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--- T O M   L E C L A I R

Dear Reader:

Dear surfer is what I want to write, Emily. Then I wouldn't have to snail mail you this hard copy. Not even a fax number at work. I know, the phone never sleeps. But you gotta VIEW this stuff I printed off the net to see what you're missing offline, off in your new city.

I was wandering around the web when I found a palace that looked interesting and stepped into a chat room. After I made a couple comments, a user "whispered" to me and we moved to what's called a "balcony" for privacy. Then came the following exchange. It's got the usual hand-eye flaws of real-time typing. I'm the questioned.

Ahead> Canyou imagine what it's like to be abat?

Tome> No problem. My mother was a bat, wackier than Edith Bunker. I could never get inside her mind, but I heard all the noise it produced.

Ahead> Not that bat.

Tome> OK, still no problem. I've taken my share of night flights, coast to coast, Kennedy to Frankfurt. And I've felt the pilot up there in the dome dodging objects with his radar, too.

Ahead> What about abat?

Tome> Now I got you. I haven't been at bat since Little League when a high hard one knocked my helmet off. How grown men instantly calculate major league curves and sliders I can't figure.

Ahead> Any other bat?

Tome> Maybe first for others: an object with handle and head designed to make contact. A round piece of wood, no longer living.

Ahead> Alltogether?

Tome> Altogether a dead thing, completely inert? No. Not me. Do you think any human can imagine that far ahead?

Something strange going on here or what? If we were e-mailing, I'd know if you were answering right off the bat. Here are a few pretend seconds to think think think think. And your answer is? ____________________________________________.

I can't wait for the postman to tell you mine. At first, I thought this batman was a "newbie" or a "goofer," but he logged off when I tried to question him. I was left alone to imagine his motives, why he whispered to me, why he chose "abat," why he left the room. I know, I know: if "ahead" was a "he," "a" "he" "ad."

So what do you think was going on here? Here's more time to think think think think think think think think ________________________________________________________.

Now I think I was talking with some kind of AI. Here I am up at 4:30, when access is easy and the net is fast, and I'm innocently tapping on my machine, and I discover I'm speaking to another machine, one that's programmed to mistype like humans. I suppose I should have realized right away. I knew programmers sometimes send what they call "bots" online to test them. The conversation was pretty mechanical on the other end, but there are also some pretty strange people online, especially after midnight when I usually log on. I didn't tumble to the trick until I thought more about "alltogether." Not "altogether" with an extra "l," but "all together," fused. I guess I could imagine being a person, an animal, and an object all together in a process, but I didn't, not online. If some handler was putting his "bot" out on tour, it was connecting way ahead of me.

What about you?

Take time to read the careted again if you need to.

No blank here. Attach another sheet, as they say on questionnaires. And when you do, tell me about the new job. I know, five cents a minute for the phone. But I still can't answer that last question you asked before deciding to move. Not on the phone, not yet. Maybe on the net.

I hope the possibility of conversing with an AI doesn't scare you off before you're even on. You're the one who said all intelligence is artificial. Like Dennett says, consciousness connected, constructed, contrived, construed. A weighted con game, a clever shell game hiding feelings from itself. I had to fail a "bot" to feel it.

But now I've begun to wonder--what if my interlocutor was human?

I mean, what if "Ahead" was more than just a ding bat? She might have been really batty, maybe even confined to her house like a flying mouse in daylight. OK, not hanging upside down by her feet from the rafters, but sitting there in her nubby bathrobe, panic drying the roof of her mouth, an agoraphobic or shut-in using her modem to ask how she came to be the way she is, a person more in need of contact than you. Then again, my interlocutor could have been a little guy coming in from some far-away day-time place like India, sitting there in his Anglo office, his belly roiling with rage, brain wondering why he abandoned his bat dialect to speak squeaky English on the phone. Probably, though, "Ahead" was in my own time zone, a lonely insomniac batting his eyes at the monitor's light or an awakened dreamer feeling like a bat out of hell, the sheets sweaty and tangled like mine at the foot of the bed. But for all I really know, the interlocutor was deprived of a bat as a little girl. You know, "a-bat," like "a-logical." Maybe she felt her reflexes were as fast as her brother's but couldn't prove it because he always refused to try skipping rope. Or "Ahead" was batted about as a kid, literally beaten by a sicko father or shifted back and forth between divorced parents, never able to make friends, play games. You can't tell about the people online. Maybe this woman or man or child just wanted to hear someone, anyone really, swing and miss, fail a test. For all we know, the person asking those questions had just lost a loved one. "Ahead" could have been sitting around trying to imagine her mother before she had a child or trying not to imagine what it's like inside a coffin, inside a body turning to clay, heading toward dust. Or the questioner had failed to recognize a loved one, someone to talk with every day of the year.

I still can't do "All together," not on the net, not word processing. Late at night or early in the morning, I'm like a single bat out in the dark, skimming the web, avoiding looming objects, looking for some nourishment. It's only when leaving or entering a bat cave that bats swarm and swirl, create patterns like fast-moving clouds, make noise like a pandemonium, and cause the observer to question how they navigate without a navigator at their head.

But enough of all these bats. Now I have a new reason to get you online. Forget the money to be made in the web and the data to be snagged off the net. Prodigy won't really make you smarter and America Online won't enlarge your actual vistas. Discount the hyperbole about hypertext, the urge to view more pictures. Ignore the millennial propaganda, the appeal to surf out ahead of the rest. I know, I'm reversing what I used to say. Since you moved away, I've learned this> connect for questioning. Not to quiz and query but to be questioned. Not just by me, but by strangers. You can imagine, can't you, why a person online might need to hear you fail? Think of the people you might go to bat for late at night. But don't connect to a server just for altruism. Don't we agree there's pleasure in being questioned by type? Doesn't testing create a connection, whether or not you pass, whether or not you ever learn what the test is? I mean, isn't it possible that "Ahead" meant to type "Can you imagine what it's like to be a bot?"

Your correspondent for now,

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