Richard G. Epstein










Richard Elkins

Since the introduction of self-projection softbots several years back it has been possible to travel the highways and byways of cyberspace as if it were an actual place. Some technologists like to call this huge collection of virtual places "virtual space", to emphasize that it is an actual space that one can explore that parallels conventional space. Self-projection technology is transforming the manner in which human beings interact with one another. It is difficult to imagine what virtual space will be like twenty or thirty years from now. Sometimes, I wish I had the courage to write a book on the subject - a visionary depiction of life in 2060 or 2070, but writing about the future takes a special kind of chutzpah, if you know what I mean.

About two years ago I became enamored with the "meeting room" phenomenon. Meeting rooms are named after the primitive text-oriented meeting rooms that were popular on the old World Wide Web back during the 1990s and 2000s. Meeting rooms allows people with self-projection capabilities to meet in virtual rooms in virtual space to discuss some common interest. I told the editor of the Sentinel-Observer Sunday Magazine that we should run a regular feature in which I would cover these meeting rooms both as a participant and as a journalist. My editor loved the idea and the Sunday Magazine's "Meeting Room of the Week" feature is the result.

If you are one of the regular readers of this feature, you know that I have reported on some bizarre meeting rooms. The strangest was the meeting room that I reported on last week that consisted of three people who claimed to be Jesus Christ. Actually, this meeting room was set up by their therapists who thought that by meeting in virtual space and confronting each other's delusions, they might come to a more realistic self-assessment. Unfortunately, after hours of rancorous debate, the three patients came up with an ingenious compromise. One patient took on the identity of the Father, the second took on the identity of the Son, and the third took on the identity of the Holy Spirit, and as you might expect, the entire therapeutic strategy collapsed at that point.

This week, I stumbled upon a meeting room that is pure fun, the W. C. Fields Fan Club Meeting Room. Of course, being virtual, it doesn't meet anywhere in particular. If you want to become a part of the W. C. Fields Fan Club meeting room send a note to the following Global Landscape address:

W. C. Fields Fan Club
Global Landscape Box AZY-1234
Virtual California 23-45687

You must include an essay of 250 words or less on the theme "Why W. C. Fields is my Heroic Ideal". The officers of the Club will then decide whether your essay evidences a person who is W. C. Fan Club material.

In my case, the President of the W. C. Fields Fan Club, Clark Bentley, was pleased to have me join the festivities. So, last Saturday evening, I donned my virtual reality suit, executed my self-projection softbot software and before you could say W. C. Fields I was in this huge, bluish, but extremely peaceful room in virtual space.

As is customary with meeting rooms, the projections of the various participants sat in a circle, facing one another. This gives a meeting room a surreal atmosphere. Sitting in that blue space, I realized that I was rubbing elbows with the 48 most sincere, devoted fans of W. C. Fields on the entire planet. This is where his most devoted fans meet. This is where they commune with their hero, the plastered one.

I cannot emphasize enough how difficult it is to be admitted to a meeting room of this type. I have heard of other W. C. Field Fan Club meeting rooms, but this is the ultimate meeting room of that genre.

I looked around at the self-projections around me. Self-projection technology tends to create a life-like image of the person who has projected himself or herself into virtual space. Of course, there is nothing that prevents one from putting on a totally false personna in cyberspace, and indeed, there is a growing population of people that have developed a host of different cyber personalities. At the W. C. Fields Fan Club, the cyber images before me were a bit cartoon like and they did perhaps miss one or two personal flaws. People tend to project what they like about themselves and to suppress what they don't like.

The Club President, Clark Bentley, began the meeting by introducing me, a reporter from Silicon Valley. No one showed much interest in my presence, but then I realized that self-projection softbot software does not really capture emotions very well.

There was a general discussion of the purpose of the Fan Club and some recent applications that were received, all of which were rejected. I found out that no application is accepted on the first try. Since I was just there for this one meeting, in my capacity as a journalist, I was an exception to this rule.

The cyber fans sat around reminiscing about W. C. Fields and his movies when, out of the blue, literally, came W. C. Fields himself, or a convincing caricature of him, with bulging red nose, fedora, cigar, deck of cards and all.

He chased a younger member of our circle from his chair with the classic line, "Get away young man, you bother me!"

I was hardly prepared for the hoots and the howls that followed. The cartoon-like virtual people all laughed like that was the funniest thing that they had ever heard. W. C. Fields continued with his rude behavior, which I found blatantly offensive.

Then, he said, "I could use a bit of the ol' bubbly." He took a small flask out of his vest pocket, unscrewed the cap, and poured a liquid down his gullet with great aplomb. The Fan Club erupted in raucous laughter.

"He slays me when he does that!" the virtual woman who was seated to my left said, hardly able to catch her breath.

Just then I heard a shout. "Look!"

Emerging from the blue was an incredible form, tall, blonde and statuesque. Yes, it was ...

"Mae West!" A gasp went up from the assembled Fan Club, except for W. C. Fields who nervously riffled through his poker hand.

I never knew that the human body could move in so many different directions at the same time, but in any event, Mae West sauntered on past and gave me a wink. I'm not sure why she chose me, but she said, "Why don't you come up and see me some time?"

The reaction was electric, except that the man sitting to my right looked at me with his cartoon face, his voice dripping with resentment. "I'm jealous," he said, and I think he meant it.

"My little chickadee, what are you doing in these parts?" W. C. Fields asked, fiddling with his cards.

"I came to see how you were doin', honey bun," Ms. West replied, shaking her hips seductively.

Mae West then turned towards me and the rest of the assembled Fan Club and much to my surprise she gave a serious speech about the virtues of W. C. Fields. "I want you all, to know, that this is a good man, here, so you treat him with, respect," she said, with absolute seriousness, swaying her hips seductively at those points where I placed a comma.

The meeting lasted for one hour. I was impressed and somewhat frightened by the fanatical devotion that these fans showed W. C. Fields. But, that has been my experience time and again in cyberspace. These meeting rooms attract a lot of strange people, people who would have been totally isolated if it weren't for the ability of cyberspace to bring together those 48 eccentrics out of almost eight billion people who just happen to have the most intense desire to spend their Saturday evenings with the likes of W. C. Fields and Mae West.

When the meeting was over I thanked Mr. Bentley for his hospitality. I told him that I thought it was a good touch to have W. C. Fields himself show up at the meeting.

"That was totally unexpected," he said.

"What do you mean - totally unexpected?" I asked.

"Don't you understand? That guy was an escapee from a virtual mental hospital, where all the nuts go who think that they really are W. C. Fields, and the same goes for Mae West! She's one of the nuts out there that really thinks that she is Mae West. These weirdoes are always projecting their false images out into virtual space."

So, that's what we have out here in virtual space, meeting rooms for make-believe Christs, meeting rooms for make-believe W. C. Fieldses, meeting rooms for make-believe Mae Wests and meeting rooms for their devoted fans.



1997, 1999 Richard Gary Epstein

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