sober in cyberspace

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I WAS late back from work the other night. "Been in the pub?" asked my girlfriend. "Virtually," I said.

When I explained I had surfed there, she had visions of the muscled hunk in the Carling Black Label advert who crests his wave all the way to the bar and orders a pint of aftershave. She should be so lucky.

For I am no board-bound beach bum, but a young man newly hip to the Internet, and just as my first stop in any new environment tends to be the local pub, so I made my early tentative judgements about cyberspace in the Virtual Irish Pub, a roadside inn on the information super highway.

Bizarre place. I have never felt so gauche in a public house, never been so aware of the established locals turning in their stools to scowl at the foreigner new at the door. I felt the darts match stop, the village bruiser pause in his pool shot.

A graphic reeled itself on to the screen of a moustachioed barman pouring a pint of stout. Nothing happened for a while, but then it seldom does, I have never had great bar presence. Then some words appeared under the barman. "Hello stranger," he said. "Have I seen you here before? No matter. For the trouble of coming have a pint, and then choose a table by clicking on it."

No pint materialised, but half a dozen pub tables appeared on the screen under headings like "literature", "music", "pub chat". I clicked one and was offered various venues for conversation: the Beer Garden, the Upstairs Bar, the Lovers' Table. I opted for the main lounge. I sat down and clicked up the conversation in progress. Two characters called Pinky and Perky were quipping about faeces. Dirk from Munchen was asking: "Any English ladies to talk with?" Ian announced: "I'm pissed, stoned, and in Australia." There was a group of Chilean students asking for penpals, and someone called Neil Robinson, who stunned the assembly with, "Hello, anybody out there?"

It was, in short, full of the sort of people you try to avoid in the pub, and I was about to head for the Lovers' Table when someone asked: "Is Neil Robinson a whoossie?" Then somebody said they thought bombing Muroroa was a great idea, and suddenly the pub was full of Australians. Seeing a chance to stir the fibre-optic soup, I addressed Perky. "Why are there so many Australians here?" I asked. "You'd think it was a pub in Earls Court, not cyberspace." Perky loved it, and soon Pinky and his crones were spewing foul verbal venom at the Australians. The Aussies got tough. The Brits, from the safety of 10,000 miles, threatened to break beer glasses in their faces. Neil said: "I'm leaving." And everyone said "Whoossie!" But instead of a fight there was only the impotent rage of a dozen virtual fists.

This is a pub with no booze, no women, no fruit machines, no smell of beer-stained carpet. It is a pathetic illusion of human interaction for the socially challenged. But then again, it is a pub with no fights, no filthy lavatory, and no closing time.

And best of all, as long as these idiots are leading their sim-lives down the Virtual, it keeps them out of my local.