Today, we find a technological revolution in a
strange place. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
I read a peculiar parable
for our times in a Houston Press article by
Edith Sorenson. She tells about her adventures in a
new electronic medium. It's a computer dating
Now, when any radically new technology replaces an
old one, the old function also changes. The
automobile didn't just replace the horse. It
changed our whole concept of place.
So when Sorenson first entered the world of
computer dating, it looked much like the world it
copied. Computer dating had the flavor of those
tawdry personal columns in marginal magazines.
She types "browse" to see who's out there. A
45-year-old married man complains that his wife
won't spank him. A divorcee has to say his
preferences in code words. One man wants to go to a
fine restaurant with a sophisticated woman and talk
about her submissive fantasies. It doesn't look
When one man wants to talk dirty, she finds she can
activate a STOP command to block incoming mail from
him. So she stays with the process, and the message
exchanges begin drawing her in.
She actually goes out on a couple of dates. A young
man with a fine touch on the computer keyboard is
shy and tongue-tied in person. None of her dates
seem to click in person.
Back at her computer, she activates chat mode. In
chat mode you type messages back and forth like a
conversation. Of course, everyone uses a code name
-- like PLAINJANE 386 or MAX 442.
In the end, Sorenson's prince never comes. But
something else emerges. She takes increasing
pleasure in the interactions. Her prince isn't
likely to show up here. What does show up, she
hadn't expected. She's found a new community.
No one has B.O. on screen. No one's unbeautiful. No
one subverts talk with the animal magnetism or
repulsion of his corporeal self. She meets people
in the intimacy of anonymity.
I spoke yesterday with a man in Dallas about the
engineering networks. He said they let him feel
less inhibited. They erased his concern for saving
face. They freed him from the self-preservation
that haunts professional life. On the nets, he
said, ideas don't attack a person; ideas live for
their own sake.
That's why Sorenson's foray into dating in the
electronic networks arrests me. It's one more
harbinger of a computer-driven change in human
relations. Like other new technologies, it promised
one thing -- then delivered something else
After all, your prince never does come. Or, if he
does, he's flawed. But the network offers kindred
minds -- free of physical constraints. And it
offers what we all crave most -- the chance, at
last, to reveal ourselves.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds