Essay: Oscar Schwartz

The Joy and Misery of Cybersex

The Joy of Cyber Sex front and back cover

It is a day when compulsion is getting the better of me. I have plenty of work to do, and a clear list written, setting out my day, task by task. But after breakfast, I spend too much time checking emails and Twitter in that first crucial hour, and so, throughout the rest of the morning I am distracted. I feel compelled, in an almost physical way, to check my email and Twitter at the end of every task. And then, if I go to the bathroom or get a glass of water, my phone accompanies me, and I’m looking at things on Instagram. No escape. It is now 12.30pm, and so far, entirely unproductive. I have an unpleasant droning in my head that comes from the endless feed of other people’s thoughts.

To break the cycle, I decide to take a walk up to the shops near my house, without my phone. It is the dry season in Darwin. The contrast between the screen and the sky is stark. I walk up a back alley that is littered with dead palm fronds to a small shopping precinct called Rapid Creek Business Village. It’s a one-story brick arcade, painted in fluoro reds and blues.

There are a few small businesses at the Rapid Creek shops – an accountant, a barber, a travel agent – but mostly the vendors sell food and groceries. Out the front is Happy Foodland, a small grocer that sells over forty-five varieties of instant noodles (and also, grog). There is Rapid Café, a Japanese restaurant that makes udon noodle soup. Next door is King of Yiros, a Greek café; the owners keep a budgie in a cage out the front, and it screams at anyone walking past. Inside the arcade there is an Indian grocer, a Thai massage place, a Polynesian canteen, an African shop and an organic grocer called Greenies.

Greenies has a ‘share table’ at the front where people leave old clothes, shoes, magazines, toys, and books. I glance at the titles: Cosmos by Carl Sagan, Eat Pray Love, a travel guide book for Peru, The Secret to Hot Pot Cooking – and The Joy of Cybersex by Carol Parker.

The last book catches my eye. The front cover depicts Marilyn Monroe sitting on the floor with one knee to her chest and the other kicking out straight up in front of her head. She is wearing a gold, low-backed mini dress and matching high heels. Behind her is a spiral microchip, gold like Monroe’s dress, covered in pink, purple and green ribbons, which are being sucked into a black hole at the spiral’s centre. Monroe is being pulled into this digital vortex, too, and judging by her open-mouthed smile, she seems ready or excited for whatever awaits her on the other side. I pick up the book and turn it over. The blurb reads:

Gersh: Let’s go someplace quiet honey … I can see you need to relax.

Geekgirl: It’s not all I need : )

And so begins Australian Carol Parker’s long and torrid journey into the world of cybersex, a world that will eventually take over her marriage, her work and most of her waking life…

I take a seat at the bench in front of Greenies and open to the title page. The full title reads, The Joy of Cybersex: Confessions of an Internet Addict. It was published by a company called Mandarin in Melbourne in 1997. I flick through to the Preface, which begins: ‘This is a book about addiction to chatting on the internet, a subject still very unfamiliar to many people’. Not only is the idea of internet addiction foreign to the Australian public in 1997, but the internet as technology seems to be unfamiliar enough to warrant a detailed explanation. Carol writes:

The way my words find their way to my friend some 12,000 miles away is amazing. ‘Hello’ might be the first word I type. The program converts the text to data packets, which it then sends down the telephone line to my ISP, which then sends it off to the next available part of the network, which in turn send it one, and so on. The letter ‘H’ might be routed through a completely different path to the letter ‘e’; each letter is addressed to my friend, along with information about where it came from, the order in which it should appear and the size, colour, etc. Within seconds all the letters arrive, are sorted into the right order and are displayed on my friend’s computer for him to read. That simple ‘Hello’ might have been around the world before finding its way to a particular computer, say, in Pennsylvania.

I’ve always enjoyed the semi-utopian narratives authored by early internet users, how they often describe the online text-world as a space for exploration, unimpeded sociality, and electronic intimacy. I am also intrigued by Carol Parker, who seems to have been part of some sort of internet vanguard in Australia in the 1990s. I wonder what she’s doing now, and how the book ended up on a free table outside an organic grocer in Rapid Creek Business Village. I pocket the book and walk home.

