THIS is my first electronic town meeting and, frankly, I'm nervous. Some 900 of us have signed on to the CompuServe Information Service (CIS) to chat with Vice President Al Gore Jr. by computer about the electronic superhighway. Now here we are sitting on the on-ramp with 900 other participants, awaiting our first test drive. Will Mr. Gore get here before a stray electron sends us on a detour?
The crowd is revved. The link keeps kicking up a number - 87 - whose purpose isn't clear. And the typing is not `super,' it's kind of bumpy. Here's how some of the interview looked on the screen.
(#87,Herb Kane) CONSERVATIVES RULE!!!
(#87,Tony Hyde) wELL HELLO FROM SALT LAKE CITY
(#87,David Rogers) Not all CIS users are like this.
(#87,Nora Siri Bock) Mr. Greger, please kill the caps ... it's considered to be shouting and impolite.
Comments keep scrolling down my screen. Moderator Bill Allman of U.S. News & World Report magazine has come on-line to explain the rules, but the cyber-chat keeps interrupting. (U.S. News' on-line forum is hosting the event.)
Once the crowd realizes C-SPAN is televising what they type, no one can resist.
(#87,Joseph Pagano) Bob Dole is awesome!!
(#87,Jerry E. Sullivan) Hi Mom! Hi Dad! Wave...wave...wave
Finally, Mr. Allman is on-line again.
(#87,Bill Allman/US NEWS) Welcome, Mr. Vice President.
(#87,Vice President Gore) Welcome to the White House. Let's get started.
Immediately, Dion Douglas of Hammond, Ind., types in his question. Does Mr. Gore (he calls him ``Mr VP'') log onto networks? The vice president says he does. Then Aaron Dickey, home on break from New York University, gets his chance: Mr. Vice President ... Huntington, WV here. I'm a 23-year-old student. Myself, and most of my friends, are finding ourselves more and more, time spending - excuse me - in front our computers than in the ``real world.'' Are you at all worried that eventually we ALL may end up spending too much time (ba*iuXE&gt;&gt;ytoo line noise sorry) on the Net, and not enough time in face-to-face conversations/socialization?
(#87,Vice President Gore) Yes. But it's better than the same amount of time (#87,Aaron Dickey [HelpF) (line noise was my father picking up an extension, Mr. VP, sorry (grin).
(#87,Vice President Gore) Sorry. in front of a non-interactive ... screen. Plus ... soon, the nature of the interaction here will be enriched with full-motion video and much faster links, which I predict will lead to a renewed appetite for REAL communities. Hmmm. I can't wait for the video links.
Jacquelyn Close, a budding science-fiction novelist from Jackson, Mo., wants to know if the information superhighway could consolidate government environmental data. But she mistypes the word ``and'' so it comes out ``environmental data dna lab analyses.'' (``I was typing pretty fast,'' she explains later in a telephone interview.)
Gore seems to understand anyway. He says he'll take up the idea with his weekly environment idea group.
The questions start rolling in now. Ricardo Bunge of Mobile, Ala., asks where the information superhighway will have its greatest impact. (``Schools. Classrooms. At-home learning,'' Gore responds.) Others query about the home-bound disabled, Bosnia, and special-needs youths. George Nahon has logged on from Paris to send in his question about extending the information superhighway into a global network. (``Yes, at least to an extent,'' the vice president responds.)
Two more questions come in. Then Ben Huntoon asks: Hello from Reynoldsburg, home of the tomato! How will the federal government see to the fair and equal implementation of Internet technology among wealthy and poor school districts?
Gore: two days ago President Clinton and I are challenging all of the companies that do business in these industries to make a commitment to link up and provide free access to every classroom in their service areas.
And some of them are now pledging to do just that.
Then it's over. OK, the prose wasn't exactly the Gettysburg Address. But this is the first time a White House official has ever participated on an on-line forum. ``Let's do it again sometime soon,'' Gore taps on the keyboard before getting up to leave.
``Thought it went quite well,'' says Mr. Dickey, the student and also a system operator on CompuServe. ``The vice president obviously knows what he's doing.''