Lost In Cyberspace

by Larye Parkins

Get an email account, keep in touch with your children and grandchildren! Sounds great. We had been connected for a long time, so it was a matter of waiting for the children and grandchildren to get email accounts. But, even though they do now, only one has corresponded regularly.

My youngest daughter, Shawna, is a stay-at home mom, with a high-schooler, a first-grader, and a pre-schooler still at home, so she found the computer a great way to stay in touch with a community of other moms. We benefited by getting family news and instant photos of holiday events, birthdays, and family gatherings. For several years, we enjoyed getting notes about once a week or so.

To: Dad

From: Supermom

Subject: Slow network

I really enjoy the Internet and my groups, but sometimes it is so slow. I'd like to be able to navigate much faster and upload more pictures. Besides, it is so annoying to get disconnected in the middle of composing an email.

...


To: Supermom

From: Dad

Subject: Re: Slow Network

You should be able to get high speed internet service in the city. It doesn't cost all that much more than the second phone line you put in last year.

...

Finally, she wrote that they were upgrading: high speed Internet, here we come!

I wrote back, congratulating her on a wise choice. No response. Several weeks went by, with messages from us disappearing into cyberspace. I began to worry. Desperate, I picked up the phone. It felt so strange, like the old days before the Internet. I looked up the phone number and dialed.

The voice on the other end sounded familiar, but younger; it was my teenaged granddaughter. OK, they still had phone service, I thought, but mom usually answered the phone. "Hi, Z-girl, it's Papa. How are you guys? Is your computer broken? Where's your mom?"

"No, it's not broken," she said. "But, after we got high-speed Internet, Mom and Dad discovered some sort of online game and they haven't come out of the den since." In my imagination, I had a vision of the grandkids wandering around the house, unkempt and looking for food. Their parents sat gaunt and hollow-eyed, frantically clicking the mouse. I imagined battle sounds issuing from the computer speakers and monsters parading across the screen.

"Get your mom out here on this phone." I waited, anxiously, with lots of questions, that were preempted by prepared answers: Everything's fine. No, they were taking care of themselves, just busy with learning the game.

"No, it isn't all sword and sorcery," she said, when I finally got to ask about it. The boys had been into non-computerized role-playing games when they were teenagers, but the girls never seemed to have an interest. "Your screen character earns points and strength doing ordinary things like farming, so you can protect her and go more interesting places. And, besides the traps and dangers programmed into the scene, you can interact with the characters of other people who are playing the game online."

I'm wasn't convinced this was a good thing. "You know, people have keeled over dead at their computers playing those games—forgot to eat, drink, just disappeared in the game," I said. She laughed. We talked a while; she promised to take time for email.

Months went by; I got an email now and then, but not like before. Sheri, one of my other daughters, has a computer and email, but she doesn't check hers often enough, so I still call her now and then. "What's going on with your sister?" I asked, the next time we talked. "Have they become totally addicted to virtual reality? It doesn't sound very real to me. Don't they have a life to lead?"

"Gee, I don't know, Dad. We hardly hear from them anymore, since they've been on the game. But, then everyone else seems busy, too. Maybe that's just the way it is." She promised to call more often, too, and we hung up.

So, now I sit by my computer, watching my mailbox fill up with offers for cheap drugs, cheap software, easy money, and fast mortgages, from people I don't know, with names like E. Pluribus Picklenose. They obviously don't know me, either, because they call me Ralph, or Frieda. But, no pictures of grandchildren, no cheery weather reports from the sunny southwest. I fear they are lost in cyberspace, off in some fantasy world I can't imagine.

While I'm sitting at the computer, I have some ideas on a programming project I left unfinished at work. On my computer screen, the mail program shrinks to a small square. I open a path into the corporate gateway, which greets me with the dire consequences of proceeding unasked or unprepared. No animations here, just raw text scrolling up the screen, but the words are like lighted road signs in familiar territory. From the gateway, I drop a digital breadcrumb in the upper corner of the screen, to ward against network gremlins who can freeze you in the middle of a job. I pass through the gateway into the server cluster, attaching to an armored program I left running earlier today, then create a tunnel through the security barriers from that machine back to the gateway. Opening another window on my own computer, I type the incantations to extend another tunnel out to the gateway. Thousands of miles away, the data streams link together. A smaller version of a computer screen materializes in another window on my side of the world.

I start the project running again. A flood of words and numbers marches across the screen, in seemingly orderly rows and columns, but ends in a tangled heap. I work quickly, fingers flying over the keyboard. There are holes and rips in the data all the way back to the beginning. Ah, there's the problem, a doorway left open during startup; the subprograms have been fighting over the same data. I type the new instructions and rebuild the program. The test works as expected: dozens of worker programs start up. In the corner of the remote screen, the computing power meter peaks as they spread through the cluster, orderly this time, each busy with their assigned tasks. They finish their work. The data is all there this time, and all the workers accounted for. Taking on the role of the all-powerful Root, I type “sudo make install,” and the program becomes part of the world in the machine. I back out of the remote computer, closing the data tunnels as I go. Windows blink out of existence on my screen. The desktop is clear.

I look away from the screen. The room has grown dark. It's late. The cat is calling to be let out. I push back from the keyboard and stretch out the stiffness and cold from sitting immobile for hours. But, I haven't been lost in cyberspace. I have a map.

Larye Parkins has been lost in cyberspace for more than 40 years, ever since joining the engineering staff at Univac in 1965. He is currently a software engineer and Unix systems administrator with a national computer services provider, whose offices he has never visited in person. He interfaces with the real world in Hamilton, MT, where he and his wife Judy share their home with seven computers and one cat.

This piece first appeared in the Entertainment section of the Ravalli Republic, May 12, 2006. Copyright 2006 by the author.