Once I’m back, I go directly to my iPhone and take a picture of the front cover of my new book. I tweet: ‘An absolute gem at the free books table outside local organic grocer. From 1997.’ I attach the picture and send. I get a total of 10 likes and four comments. Instead of getting back to work, I skim the introductory chapter, which is titled, ‘Hi, my name is Caz and I’m an Internet Chataholic’. Carol reports that she is writing these introductory notes at her favourite cafe, with pen and paper, a ‘latte by my side’, which is her way of getting physical distance, or escaping from, the computer; ‘I find it hard to be at my computer for long spells,’ she writes, ‘and not go looking for my friends online’.

Despite the pulpy title and cover, the book narrates a deeply unsettling and tumultuous year – 1995 to 1996 – Carol spent exploring ‘cyberspace’, spanning from an initial period of self-discovery and experimentation to internet addiction. Carol’s marriage ends, she enters numerous new romances, moves from Melbourne to Perth, and then travels from Perth to San Francisco to meet her online ‘soulmate’. In some ways, Carol’s story is that of the 1990s. The internet is a ‘virtual’ space for identity exploration, experimental anonymity and text-based intimacy. On the other hand, the themes Carol outlines feel relevant to 2017: the internet is a place of constant stimulation, endless communication, of addiction and compulsion, of misery, a dazzling vortex and a black hole. ‘I was as addicted to chatting as others are to drugs, alcohol or gambling,’ she writes.

I close the book, and go back on Twitter on my phone. I click reply to my earlier tweet about The Joy of Cybersex. ‘Interesting. The book ends up being a super early discussion of internet addiction.’ This tweet gets three likes.

The Joy of Cybersex sits on my dining table, unread, for the next few weeks, until I pick it up one afternoon when I have some time off. The narrative begins in June, 1995. Carol is living in Melbourne with her husband, Mitch, and three children, aged four, six and fourteen. She is 34 years old. Carol works from home, developing the ‘electronic publishing’ business that Mitch set up a few years earlier. Both are early adopters of the internet. They spend a lot of time on chat groups or searching for interesting things on the nascent world wide web. Carol sometimes catches Mitch, late at night, looking up pornographic images, a novelty.

The first chat program Carol joins is called Worlds Chat. Like many early chat programs, Worlds Chat is a virtual realm where embodied avatars walk around talking to one another. Carol chooses an Alice in Wonderland avatar and calls herself Alicia. As she explores this new world, she is captivated by being able to speak to people from different countries at the same time. ‘It felt like I was actually inside the computer, interacting with these people,’ she writes. (I remember a similar chat program called Alphaworld that we used in my family when I was eight or nine. I chose an alien avatar, and I spent hours walking around speaking to people from all over the world. I remember discussing with my cousin how soon we would be able to put on virtual reality headsets and actually feel like we were inside these other worlds, and maybe one day even live there. But these video-game-like virtual worlds were soon replaced by far simpler text-based chat sites like mIRC or MSN Messenger, which were less about exploration of a ‘virtual village’ and more about socialising with people you already knew. It’s as if we collectively decided to retreat from these immersive scenes of virtuality.)

Carol also discovers that she gets a lot of attention from male-identifying avatars. She begins flirting, something she hasn’t done during ten years of marriage. The rush she gets from flirting online helps Carol realise that she is ‘in a rut’. She begins reflecting on her marriage. She recalls how Mitch had a one-night stand four years earlier when she was recovering from child birth. ‘I was devastated,’ she writes. ‘My reactions ranging from anger that he hadn’t just kept it to himself to visions of murder.’

Worlds Chat is where Carol escapes to, and acts out minor recapitulations of a life she lived before marriage, when she was a model and ‘deep in the nightclub scene’ in Sydney. ‘Online I could be what I wanted to be: young, beautiful, tough, witty, all-round party girl, almost like stepping back in time to my single days.’ Carol designs herself a new avatar based on an anime character – Kei from The Dirty Pair – a red-haired woman who wears a head-band and a silver-white combat bikini with knee high boots. She changes her name from Alicia to ‘geekgirl’.

Over the next few weeks, Carol spends most of her spare time on Worlds Chat. She meets a man called Kingwood, who teaches her, or geekgirl, some secret tricks built into the software, like how to float rather than walk through the virtual corridors. She feels her ‘first tingle of cyber love’ for Kingwood – reminiscent of a crush she had on her high school science teacher. She begins to call him Woody. ‘I realised how much I missed the ‘in love’ feeling that comes in the early stage of any romance,’ she writes, ‘and the interaction that takes place on the internet allows us to fulfil this desire to feel loved so easily’. Around this time, Mitch becomes suspicious of Carol’s activities online. He tells her that chat programs are for ‘geeks or losers’. Carol starts to go on Worlds Chat at night when Mitch is asleep to avoid fights. The secrecy of her chats, particularly with Kingwood, only increases their pleasure. The computer, the internet, Worlds Chat – an assemblage of hardware, software, and humans – is suffused with anxious intimacy.

