Tuesday, January 23, 2018

1990sFest: Day Four—"Love at first byte."

Children Watching Balinese Puppets at the Field Museum of Natural History


     While I'm on vacation, let's squint a few decades into the past.    
     Today, one third of recently married couples met online, as opposed to at a bar or social event. That was very different 20 years ago, when meeting online had an air of something unwise, perhaps illicit. Notice the presence of a certain thick yellow piece of technology now entirely absent from our lives.

     There was a great sketch at Second City recently in which a defiant wife is packing her bags to meet her new online lover. She grandly announces that her online name is Lady Crimson, and her new boyfriend is The Weasel.
     "I have to go to him," she tells her boggled husband. "The Weasel is my soulmate."
     The Weasel turns out to be 14 years old. His mother drives him to the motel. But the funniest part is how her husband just can't get over the moronic moniker of his rival, and keeps repeating it, in agonized wonder, while his wife is leaving. "The Weasel!" he says, clutching his head as if it were splitting apart. "The Weasel?!?!?"
     Public service types always focus on the risk the Internet poses to tender and impressionable children. Warnings are always ringing that the kiddies might stumble across some dirty pictures and, I don't know, be scarred for life.
     What about their parents? What about the risk to them? The Internet's online services such as America Online are a tar pit, an attractive nuisance, an inviting trap enticing the lonely and the foolish to embrace their ruin.
     Exhibit A: The ad for Myers Service Inc., "Chicago's Premier Detective Agency," in the 1997 Ameritech Yellow Pages. Like most phone book ads for detective agencies, it has a pleasant Sam Spade ring to it, listing that the company will trace missing people and investigate backgrounds.
     But one service is something never imagined in Raymond Chandler: "On-line Infidelity."
     "We've been getting a lot of business — it's exploding," said Marty Mroz, director of outside investigations at Myers. "We've been noticing that a lot of people have been meeting on these chat lines."
     Of course they are. The Internet is perfect for those inclined to stray. Anyone with a computer and a modem now has a 24-hour honky tonk in their rec room, and many seem unable to resist wandering in.
     "I see it as an increasing problem," said Jeffery M. Leving, a divorce attorney, who is handling cases involving online dalliance. "There are people who are addicted to the Internet."
     Of course there are. For women, it is a chance to troll for men, free of their often-menacing physical presence. For men, it permits the kind of incremental, hair-splitting approach to whatever qualms they might have about cheating on their wives.
     Exhibit B is Howard Stern. Stern, who has made technical fidelity to his wife the core of his shtick, spends the first 50 pages of his most recent best seller rhapsodizing about the joys of online sex.
     "I like this Prodigy chat concept because here's a way to be with new women and not have a guilty conscience afterward," he writes in one of the few quotable passages of Miss America. "In my mind this ain't cheatin'!"
     Legally, he is right. No matter what is done with somebody in another room, it doesn't become a case for lawyers until two people get together.
     "By definition there is no such thing as online infidelity," said Barry C. Zachary, a divorce attorney. "If there is no contact between the two parties, it cannot be adultery."
     But legalities are moot when the crockery starts to fly. Conducting a relationship online is, perhaps, most comparable to exchanging love letters, and while the lack of physical intimacy might keep your spouse from actually tearing you limb from limb, the odds are that he or she will not be happy to learn of your electronic liaison with the anonymous.
     That assumes the affair is kept online. There is always the temptation to move from the virtual to the real.
     "What's happening is they're finding people they're interested in, setting up these romantic interludes," Mroz said. "It's becoming more and more common in the last couple years; this stuff has been catching on. It's kind of scary that people would do this."
     It certainly was scary for the New York woman who had dinner last week at the apartment of a man she met online, only to be — she says — beaten and raped by the man.
     "You have no idea who you're speaking to," Mroz said. "This person can be a complete crazy person. You can think you're talking to a woman who could be a man, it could be a kid. You don't know who you're speaking to."
     Ah, well. Somewhere, aged computer wizards are shaking their heads, thinking back to the days when they were slaving over those burning electrical circuits and exploding tubes, deluding themselves that they were struggling to bring the world an easier way to calculate large prime numbers and figure out the trajectories of cannon shells. Sorry, guys, you were building a sex toy.
     Had they taken a few psychology classes among the physics seminars, they would have seen it coming. Human nature being what it is, we should never be surprised when libido -- licit, illicit and otherwise -- overwhelms technology. Look in the benign, utilitarian phone book that brought this up in the first place. There are 19 full pages of advertising under the heading "Computers" in the 1997 yellow pages. And 27 full pages of ads for escort services. Draw your own conclusions.

       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 22, 1997


  1. It's funny how our lexicon changes over 20 short years. Yellow Pages; words never uttered today; honky-tonk; that's precious; tar pit; not that there's anything attractive about it, but in 2018 we just say shithole.

  2. Those Yellow Pages were so useful at one time....

    Yup, the Internet is the most wondrous source of information and communication we could imagine; free and available to most everyone, everywhere. I find myself sometimes weighing the few negative aspects of it against the mostly positive, but the scales are hugely tipped. We humans are hard-wired to be social, and no doubt the ease of anonymous written interaction will always be appealing. (Thank God for "filters" :)


  3. In the late 19th century, "penny dreadfuls" like the New York Herald built audiences and amassed advertising dollars by running classified ads from, as Gore Vidal put it, "every prostitute with a few dollars and a desire to see her name in print." Plus ca change...

  4. Already afternoon and no comments. Is everybody afraid of self-incrimination? By the way, that pyramid looks awfully dangerous. Can we suppose that Neil and wife have girded their loins and scaled it?


  5. The other thing that seems crazy is that we once hitchhiked. You know stood on the corner with your thumb out? Then when somebody would stop we'd get in their car. A total stranger! Seems nuts that we were so stupid. I would never do that now. And I sure wouldn't want my kids doing it. I mean you never know who might pick you up right?

    1. It's been too many years to recall (early 90's?) since I've hitchhiked or stopped for one. Except last month. There is a Walmart about 1/4 mile from the nearest bus stop, a familiar sight is seeing pedestrians making the trek. In the cold weather, spotted an old man hobbling along with a cane in one hand and the other with extended thumb. Gave him a ride right to the door, a veteran so I thanked him for his service.

  6. Fifty years have whizzed by since the summer of '68, when I hitchhiked 8,000 miles in less than two months' time. Chicago to Montreal, then down to Boston and NYC, and finally all the way out to Southern California.

    Compiled a 150-page journal while "on the road"...who knows, I might have been the next Kerouac, if I hadn't been robbed by bikers in Texas. Thumbed 1,500 miles home from Corpus Christi, with seven bucks in my pocket and the clothes on my back, just in time for the Democratic Convention. But that's another story for another time.

    1. Griz, a buddy of mine was in the National Guard stationed at the 68 convention. He was only 20 years old then. Now he tells me stories about how he felt he was on the wrong side.

    2. Sounds fabulous. Well except for the robbery. Though who knows might have been a highlight. Nowadays we hitch via the WWW more reliable just as frightening.

  7. I turned 21 one week before the rioting began. Fancied myself a student radical. Didn't go into a bar for another six months. Too many other diversions and distractions available...[wink-wink, nudge-nudge]

    1. Ironic that there were no age restrictions on diversions and distractions.


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