousetrap."
Stories of his exploits illustrate his point: As a boy, he dismantled the family lawnmower looking for ways to make it run faster; as a sysop, he labors 12 hours simply to make one of his computers run "a tad quicker.” He shuts down the system on a weekday for six hours "to babysit" and check most of his 5000 files one by one; he logs a minimum of 40 hours each week for basic system maintenance. "I'm a perfectionist by nature," he explains. "I hate inaccuracy on a computer. What the hell good is a computer if it's not accurate? I won't have that."
Dwulet's monthly phone bill is never under $200. For this and other reasons, he has begun charging for extended access to the SDPCBoard BBS. Other local boards of this quality are following suit, encouraging users to subscribe for more time on-line and extended downloading privileges.
Dwulet is quick to point out something that eludes the average caller to his system: the amount of time expended by a dedicated sysop. "When somebody calls my system and they zip through the opening screens on their way to the file section, they don't realize how much work I put into setting things up. Each caller has a different security level, which provides access to limited or extensive areas of the board. So I have a series of security-specific screens; most users don't see the half of them. All in all, about 1000 files interact in a huge web. I've got to keep this labyrinth maintained. I'm always working on the damn thing. It's not uncommon for me to shut myself in here for half a day or more, adjusting and cleaning and solving problems. This is in addition to my real job.
"I learned after a while that setting up a computer is truly an art, not a science. I consider myself a conductor. I gather together all the best and most useful utility programs and make them work together."
During this telephone interview, Dwulet's computer keyboard clacked away in the background. While talking, he performed a number of system upkeep tasks simultaneously. In response to questions, he searched for appropriate data on his system, seamlessly incorporating on-line discoveries into his spoken answers.
"Right now, I have about 300 to 400 people who call my system at least once a week." Indeed, callers to SDPCBoard can view an elaborate collection of system statistics. For example, during a recent 39-day period, the system received 4152 calls, an average of 106.5 per day. "These are people checking in from all over the country. I've got guys who call every day from Florida, Iowa, New York, Virginia. I don't know why, but many of these guys are lawyers.
"What surprises me the most is the cross-section of people who have modems these days. It used to be a cultist thing. Like, there was a time when having a computer and a printer was considered a luxury. Not so today. You wouldn't think of having a computer without a printer It's getting to be like that with modems. The users on my board never cease to amaze me. They're not kids with modems, that's for sure. I've got... wait a minute ... let me check my user list... editorial consultants, Pac Bell service techs, Navy officers, students, programmers, a chief of police in Nebraska, air-traffic controllers, aircraft inspectors, electrical engineers, lots of retired folks, building contractors, psychologists, quite a few doctors, physicians. About the only thing they have in common is a fairly high level of education and three hours a day to dedicate to their modem."
In San Diego right now, there're a lot of personal computers, and more and more professionals seem to have a modem, by necessity, particularly lawyers. "These days, individuals are able to get hold of huge amounts of data. There's a lot of power for sale out there. My system is pretty big, but there's one in the Midwest, the RBBS of Chicago, that's huge, probably the largest in the nation, with over 10,000 registered users — the legal section of that system is supposed to rival the Library of Congress.
"The biggest thing to happen to data is the CD-ROM. Basically, you're talking about the same technology in your compact disc player. On one CD-ROM disc, you can store an unbelievable amount of data. For example, they just came out with all the California appellate and civil [court] cases from 1970 to 1989 on one disk. Sure, it costs $3200, but the data and technology are there. The prices are bound to go down, eventually. New disks are coming out all the time: the complete King James version of the Bible, the Oxford English Dictionary, a collection of all the information the CIA has on several hundred countries. I don't know if I'll offer stuff like that on SDPCBoard."
Dwulet is a subscriber to Interlink, a nationwide service that maintains libraries of discussion conferences on specific topics. From the full list of Interlink conferences, PCBoard users can participate in more than 100, covering such topics as writing, programming languages, aviation, recovery from addiction, philosophy, veterans' affairs, real estate, parenting, sports, modem news, pets, health, and cycling. Each night, Dwulet's computers exchange data packets through the Interlink system, adding all the day's comments from users around the country to his files.