While Carol immediately intuits the pleasures of online intimacy, it is only after a few months that she becomes curious about how virtual relationships may become sexual. She approaches a friend on Worlds Chat called Gersh, who has often told geekgirl about the joys of cybersex. Gersh is married, but he and his wife are both Worlds Chat users. They both enjoy experimenting with sexual expression through text, sometimes separately and sometimes together. Carol asks Gersh to guide her through her first experience. They have ‘cyber’ for two hours. Carol describes it as ‘the wildest sex of my life’, that ‘it had seemed so intensely real’. The cybersex scenes are portrayed as transcripts copied directly from their chat dialogue. For internet chat, they strike me as highly composed and considered, almost professionally done. Carol explains that like sex itself, one must get better at cyber; proficiency is a matter of practice, self-reflection, refinement, and attunement. The experience is so satisfying, she reflects, because one perceives their own improvement. ‘Finding the right words to describe my imagined actions is so satisfying,’ she writes, ‘that I am as turned on by my own input as my partner’s.’ But what she enjoys most about cybersex is ‘the variety and ability to explore different aspects of my sexuality’. She says that cybersex also allows her to re-examine her bisexuality, which she feels had been stifled since her marriage. There is also a transcript in which she has sex with a person pretending to be a crocodile.

Mitch becomes more paranoid about Carol’s internet use, and the couple engage in a Cold War through her computer. He installs a key capture program in her computer so he can read everything she types. She uninstalls it. He starts reading her emails. She deletes them. Mitch then goes overseas to work for a month. Without his controlling presence, Carol plunges into an online binge. She stops working for Mitch, does the minimum required to feed the kids and get them to school, and spends over ten hours a day chatting. In this one month period, the house becomes filthy, she puts on a lot of weight, and the power is momentarily cut off when she forgets to pay a bill. When Mitch returns he is furious. He imposes a regime of changing the password to Carol’s computer every day, so that only he can give her access, which is doled out as small rewards for housework and time spent with him and the kids. When he does give her the password, she refuses to get off the computer until he pulls the plug. They fight, sometimes physically. On Boxing Day, 1995, Mitch leaves the family to live with his sister in Sydney.

Carol starts talking about her problems with Mark, another man she’s met online. Mark suggests that Carol be honest with Mitch about what she uses chat for, why she feels like it fills a hole in her life. Mitch returns from his sister’s. They have an honest conversation. Mitch says that he feels completely shut out from her emotionally. Carol tells him that she has been having relationships online, both sexual and emotional. She tells him that she is in love with a man called Mark, but that she still wants Mitch to be her husband, that it is possible to love two people at once. She writes: ‘I showed him the emails Mark had sent me, the poems and prose we shared and explained that this was filling a gap in my life that Mitch never could… I explained that what I had with Mark was a special kind of love not easily found in real life. We had developed this special bond precisely because we had no physical relationship.’ Mitch and Carol stay together, but then Mitch suddenly leaves to work in London shortly after for six months.

Over the next few months, Carol meets another man online called Dave, to whom she feels an immediate and inexplicably strong connection. At around the same time, Carol finds out the Mitch has started a new relationship with a woman in London. To distract herself, Carol begins using chat sites compulsively, but finds herself often crying while at the computer. She feels profoundly lonely, and understands that she is trapped in a cycle of ameliorating loneliness through the gratification of novel friendships. She identifies herself as an ‘internet addict’, and decides to take some time ‘AFK’ or ‘away from the keyboard’. She relocates with her family to Perth, where her mother lives, and rents a small house in Fremantle with a veggie patch and chickens in the garden.

Geekgirl disappears. The only relationship Carol develops online during this period is with Dave, whom she emails often. Their relationship develops at a distance, and is more reminiscent of romance through letters (like Kafka and his lover, Felice Bauer, who maintained an affair through letters for years, were engaged twice, but never married. ‘Nothing unites two people so completely especially if, like you and me, all they have is words,’ Kafka writes to Bauer in one letter). But unlike her other relationships on the internet, Carol is immediately overcome by a desire to meet Dave ‘in real life’, so they make a plan. He lives in Pennsylvania, but they agree on San Francisco as a neutral zone. They exchange photos, transgressing the bounds of text and imagination in which their love has developed. Carol is paranoid that Dave won’t find her physically attractive. He is also nervous. ‘I snore’, he writes. ‘So do I’, she responds.’ ‘I have developed acne because of stress.’ ‘I have a crooked front tooth.’ ‘I chew my nails’.

In June 1996, a year after Carol first started chatting online, she arrives at the Savoy Hotel in San Francisco. She unpacks and showers. One hour later Dave arrives. When Carol opens the door, her lover’s materiality, his ‘realness’, is overwhelming. ‘I wanted to touch everything, like a blind person learning the contours of a face.’ She holds him and explores his body as if she had been denied access to the real, as if the virtual, which had previously been a place to escape the real, had become a vortex or black hole of unfulfilled desires, from which she now sought to escape to embodied presence. Carol and Dave have an idyllic two weeks together road tripping in southern California.

Yet there is an unreality to this affair. It almost feels like a level up in Worlds Chat – or a bonus round – where the virtual momentarily breaks into the world and makes it, for a moment, fully scriptable, under the control of the user, but only for a moment, until the constraints of the real reassert themselves. Dave is still married and has kids. Carol has children waiting for her in Western Australia. The book ends with Carol returning to Fremantle alone. They maintain a long distance relationship via email and promise each other that they will be together soon. She misses him, and once again often finds herself crying in front of the computer. The book ends in a great deal of uncertainty about the future, both personally – will she end up with Dave? – and at a broader social level – how will we integrate this new social technology, and its capacity for joy and misery, into our cultural frameworks?

At the back of the book there is an appendix that briefly discusses internet addiction as it was understood in 1997. Carol laments that there is a paucity of scholarly work on the matter, and offers some diagnostic methods and advice for dealing with this addiction. For me, The Joy of Cybersex, in its entirety, offers an early theory of, or more precisely a phenomenology of, internet use. Her year of intense use appears to be a process of escaping to and escaping from. She escapes her ‘real life’, and its various constraints, to a virtual secondary reality where she has more control, where she can satisfy desires otherwise unsatisfied. The price of this control and gratification, it seems, is loneliness. ‘In many ways falling in love on the Internet is like holding up a mirror,’ Carol writes. This self-love can be emancipatory, but also a profoundly isolating experience, as one is forced to confront themselves, their holes and empty places with stark clarity; they find themselves in love again and again, yet always alone. The antidote to this loneliness, Carol suggests, is an attempt to escape from the internet, to reintroduce oneself to the real, whose uncontrollable, indeterminate constraints feel, for some reason, easier to comprehend and settle on.

In the years since Carol wrote her book, the literature on internet addiction has grown significantly. There are numerous theories, interventions, treatment plans, documentaries and TED talks dealing with the topic. Yet there is something I find compelling about Carol’s personal account, which, when she was writing it, must have felt like reaching out into the dark. As I finish her long-forgotten book, I wonder what Carol makes of the internet now – with iPhones, 4G, Facebook and Twitter – when the process of ‘escaping to’ and ‘escaping from’ does not happen over a year, but over dinner? I wonder whether she is still writing about the internet, whether she moved to San Francisco with Dave and has since become a tech entrepreneur, or whether she doubled-down on her ‘escape from’, and has become a Neo-Luddite of sorts, warning others to disconnect and build a chicken coop in the garden instead.

To find Carol Parker I start with a basic Google search: ‘Carol Parker The Joy of Cybersex’. The first hit is her book on Amazon. I click through to the author’s name to see if Carol has written any other books. No. I scroll down. The book has one Amazon review, by someone called Candice Hooper, who read the book in May 2004. Candice gives the book four out of five stars, and was captivated by the scene where geekgirl has sex with a crocodile. (The only other item Candice has reviewed on Amazon is a Shrek DVD, which she gives five out of five stars.) I scroll down further to the ‘About the Author’ section. It says:

39 year old Carol Parker, UK born Australian bred and now about to marry her American love of 3 years. Carol has 3 children and works as a graphic designer and programmer for clients using the popular The Palace software. Since the release of The Joy of Cybersex in Australia, Carol has featured in many popular women’s magazines and appeared on A Current Affair and day time talk shows. She is also a contributor to The Australian newspaper.

