Surrounded by nerdy freshmen and stale air
Monday 09 October 1995
The smell in here is foul, evoking unpleasant memories of schoolboy changing- rooms. But then, all university computer rooms seem to smell like this, which may at least partly explain why so few female students will go anywhere near them. Sharing the stale air with me are three fairly typical inhabitants of such haunts - label them nerds if you wish. Sporting the mandatory heavy metal T-shirt, the one closest to me is mumbling gently to himself as he follows the debate on some obscure Usenet discussion group. Every so often he collapses in such sharply contrived laughter that I start to worry for his sanity. But one look at his glazed expression tells me he's okay. He's happy, he's escaping, he's oblivious.
Co-ordinated snuffles drift over from the far corner of the room, where the other two occupants are taking turns to type, in furious staccato bursts. Sending each other real-time messages via their computers (known to the connoisseur as "n-talking"), they can't be seated more than five metres apart. Verbal communication appears to be a somewhat passe activity for members of the nerd community - but what the heck, leave them be, they're having fun.
12.30pm, Central Computer Service Building
Within the grisly Seventies edifice of the main computer service lurks a slightly different odour. The smell of fear. The smell of essay crisis. Lining the bare blue walls are 40 hunched bodies, faces contorted with concentration as they battle against both the clock and a word processor from hell. The sullen young trendy to my left suddenly utters an agonised groan. "Where the hell's my essay gone?" he demands of no one in particular. A couple of fellow sufferers look up and briefly shake their heads in sympathetic resignation before returning to their screens. Head in hands, the trendy bashes away at the function keys forlornly. The score as I leave the depressingly familiar scene: Trendy 0, Microsoft Word 5.
2:30pm, Students' Union
Wandering down from lunch I log into the terminal in the foyer. Up flashes the coveted phrase: "You have new mail". First to appear is a message from my father, berating me for again forgetting my sister's birthday. The technology may have advanced, but the traditional parent/student hassle remains as unhealthy as ever. At least you can't be shouted at with e- mail. I have two other new messages. Steve, a PhD student in Brighton, has sent me a copy of a hilarious "Guide to the avoidance of sinful self- abuse" posted by some batty US evangelical group to high-school students in Milwaukee. In extreme cases they suggest that "the tying of one's hand to the side of the bed is a sure-fire protection against the Devil's call to nocturnal sin". Scary stuff indeed. I forward a copy to a friend studying theology.
My final new mail is a circular newsletter entitled "The Sch... news". Produced by an anti-Criminal Justice Act coalition, it contains details of the latest happenings within the activist scene. I hurriedly read through it, aware of my shameful inactivity. After dashing off a remorseful reply to my father, I quit and log out. Straight away my place is taken by an impatient French exchange student eager for news from home.
5:30pm, Engineering Building
My research has led me to believe that the engineering building is a good place to track down examples of the elusive Web surfer. I am not disappointed, for amid a gaggle of grubby Nirvana T-shirts I catch sight of a rare breed - a female surfer. She is busy downloading images of Massive Attack (a popular student band) found on their site somewhere out there in World Wide Web-land. The mouse darts as she selects a new page. Blurred and unrecognisable at first, an impressive technicolour image gradually swims into focus. Grabbing at one of the floppy disks strewn over her desk, a picture of three dudes wearing shades is captured for posterity. The picture in itself is completely useless - there's no chance of ever printing it out - but that's not particularly important. What is significant is that she has succeeded in downloading pictures from the Web - awesome, jaw-dropping stuff to the majority of students, who are still far more at home in a heaving bar than in a cybercafe.
11:15pm, A Hall of Residence
After the bar closes I meander over to the adjacent Hall, tap in a code and open the door to the tiny computer room. Ignoring the by now familiar aroma - it really does reek in here - I squeeze past the three top-of- the-range PCs and settle into a corner to observe. This place being a Mecca for the serious student nerd, it is bad form to be spotted messing around with the frivolous funky graphics of the World Wide Web when your screen could be filled with drab and unintelligible text. To my left sits Dave, his laptop plugged into a socket on the wall. Day or night (it makes little odds, the blinds are always shut), Dave is always in here. Intrigued by the hieroglyphics appearing on the laptop's display, I venture to inquire what exactly he is up to. Clearly shocked at my impertinence, he mutters a curt reply. "Nothing important." It rapidly dawns on me that my presence here is not welcome. This is his world, you see, and as we both know, the future belongs to him and the computers with which he is so comfortable.
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