There are at least five large national relay systems like Interlink in operation, and local sysops can subscribe to one or more. These so-called "echo networks" are not commercial enterprises so much as they are anarchic collections of like-minded sysops dedicated to communication and the exchange of information.
Despite his references to techno-lust, Dwulet claims that all the time he spends computing pays him back. "I've got some great users," he says. "About 99 percent of the people on-line are exceedingly helpful. In addition to this massive and quick exchange of information, you get to meet people who will go far out of their way to help. Leave a message about a computer problem you're having, and see if you don't get a dozen replies by the next day. In a way, by offering help, these people are bragging. But it's admirable bragging. They fought a battle and won; now they're showing you how to get through."
"One of the beauties of running a BBS," he says, "is the users. I couldn't keep this thing alive without them. I've got a core group of key users who are exceedingly helpful. If I didn't have them pointing out problems, this venture would be very difficult. The job of sysop can be a lonely business, and you wouldn't believe how thankful some sysop can be when he gets constructive feedback."
Dwulet's discussion now veers off to consider the learning curve that confronts a new computer user, describing its steepness — something that results in new computers occasionally ending up stashed in hall closets. "Yet once the curve levels out and a person gains basic skills, they want to learn more. And more. It seems endless what you can do with and to a computer. One of the reasons is the open architecture. A computer is almost infinitely expandable. Buy a stock machine, then add a modem, some more memory, a better monitor, a faster hard drive, an even faster hard drive. There's always some way to improve it, to make it accomplish more. Combine this with a little techno-lust, and you'll have a partial explanation for the rising divorce rate.
"But this thrill of victory is also part of the techno-lust. People get turned on since they can learn so fast and because they can tap into so much information. Call my system and leave a message for someone in Europe, and get an answer the following day. If you can get a modem, you can get anything else you want."
Unlike San Diego PCBoard, some BBSs in town limit their scope to specific disciplines or ranges of activity. The Adventure Board offers users a chance to exchange travel tales. Various religious BBSs exist, such as the Christ Line. The PC*LawCom BBS is an imposing setup offering an extensive range of legal files and information.
Among these local specialty boards is Steve Tom's MediaLine BBS. Tom is a former investigative reporter who once worked for NBC in Chicago. These days, when not tending to MediaLine chores, he works as "a voice-over and on-camera talent," as he explains it. The slick, no-nonsense BBS system clearly mirrors the disarming way Tom presents himself in person. His immaculate style of dress is accompanied by a sharp tongue; greetings and salutations are peppered with mild insults. Anyone calling his board would be advised not to mess around. Tom won't settle for mediocrity and takes no prisoners. In fact, callers who exhibit undue ignorance or unacceptable behavior will be dispatched quickly to: Hell.
"I have zero tolerance for stupid questions or general ignorance. When you first log onto my board, you're required to answer a simple questionnaire. One of the questions asks for your line of work. Some turkey typed in 'self-employed.' As what? This is a media-oriented board, so I'm looking for people in the industry to participate. Needless to say, Mr. Self-Employed found himself in Hell. That's where I send callers who screw up. It's a conference they can't get out of; the only alternative is to log off. The sad fact is, too many people these days are lazy. You find this in every segment of our society. I try to discourage these folks from participating here."* MediaLine began in 1987, and Tom admits he "jumped in as a rank amateur." Since then, he has built his BBS carefully. "I go over every single upload and check it out thoroughly. Then I provide the most detailed file descriptions in town — in the country, for that matter. Each month I spend from $400 to $600 on phone charges. I'm willing to pay that much, because you can't depend on your users for all your uploads. Tb keep this board vital, I've got to search out new media-specific files all around the country. I've got my usual sources — other media-oriented boards — [but] there're always new nooks and crannies to probe looking for fresh stuff. That takes time and money. I'm also trying, continually, to push the message bases on my board. I'm here to provide good, usable software, but I also want my users to communicate."