I click back to original Google search results for more information. A few results below is the National Library of Australia Catalogue. I click through. This tells me that Carol Parker was born in 1960, and that her publisher, Mandarin, was an imprint of Reed Books. This publisher, since gone under, seems to have specialised in Australian non-fiction, with a particular interest in early tech and internet culture. (One of their more successful books was Underground, an exploration of hacking written by Suelette Dreyfus and Julian Assange, published in 1997.) Reed Books no longer have an active website, so I can’t find any more information about Carol there.

I then search ‘Carol Parker Fremantle’ on Facebook. It returns one result. The profile picture is of an animated woman who looks like a Navi from the movie Avatar. She has etchings in her face, making her skin look like a mythological motherboard, which seems promising. I click through. This Carol Parker lives in New York, and she looks too young to be the author. I then search for Carol Parker on Facebook in Pennsylvania, San Francisco, Melbourne and Sydney, but find no matches. I begin to think that maybe Carol Parker doesn’t have Facebook, that its insistence on a real name and real pictures and real birthdays contravenes the experimental ethos of the internet she loved in the 1990s, that Carol Parker has disconnected, removed herself from the virtual, escaped back it into the real, leaving behind only a book and, perhaps, a few ghostly avatars in obsolete chat groups.

I remember that Carol’s Amazon author profile says that she wrote for The Australian. I go to the Access World News database and search all the Australian newspapers for ‘Carol Parker’ bylines from 1996 to 1999. Nothing. I search ‘cybersex’, again from 1996 to 1999. The first result is a review of Nora Ephron’s 1998 movie, You’ve Got Mail, written by David Stratton. (In this movie, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks fall in love over email, like a joyful and innocent Kafka and Bauer with blond hair and a happy ending. I wonder whether Carol watched it, whether she liked it, whether its happy ending matched her experience of online love, or whether the sweetness left a bitter taste.) A few results down is an article titled ‘Getting It Online’, published in The Australian Magazine, 1998. It is written by Carole Parker. It begins, ‘forget about dating, STDs and other physical nasties – soon you’ll never have to have sex with a real person again’. This must be her.

In the first half of the article, Carol (or Carole) extols the wonders of cybersex: it is experimental, gender-bending, accessible, allows women more sexual freedom. In the second half of the article, she makes some broader predictions about how the internet will change our lives, and what it means to be human, in the coming decades. Adopting the overdetermined tone of a Silicon Valley tech-utopian, she predicts a world of total connection where ‘the distinction between virtual and real life will be almost impossible to discern’. Everyone will be plugged in, even those ‘uptight luddites’ who will use the internet to discuss mundane, everyday things like antiques and needlepoint. She imagines a transhumanist future in which the ‘body may just become the lump of flesh you leave behind as soon as you send your inner self off into the ether… We won’t have to be fat, old, ugly or even the same gender unless we choose to. We will re-invent ourselves at will.’ Indeed, Carol concludes that for lonely people worldwide, the ubiquitous internet will be ‘the most empowering thing that has ever happened’. This rhetoric takes me by surprise. The tone has nothing of the uncertainty of Carol in the book. She doesn’t talk about addiction, misery, or her own mediated loneliness. Perhaps the network delivered true love in physical form after all? Maybe things between her and Dave worked out, and she lives in San Francisco, in a state of permanent fantasy? Maybe the internet delivered her not from the real to the virtual, but from the old real to a new real, a better real, an updated self, a version-improved future?

Still, I have no way of contacting Carol Parker. As a long shot, I type ‘Carole Parker’ into Google. I scroll down a bit and see a business profile on Etsy for a Carole in Western Australia. I click through. It’s an online vintage clothes shop. The About page describes the business, and the woman who runs it. She says that she started sewing at age 15, after which she became a fashion designer and model in Sydney. This corroborates with the biographical information in the book. There is also a hyperlink to her Facebook account. I click through. In the profile picture, which is heavily filtered with a nostalgia-type lens, as if to make it seem like analogue film, Carole Parker has shortly cropped hair and red glasses. Her basic information says she lives in Perth, and that she is originally from the UK. Yes, this must be her.

