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My brief cyber-affair with Cutie

A couple engaged in oafish flirtation - `Hey, babe, wanna get 2gether & make sweet music?'
PERHAPS I could take this opportunity to point out that I shall not, after all, be supplying clients across the world with Viagra. Nor, in spite of what has been promised, will I be giving online consultations for sexual problems.

The commitment to a 24-hour delivery of full treatment was, I regret, something of a mistake. As for the many people who have responded to the offer, snarling up my computer with enraged responses ("No way man!" "I have your name and address and am instigating legal proceedings" "But I'm a woman!!!"), I can only apologise on behalf of the sick, sick person who last week invaded my sweet, virginal little computer to such disastrous effect.

I say this because, rather fashionably, I've just succumbed to a cyber- social disease and caught a rather nasty case of computer clap. How it happened remains a mystery. Like many an innocent before me, I had been lured through my screen into a strange, magical cyberland where human nature, freed of identity, nationality and gender, is as weird as it can be.

Maybe I took a turn into a murky byway (I'm a writer, for God's sake; it's my job). Anyway, somewhere "in the wild", I seem to have picked up an unpleasant virus.

The first sign that all was not well was when I was unable to get online because my password no longer worked. When I rang the server, I discovered there had been a problem with my bill involving extra charges and - the woman to whom I spoke seemed simultaneously disapproving and evasive - a "code violation" had been reported. I tried to go online once more with a new password. This time, my screen froze in horror at what it found.

I returned to the server. The nature of my code violation was established. I had incurred extra charges with an unauthorised mass mailing shot. Er, mass mailing shot? Yes, it seemed that my screen address had been used to send a Viagra ad to people around the world - 6,250 people, to be precise.

I had what they call a "Trojan horse" in my system. I needed to see the doc. There was, of course, a queue at the surgery, allowing me several hours of profound anxiety. In that machine was my life: records, notes, letters, not to mention 60,000 words of a half-completed masterpiece of contemporary fiction. Somehow, without my noticing, the computer had become an extension of my brain, and now an Alzheimer's-like bug was infecting it, wiping my life, transforming me overnight into a sleazy online Viagra salesman.

Of course, I know that, in the world of computers, different realities apply. My brother Philip, even more cybernetically virginal than me, had recently had a humiliating experience in a chat-room. A couple in the room had been engaged in the traditional, oafish flirtation - "Hey, babe, wanna get 2gether & make sweet music" one was asking - when Philip, attempting to enter into spirit of things, jokily typed in, "Can I watch?" Suddenly all hell broke loose. "Hit the decks, guys - we got a crazee on board," wrote one chatter, and seconds later poor Philip was ignominiously expelled from the room.

But this was different. Something horrible and hostile had attached itself to me from this fantasy world, had followed me back into my real life and was doing terrible things to it.

Later that day, guided by the doc, I went in search of my Trojan horse. Together, we stalked the thickets of technology until, after 45 thrilling, heart-stopping minutes, we found it. Its name was Cutie. Beside the famous, elegant-sounding super-virus Melissa, Cutie sounded a bit small-time and sluttish, and her Viagra mailing had petered out well short of 6,250 people. At least, unlike Melissa, she didn't target friends on my mailing list and send them pornography under my name.

We zapped her. Cutie is history. And now that I know that she has not after all destroyed a future winner of the Booker Prize, I find I am intrigued by the stories of virus-writers now appearing, post-Melissa, and somewhat encouraged that they exist.

As I understand it, a virus-writer's aim is to take on the absurdly overpaid computer tsars who dominate our lives. They live for intellectual challenge. They make no money from their little bugs.

Celebrity is anathema to them. It could be argued that, surrounded by consensus and conformity, they represent an impish spark of human bloody- mindedness in an age of depersonalised technology. They also serve to remind us of our gullible and dangerous over-dependence on the all too fallible machinery of artificial intelligence.

For that, at least, I'm grateful to Cutie.