Although MediaLine offers some of the more common BBS files (word processing, taxes and business management, communications), the specialized nature of the board is reflected in such topics as cinematography, broadcast engineering, and theatrical production. And Ibm maintains about 25 nationally echoed conferences, including discussions on agents, audio, video, radio, film, actors, models, writing, and station management. There is even a text file explaining the laws governing soap opera plots.
Tom explains: "When I got my first modem two years ago, I checked out the boards around town and discovered they were mostly gaming boards and general-interest setups — essentially clones of each other. My plan was to establish a BBS that would cater to my particular business; I wasn't interested so much in the hobby angle. TWo other San Diego media-oriented boards have come and gone since then, and there have been times when I've threatened to take down MediaLine. But I've got a substantial amount of time and money invested. One of the biggest problems I'm having, though, is this: Most media people in town have computers but no modems. I guess that old saw is true after all — the least communicative people in the world are all in communications.
"When I talk with other sysops in town, we agree that telecommunications is on the leading edge. This is where we're headed in the future. It's got to be. However, in order for more people to take advantage of this technology, they've got to prepare for it. One paradox I see from my vantage point is the fact that a lot of media types are non-spellers and non-punctuators. In fact, some of the worst offenders are TV anchor types. If this technology does anything, it'll force people to become more literate."
One of Tom's regrets is the fact that, at the moment, MediaLine is not sustained by its users. "Part of the blame is mine," he admits, "since I've been somewhat lax in promoting. I'd love to beef up my user base, and the only way to do that is locally. I've got about 110 users, total. Only 30 percent of them are in the media business, and only half of that 30 percent are locals. The rest of my users are either visiting sysops, recipients of free subscriptions, or lookee-loos.
"My ideal user is a professional in some aspect of the entertainment industry. This person would take advantage of the message base to exchange ideas on technique, to share strategies on how to market one's talents, and to network around the country. On my system I echo a job conference, and through that message base I got the word out to some people who ended up with pretty good jobs. The BBS is a perfect medium for transmitting that sort of information. Telecommunication is empowerment. It's already happening. I just hope that at some point it begins to pay for itself."
One important reason sustains MediaLine's existence: "Media friends of mine continue predicting that San Diego is going to break wide open one of these days soon," Tom says. "Then it'll really start happening here. Already, Orange County is the national capital for industrial videos and training films, so there's a lot of activity nearby in those areas. Plus, rumor has it that a seven- or eight-stage motion picture facility will be built south of the border within the next couple of years. The idea is to prevent motion picture companies from taking off to Canada. If trends continue, and if some of these plans materialize, then MediaLine will really blossom."
One of the most unusual boards in San Diego, and one of the most successful in emphasizing and sustaining computer-aided communication, is the Rasta Think Thnk. No idealistic ganja heads here, though. The conferences are topical, informative. Occasionally, fur flies and mud is slung — but intelligence tends to flourish in the midst of it all. The sysop, Scott "Skosch" Penrose, has made a concerted effort to promote discussions of file transfers. (It's a sort of unwritten BBS etiquette that users will occasionally contribute new software or some other feature to a BBS's files, not just look through the system, download what's interesting, and log off.) "I have a fairly extensive questionnaire for first-time callers," Penrose explains. "In a way, the questionnaire serves as a deterrent, weeding out those folks who want nothing more than to rape your system's files. For the $50 to $75 I'm paying each month to keep this BBS alive, I'm not going to provide a file distribution service."
Penrose is a thoughtful man, cordial and responsive in person. His system inhabits a spare room in his North Park home, but the computers do not hold prominence. Three screens sit atop a homemade desk, surrounded in pleasant disarray by books, papers, and floppy disks. He speaks about his BBS with modesty, as one would a precocious child.
Penrose is forthright with his politics and preferences, qualities revealed in his system. Rasta Think Thnk conferences include active dialogues on astrology, "magick," pagan philosophy, and ecology. These are complemented by forums on writing, history, parenting, violence, drugs, astronomy, teaching, and peace. Some of the most intense conversation occurs in the Culture Conference: an informed debate ensues over the viability of communism and socialism in Eastern Europe; definitions of ethics and morality are argued; Machiavelli and Tom Wolfe are invoked in the same message. Outside the Rasta Think Thnk, where else could text files as diverse as these be offered for downloading: "An Explanation of the Hypothesis of Formative Causation and Its Relationship to Metaphysics" or "Info on the New Adult Echo Network, ThrobNet"?