Back on her Etsy site, Caz has left a mobile number for customers. As I dial it into my phone, I feel like I am violating the ethic of anonymity that Caz once treasured about the internet. But then again, isn’t this simply part of the vision Caz held for the future in her article, a side-product of the ecstasy of total connection, a reality in which we are never alone, even if we want to be?

The phone rings five times, and then an answer. ‘Hello?’

‘Hi, is that Carol Parker?’

‘Yes, it is.’ She sounds like she’s getting ready to hang up on a telemarketer. I introduce myself and tell about how I found her book outside an organic grocer in Darwin, that I read it, and I’m interested in talking to her about the internet.

‘Oh my god,’ she says. ‘My skeletons’. She laughs loudly. She tells me she can’t talk right away, as she has a dress to make by the evening, but that I can call back in a few hours.

‘One more thing,’ she says. ‘How did you get my number?’ I explain that it is on her Etsy profile.

While waiting to call Caz back, I pick up Emily Witt’s book, Future Sex, which I read earlier this year, and had thought about a lot while reading The Joy of Cybersex. There are several correspondences between these two books, published twenty years apart. Both are about the intersections between technology and sexuality. Both authors are in their thirties, and feel, in some way, bound by the constraints of monogamy. For Carol, this is marriage to Mitch. For Witt, who is single at the time of writing, it is the idea, or expectation, that she will fall in love with one person relatively soon, and that this relationship will be the beginning and end of her real love life – she refers to this as her ‘monogamous destiny’. For both, technology presents itself as a way of escaping monogamous destiny, or offers a way to explore sexual identity outside of this constraining ideal. And both end up in San Francisco, where ‘the combination of computers and sexual diversity is especially concentrated,’ as Witt observes.

Like Carol, Witt intuits how the internet offers access to a world of new potential experiences: ‘I could dress as a nun and get spanked by a person dressed as the pope. I could watch a porn starlet hula hoop on my computer while I had sex with a battery operated prosthetic’. But Witt opts for safer internet-mediated experiences. She tells the story of meeting a man on OkCupid Local (which matches you with people in your area, so you can meet right away). They get a drink, kiss, go back to his apartment. He shows her his marijuana plants, they talk about Brazil, and then Witt goes home. This experience allows Witt to momentarily escape her reality, to be in the company of a stranger, and to be whoever she wants to be in that moment.

Nevertheless, the two decades spanning between 1997 and 2017 generate real differences in the internet as a cultural and social technology. First, instead of sneaking off to the computer to log on to chat groups like Carol, Witt spends her time endlessly refreshing feeds on her phone. This is not unusual or compulsive behaviour; the internet suffuses her life entirely. (As it does mine. By 1997 standards, most of us are internet addicts.) Second, the dating apps that Witt uses are not designed to foster intimacy, to maximise the possibility of finding ‘real world’ intimacy or sexual gratification. They are conduits for love rather than loving places. The best example would be Tinder, where chatting is generally considered a means to an end, not an opportunity for a new type of virtual relationship. Witt is aware of the difference between her experiences and those of an earlier generation like Carol’s. ‘Nobody I knew readied themselves on a Friday night for a hot night in a virtual village’, she writes, adding that ‘the ‘virtual village’ most people used now, the publicly traded social networks, did not have the designated orgiastic corners that the old chat forums had always sustained.’

Perhaps this reveals something about the ever-shrinking distance between the internet as virtual and ‘the world’ as real life, an opposition that is so clearly distinguished in Carol’s book, but that is nebulous in Witt’s. While Carol chats with men online for a year, and only once goes to meet one of them, Witt is constantly meeting new men in the flesh. She matches with a good-looking guy on a dating app, they chat briefly, and then they meet. He shows her his tattoos and tells her that they’re mistakes but he doesn’t regret them. The initial enticement that happens online – the moment that Carol describes as one in which each avatar projects their desires on to the other – is interrupted far too quickly by the real. The mediated space between strangers has become too narrow to allow for the kind of drawn out fantasies that Carol experiences on Worlds Chat. The internet, Witt writes, ‘had evolved to present the world around us, the people in our immediate vicinity, and to fulfil the desires of a particular moment. At no point did it offer guidance in what to do with such a vast array of possibility… the technology promised nothing. It brought us people, but it did not tell us what to do with them.’ This fosters a new type of loneliness, not that of looking forever in the mirror, but always at a faceless crowd.

