Eyewitness News in my Inbox

Computer Life column for May 30, 1998

Richard Gordon

The last several times I've mentioned e-mail, I've griped about the unsolicited marketing messages, the marketing messages you receive because you submitted your e-mail address somewhere on the Web, the steady stream of jokes some people insist on sharing, the conflicting graphics and file transfer styles of all the different e-mail packages, and other problems.

But last week, I received a reminder of how potent a tool for the good e-mail can be: I found e-mail from Sarge, an Australian friend whose company had sent him to Indonesia. His e-mail arrived a couple of days before President Suharto resigned.

He told several of his friends that "In the normal course of events I live in Jakarta, a big city full of friendly people, interesting night life and many luxuries. Unfortunately, Jakarta is not the city it used to be." He wrote that, even though he had been evacuated to a mine in the jungle, he was OK.

Sarge reported that the country's mood was both tense and hopeful. "People want change for the better. Basically, the economy took a dive, which caused people to suffer.

"People are scared. 'I hate my country now' was one comment I heard. Most people do not want the violence. The students don't want the violence, the army doesn't want the violence." He added that much of the fighting, shooting and looting may have been started by a relatively few "unethical elements" and then gotten out of hand.

His description of his temporary life in the jungles of Kalimantan--still recovering from forest fires over the past year--showed good humor, particularly as he described the monkeys who forage among the humans for food, occasionally chasing people.

He closed by asking us to "Please remember the poor people of Indonesia in your prayers and hope that this country survives."

Sarge's first-hand report reminded me of the ways the Net can build communities and how it can be used to tell the world what is happening in Burma, Russia, Indonesia, or even Wilmington.

First, it reminded me of how e-mail can bring people together. Sarge and I used to be rivals in an on-line soccer league in which both his virtual team and mine managed to stay in the top division for many, many seasons.

What started out as a game became an extremely generous community of friends. My electronic soccer rivals used to be among my most chatty of on-line correspondents. We've all written each other about the personal trials and triumphs that beset our lives. We've supplied job leads to each other, and I still receive the occasional soccer coaching tip from a chemist in New Zealand.

Should I ever want to circumnavigate the globe, I could find places to stay with the families of former rivals on five continents. I've had rivals from Finland, Baltimore, Australia, Virginia, Georgia, Seattle, and British Columbia stop by my house or meet me for a meal. In fact, when I think of Sarge, I remember him drinking a beer in my driveway while we watched a certain then-three-year-old who had fallen asleep in the car, or sitting in the rain at the Vet--pointing out to me and two co-workers how cricket makes more sense than baseball.

Second, Sarge's e-mail personalized for me the news reports about the unrest in Indonesia that I've heard on the radio and read on the Web and in the News Journal. It reminded me, on a smaller scale, of the e-mail that leaked from the old Soviet Union as it broke apart. The Soviet government shut down "regular" communication channels, but totally forgot about the Net. During some of the tensest weeks, a steady stream of eyewitness accounts appeared in electronic bulletin boards and inboxes in the West.

I don't claim that Sarge's e-mail was a ground-breaking scoop like e-mail from dissidents in other countries "getting the truth out" to the world at large. But it was still a compelling account that made me feel more personally connected with both my friend and with events in a far away land.

Copyright © 1998, The News Journal Company

Computer Life Index

Richard Gordon helps support faculty, staff and student computing at the University of Delaware. E-mail questions, comments or suggestions to richard@inet.net, or write him at The News Journal, Box 15505, Wilmington, DE 19850. Although each note cannot be answered individually, reader comments and questions will often be incorporated in future columns.