Inaugurated on a borrowed modem, the Rasta Think Thnk has been around for just under four years. "I got started in March of 1986, when I was still a member of ISKCON, the Hare Krishna organization. I was one of the few rebellious-type persons in the group, and I wanted to set up a facility for internal communication. I saw my BBS as a way for group members to deal with the oppressive hierarchy of ISKCON. Shortly thereafter I got kicked out, so the BBS went public.
"Over the years, I've developed this philosophy about the board. Sure, I do a lot of work, and I am responsible for the way it looks and feels; but other than that, I have nothing to do with it. What you see on the screen is primarily the result of the users. Those users who participate are rewarded, with higher access levels and more time on line. That's always been my policy.
"In the early days, I learned the hard lesson that a BBS is nothing without its users. There were times when the entire Rasta Think Thnk community was simply my wife Barbara and I chatting across the room at home from two separate computer terminals." Penrose doesn't put much stock, however, in the futurists and fanatics who envision telecommunications as a magnificent liberating enterprise. "Frankly," he admits, "I don't see anything visionary about it. The best analogy I've seen for BBSing is this: It's not that much different from ducking into a bar after work where you talk politics or religion or sports or whatever over a few beers. You stop in, talk for a while, then go home. All BBSs do is allow you to engage in that shared activity from a distance, from the privacy of your own home, that's all. It's quick and it's a great way to transfer files, but if you really want to get a letter to someone in a hurry, use a fax."
"Actually, my board hasn't changed dramatically since the beginning. Some of my users have been around for years, and they're pretty steady. In fact, I don't know how many times I've seen the same discussion thread appear and reappear. These things seem to come in seven-month cycles. The Rasta Think Thnk is the only leftleaning BBS in town whatsoever. A while back there was one called CCCP Today, sponsored — I think — by the Communist Party of America. It didn't last long, though; they probably set it up to test the waters and then moved on.
"There was a time not too long ago when a fair number of Libertarians were using my board heavily, right before the 1988 elections. One of these guys was running for high office, and he was using the board to exercise his opinions. Some of his philosophies went along the lines of 'let people die in the streets so we don't have to pay taxes,' which I certainly don't agree with. As popular as he was on the board at that time, it certainly wasn't what I would have wanted. So, I argued a lot, but for the most part I let things take their course. Because if I step in too often and say 'stop this' and 'don't do that,' my valuable users will go elsewhere. It's better to keep those users, to keep the board active. As long as nothing illegal is going on, I won't shut anything down. After the Libertarians lost the election, they stopped calling. One of them set up a system of his own that's still active.
"Unfortunately, other callers are attracted to [the Rasta Think Tank bulletin board] because they think if s some sort of pothead BBS. They start asking about buying dope, and I straighten them out right away. One caller logged on as ‘Ganja in the Mountains' and got carried away, so I cut him off”
He logged right back on as 'Ganja in the Hills' and continued his nonsense. So I called the police on him. In four years I've only had that one instance of telephone harassment — one of the prices you pay if you make your system public. Actually, it's public but it's not. The system is still private. Anyone can call your house, for example, to sell you something or otherwise bother you - but that doesn't mean you have to talk to them. Running a BBS is something like having a lobby in your home. You let people into the lobby, but you don't have to open any of your doors."
For a while, Penrose belonged to RelayNet, one of the big national echo services similar to Interlink. "Once upon a time," Penrose recalls, "RelayNet was free. This enabled my users to communicate with other users around the world, and it didn't cost me much more than a few minutes of my time each night. As RelayNet grew, I became extremely disenchanted with some of their policies, so I got rid of them. That's when I decided to start my own echo network, RastaNet. At first I didn't think it would fly, but after a while it really took off. Right now RastaNet has 14 national [phone numbers] distributed fairly well geographically — three on the East Coast, one in Vancouver, a couple in San Diego, a few up North, and two in the Midwest. Within a day or so, messages that originate on my system will appear on all the others. It's pretty fast and a nice way to communicate, but it's not as fast as a phone call. There's no cost to the user, though, and you can talk with more than one person."
