Please knock before entering brave new worlds of computer networks

EVER since the American television series ``Star Trek,'' I've wanted a transporter. That's the room-sized machine that zapped people to new planets and other spaceships. No commuting time. No airports.

Every so often an ion storm or force-field would delay things. But at least no one lost your bags.

The computer industry hasn't built the transporter yet. But it has come up with new worlds. They're called Multi-User Dimensions (MUDs). Most people use MUDs to play role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, but their potential is far greater.

In Research Triangle Park, N.C., network specialists want to build a MUD for children. ``It makes students major communicators,'' says Laura Craighead, who works for the Clearinghouse for Networked Information Discovery and Retrieval and runs her own Star Trek MUD. ``Instead of writing about what the world will be like 20 years from now, they could build it, and all the world could walk through it.''

So far the bricks and mortar of MUDs are words. Participants build new rooms and spaces by describing them. ``Considering how incredibly primitive the technology is ... people seem to find them extremely engaging,'' says Pavel Curtis, a researcher at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center in California.

Users have met future spouses, found friends, and even gotten jobs through contacts made on MUDs.

Intrigued by the possibilities, Dr. Curtis built LambdaMOO. (The ``MOO'' in the name means it's an advanced, object-oriented MUD.) In 3-1/2 years, LambdaMOO has grown from four users to 8,300.

During peak times, nearly 200 people are on-line at once. ``That society has become a coherent society, with self-regulatory powers, with a democracy, with formal procedures for conflict resolution,'' Curtis says. ``You have to think: `Golly, something real is going on here.' ''

Conversation in LambdaMOO is different than electronic mail because it happens in real time. It's better than Internet chat lines because it takes place in a space that's explicitly defined.

In the living room of LambdaMOO, for example, is an electronic cockatoo. Every so often it repeats (in text form) a random snatch of a previous conversation, like: ``Boy, I have a lot of physics homework to do!'' Users who don't like the cockatoo can gag it for 15 minutes. But the control isn't absolute. The bird gets at least one squawk before it can be gagged again.

Similar MUDs are springing up: BioMOO for the world's biologists (telnet on the Internet to bioinfo.weizmann.ac.il - port 8888); MediaMOO (purple-crayon.media.mit.edu - port 8888) for media researchers.

You can try to log onto LambdaMOO (lambda.xerox.com - port 8888), but beware. This spring its citizens decided to limit growth from some 50 newcomers a day to five. I suspect more limits will come.

In physical society, we set many barriers half-submerged. They're known but never acknowledged. The exclusive suburb stays exclusive because no one else can afford it. In electronic space, there's no way to tell the wrong side of the tracks.

Short of a utopia, where we all intercommunicate, citizens of electronic communities will probably set up explicit barriers - often legitimately, sometimes out of prejudice. ``There may be parts of cyberspace that you won't go into,'' Curtis says.

So maybe my Star Trek dreams are over. ``Beam me to that bright blue planet?'' ``Boldly go where no one has gone before?'' Hah! In electronic space, I'll probably have to knock first.

* Send your comments to CompuServe (70541,3654) or Prodigy (BXGN44A). Let's rap.

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