Confessions of a Cyberholic


It began innocently enough: I was stuck at home, recovering from back surgery, and needed some diversion. Bored with channel surfing and unable yet to return to running, I borrowed a PC from the office, hooked up a modem and began to check out the local computer bulletin board (BBS) scene.

That was in 1985. When I finally came to my senses, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Democrats were back in the White House, while I had just bought my fourth home computer and had spent thousands more on new software. My boss was demanding my long-overdue big report about the future of electronic media. I had run out of excuses. "More research," I kept saying, "I gotta do more research on the net." He shook his head and sent me to see the company shrink.

At first, the net had seemed so exotic and cutting edge. But I quickly worked my way through the list of local BBSes. Brief stops at nearby fantasy-game systems, electronic porn parlors and digital meet-a-date services proved tiresome. A few weeks of arguing with cyberfeminists in alt.soc.women on Usenet taught me that all was not fun and games. Then I found the WELL, acronym for Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link. "Hello," I typed in. "I'm new around here and don't know what to do next."

The gang on the WELL welcomed me with open arms. I was soon "talking" around the clock to people all over California and beyond about important issues of the day -- like the latest technology or how the 49ers were doing. As a reward for my enthusiasm, the powers that ran the WELL asked me to run my own conferences and gave me a free account. At least it seemed free at first. The real, hidden costs -- professional, financial, physical and emotional -- were only just beginning to mount.

I began to take my new life very seriously. I took sides in the religious wars over the differences between PCs and Macs. I expressed opinions about everything. I even started an altercation that dragged half of West Coast cyberspace into an electronic brawl and got myself banished from the WELL. (They let me back two months later.) I moved on to the big commercial services: CompuServe, Prodigy, GEnie, Delphi and America Online, as well as half a dozen Internet systems. I had more user IDs (electronic addresses) than I sometimes had dollars in my bank account.

Not content merely to be wired, I began to acquire software: bigger word processors, faster spreadsheets, better-looking data bases! Then came the games -- simulation games, adventure games, games of skill and luck, games that made my wrists ache. Soon I found that my hardware was inadequate: my microprocessor was too slow; I kept running out of memory; my screen was too small.

I probably should have recognized the first signs of cyberaddiction. My phone bill edged over $100 a month and then kept going up. Occasionally one of the services would cut me off for nonpayment -- because I wasn't off-line enough to open the bills. My work and financial record s moved to a corner of the living room as I reassigned home-office space; after all, a brand-new 386-model PC, color monitor, fast dot-matrix printer and 2400 bps modem deserved their own desk and room. Visits to local computer supermarkets became more frequent than trips to neighborhood bookstores. Relatives and friends complained about busy signals and demanded that I get home voice-mail service.

I missed even the obvious idiosyncrasies. Visiting and posting frequently in Internet newsgroups about exercise equipment are not the same as exercising. Playing Tetris was not what my doctor had prescribed for my carpal-tunnel syndrome. Discussing lingerie via my online service's "chat" utility was not a good substitute for a Friday-night date. (My last serious girlfriend mentioned something about that, but I lost her E-mail address.) Like most abusers, I had to hit bottom before I saw what was going on. For that I have to thank some very good friends who showed me there is life without computers. And then, of course, there was that long power outage during last January's big storm that forced me to go cold turkey. Now that I've faced the problem, I can speak without logging on, write without powering up and draw without a mouse. I recognize the normality of sunrise and sunset, and I have a real life.

Looking back, I find it hard to imagine a computer's causing all that trouble. For those who are not yet acquainted with the addictive power of technology, this may seem just an amusing, if eccentric, tale. But others may find it all too familiar. If you need help, you can send me E-mail; I'm sure I won't be that far away from cyberspace. I still have to finish tuning up my brand-new Pentium 90 speedster with the 2-gigabyte SCSI drive, 32 megs of screaming RAM, a 17-in., 16.7 million color screen, 4x CD-ROM drive, V.34 superdata highway modem. But before taking it out for a spin . . .

By day Tom Mandel is a professional futurist and management consultant with SRI International. By night he surfs the Net.

Illustration for TIME by Robert Grossman.

Copyright ©1995 Time Inc. All rights reserved.

Transmitted: 95-03-14 16:40:44 EST (sp953615)
updated on 4/11/95

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