As powerful as the present technology might be, Penrose feels, there are still some grave political problems the visionaries fail to address or acknowledge. "First of all," he says, "for any real changes to occur, everyone's got to have a computer and a modem. The hardware might be coming down in price, but it's not affordable for everyone. Essentially, those who are benefiting now and who stand to benefit the most in the future are those who sit on the political right, the ones who already have money and power. In my BBS questionnaire, I ask callers to volunteer their political orientation. I'd say about 85 percent tag themselves Republican, conservative, or Libertarian. Very few call themselves socialist or leftist, and about 10 percent say Democrat or liberal. Sure, this reflects the nature of San Diego, to a certain extent. But it still reveals the type of people currently running computers and modems.
"In the midst of this deluge of data in our Information Age, there are two big topics in communication theory right now: should this information be readily available to everyone, or should you have to buy it? Regretfully, we're moving in the latter direction. For example, all U.S. census data now is only available on CD-ROM, and in order to perform basic statistical research you need to shell out $200 for the census disk. Also, on most of these on-line database systems you pay 50 cents to one dollar each minute just to search. That's not including the charge for retrieving and transferring information. A lot of that data is purchased from the government to begin with and then sold back to people through a commercial service.
"In one sense, technology provides us a fantastic way to link up and exchange information. The politics of brokering that information is another story altogether. As access to information becomes easier, it also becomes more difficult to acquire that information — unless you have the right connections or enough money. Those in power don't want people knowing too much; that's the nature of our free society. Witness the conservative trend in government, whereby fewer and fewer services are being provided. Couple that with the fact that most of the major print and television media are controlled by about 40 corporations, and you've got problems. As with anything in life, with this information thing there's a definite opening and closing at the same time."
Penrose is just like other sysops when it comes to thoughts of shutting down his system altogether. "Not too long ago," he says, "I ran into a guy in Ocean Beach who was a member of the American Greens party. And you thought they were only in Germany. Anyway, he had a modem but didn't know how to use it. So I spent half a day setting things up and teaching him how to call my BBS. But he never did, which was discouraging. Also, there are some information systems in the San Francisco Bay area — PeaceNet and EcoNet — that are attractive. As low as their subscription and on-line fees are, I still can't afford them. In the midst of it all, though, the Rasta Think Thnk is still alive. For the moment, and in spite of all the work I put in, I feel a responsibility to keep my board on line since it fills out the political spectrum. Isn't that what democracy is all about?"
But with democracy comes capitalism and the right to turn a profit. Over a fresh cup of coffee, Hank Larson laments the fact he has read, on-line, that the FCC has been rumbling lately, threatening to increase phone rates for modem users. "They tried this two years ago. A flood of letters from BBSers all across the country hit Washington, and the FCC quieted down. Here, let me show you."
With a few quick keystrokes, Larson locates a recently downloaded copy of the master list of files from San Diego PCBoard. His computer searches for the letters "FCC" and stops on a text file called FCC-TAX.ZIP. The file description screams: "FCC is at it again!!! They want to charge all modem users a SURCHARGE for the privilege of using a modem! FIGHT THIS NONSENSE!!!" Larson continues the hunt. Another text file, MOBILIZE.ZIP: "FCC plans to chg $6.00/hr for modem use." Larson performs the same search on his master list of PC*LawCom BBS files and discovers two more: "Text File of FCC Ruling on BBS Case" and "A Full Collection of FCC Rulings." His list of Rasta Think Thnk files yields five entries devoted to the FCC and rate increases, including a handful of protest form letters. "You want these? Let me make a call or two. Then I'll print them out. No problem. Boy, if I had to pay six bucks an hour to do this, I don't think I could afford it. Then what would I do?"