When I call Carol back she tells me that she doesn’t really remember much about the book, or writing it; The Joy of Cybersex has long been forgotten, and she’s happy about that. It was a difficult time. She’d prefer if her children didn’t read it.

After The Joy of Cybersex was published, Carol had a brief moment of minor fame. She was invited on A Current Affair, and the Kerri-Anne Show. Then life returned to normal. She was still with Dave, long distance, and for the next five years, she would travel to Pennsylvania to see him when she could afford it. They even started a web development company together called Duck Soup. In the end, though, the relationship didn’t work out because neither were willing to leave their children behind and relocate. ‘But we’re still friends on Facebook,’ Carol adds. ‘We sometimes message each other.’

After the relationship with Dave ended, Carol settled in Fremantle, and enrolled at university, studying English literature and media. She started a new relationship and quickly became pregnant. She finished her degree and concentrated on raising her children. In the decade since, she worked a number of jobs: she opened a wood-fired pizza shop, worked as a carer for people with disabilities, and now she is selling vintage clothes. She also has a new partner, whom she met online. (They live together in the physical world).

As Caz talks about her life after 1997, I think about how futures are always eventually contained by lives, which are constrained. I ask her if she feels that the unbridled promise she felt for the internet in the 1990s has diminished, whether she has become cynical about devices and social networks. She tells me she doesn’t think the internet has changed much in the past two decades. We still chat and flirt. It’s just more widespread. I ask her whether she thinks the boundaries between the real and the virtual have been reconfigured now that we are connected all the time, now that we do our banking, share photos, socialise, hook up, shop via the internet; whether the internet as place to disappear into, to explore, to become someone else has been expunged by the banality of transferring cash to a friend via a banking app after dinner. She tells me that there are still places to escape online, if that’s what you’re looking for. She was using Second Life a lot for a while. She worked as a DJ and even owned a nightclub. ‘I got really into it, but then felt a twinge of addiction and thought ‘oh no, here we go again’. So I actually just gave up using it altogether.’

She also tells me she doesn’t like using her phone, that it might be her age, but that she’ll happily leave home without it, or not look at it for hours at a time. But yes, she agrees, we are all addicted to the internet. I think about my use of Twitter, how I can be compulsive, how Twitter can sometimes be a place I want to escape from. Carol tells me that a few years ago there was a Worlds Chat reunion on Facebook, where she caught up with some old internet friends.

‘How many people used Worlds Chat?’ I ask.

‘I remember once there was a big celebration because there were 200 people logged in at the same time.’ She pauses. ‘Ok, if you’ve got everything you needed, I should be off.’ We say goodbye.

Later in the evening I get a message from Carol on Facebook telling me that in the late 90s she went to a Worlds Chat convention in Las Vegas. She met her internet friends there, but they were not that different to their online personas; even the nonhuman avatars people used made sense once she met them in real life. I ask whether she was with Dave at the convention. Yes, she says. I ask her whether people called her Carol or geekgirl there. She says Carol, she was only geekgirl online. I imagine that it must’ve been exciting to go to an internet chat conference in Las Vegas as a young Australian woman, that Carol must’ve felt at the centre of something, part of a secret that was going to upend the world, which she already understood intimately. I ask her if she misses that part of her life, Worlds Chat, the community of relatively early internet people.

‘It’s bittersweet,’ she types. ‘I had a lot of fun. I don’t have time now and my fifteen-year-old is showing me how she plays Sunshine of Your Love on ukulele, which is more important to me.’

A few days later, at lunchtime, I need to buy onions for dinner, so I walk to Greenies, and take The Joy of Cybersex with me. As I place it back on the share table, another book catches my attention. It is called Life Extension: A Practical Scientific Approach. This is a fat book, written by Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw. I flip the book over and see the authors’ faces on the back. They have early 80s haircuts and forced, terrifying smiles. I think that the escape they are attempting is bolder, more futile, more dangerous, than Carol’s. I head home, with this new book in hand, eyes on my phone, busily searching details about the book, its cultish authors, its critics. I take a photo of the cover, and tweet it, almost tripping over palm fronds in the alley behind my house, lost in a world happening somewhere between my mind, and a million other connected minds. Meanwhile, in this world, I have forgotten to buy the onions.

Note: Some details have been changed for privacy reasons.

Works cited

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Franz Kafka. Letters to Felice. Schocken (New York): 2016.
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Emily Witt. Future Sex. Farrar Straus and Giroux (New York): 2016.