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Death in the Internet Café

(page 3)

A word processor is just a typewriter with delusions of grandeur…

Kerry Greenwood continues…

The publishers were muttering about typesetting from a disk. Oh no! A word processor? Me? Whom even bar-heater hated with impunity? Who can cause Windows to crash by walking into the room? Who with one hand and a bent coin or three can destroy a whole Supreme Court library full of photocopiers? To whom a thousand worried technicians have said, "I've never seen it do that before. What did you do to it?" "Nothing..."

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Besides, I hate that term. Word processor indeed. It sounds like all one has to do is to grab a handful of sheets from a dictionary, stuff them in the top, press the button and whiz! Freshly squeezed prose . . . A word processor is just a typewriter with delusions of grandeur.

I asked around. What sort should I buy - IBM or clone or Mac? Everyone I knew burst into rather wounding howls of laughter and recommended a Mac. "It's designed for very small children, Kerry," they said soothingly. "You can't fail to understand it." I have had people say, "You can't fail to understand it" about the construction and repair of a differential gear, the theory of quantum mechanics and mutations in Irish Gaelic grammar and I have failed to understand all of them with insolent ease.

With fear, trembling and a special adviser, I bought a Mac Classic, to the sneers of the IBM etc. persons who told me it was too simple. I smiled. Hah! Too simple, eh? They hadn't seen me fuse a whole suburb trying to get a piece of toast out of the toaster.

I gave myself six months to learn to use the Mac. It took four hours. They had this magical little person called Mr Apple who explained it all and let me make fish swim around the fishbowl and open a filing cabinet drawers. It was incredibly simple, just like they said. It's got a desktop so I didn't have to learn anything at all about computers.

"Ignorance is like a fruit. Touch it, and the bloom is gone," says Lady Bracknell, in The Importance of Being Ernest. I'm with her every time. I don't want to know how it works. It takes my prose, allows me to correct my spelling errors, and gives it back to me intact. That's all I want it to do.

It has the personality of a large friendly dog, though it has yet to leap up and lick my face. It squeaks at me when I'm about to do something irretrievable - like close a file without saving it - and I don't do it. It even has a fail safe. I can undo the previous command. It was designed for Luddites. I feel like I have a friend rather than Gabrielle Adler who was never more than an uneasy ally.

This is not without its embarrassment. I found out, from a spell-checker that I've been spelling 'receive' wrongly all these years. And 'villain'. And spell-checkers are prone to catch every slang word, so that I leaf through some pages with the bright alacrity of a tired elephant dragging logs thorough mud. But instead of the other things I used to waste my time with - like staring out the window, sharpening pencils, cleaning the fiddly bits at the frame of the typewriter, folding and unfolding paperclips - I can see what my prose looks like in Monaco or Palatino or Times. If all else fails, I can see how far I get through The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy this time before I get killed.

But I've noticed that now, making notes in court, I am writing typos. 'Hte' has made its appearance in my handwriting - not that anyone else could tell. 'Nad' is back. I think I probably need an entirely new database. This one might well be corrupt.
Sue Turnbull:
Sandra Scoppettone is an American writer whose series character is gay private investigator, Lauren Laurano. In the first of this series, Everything You Have is Mine, Lauren is called in to investigate the death of a young woman who has been murdered by someone she met through one of those 'lists' I mentioned earlier. In this case, the list serves as a kind of singles bar where people can meet and talk 'in cyberspace' and then, if they wish meet for real - 'F2F' or face to face. In order to trace the dead woman's movements, Lauren has to familiarise herself with the computer (and the curse of the 'cursor') and find out how the dead woman met her killer.

Lauren Laurano's experience points to the importance of having someone show you around the computer when you start - and how important for some women it is that this should be another woman. The plot of the book also makes it clear that the murdered girl died - not because of the computer but because of a man. She could as well have met him in a singles bar as on a computer. And I'm insisting on this here because I want to defuse the anxiety which seems to have built up around computers - and which crime fiction tends to encourage. Whatever we have to fear, it is not the computer but who uses it and for what purposes.

Here is another example of where the computer plays an indirect role in a murder. In Julie Smith's book, New Orleans Beat, policewoman Skip Langdon is investigating the death of a young man, Geoff Kavanagh, whom she finds out was a subscriber to a computer bulletin board called "The Town". She comes to suspect that it is the revelations which the young man made on "The Town" which might account for his death.

The book points to both the positive and private aspects of a group like "The Town" - its function as a support group and the problem of privacy and access. In other words, once you post to the group, anyone can read it and anyone can (with the right kind of computer and knowledge) know who and where you are.

Like a 'real town', cyberspace is full of nice people and not so nice, nasty people. (I must say, that in my experience, I've only met 'nice' people in my excursions into cyberspace.) But it we pursue the analogy of a town, you might just imagine that there are areas where you yourself might not want to go and might not feel comfortable.

However regrettable this is, you simply avoid these spaces. Unfortunately, there have been so many articles and reports about the 'dangers' of cyberspace that women have tended to be put off. I believe that an unintended outcome of Dale Spender's book, Nattering on the Net, is that she overemphasises the threat of stalking or harassment in the Net. Here is an e-mail I received from Val McDermid when I asked her if she had anything to tell us here tonight about her own experience of technology.

Your 'death in the cyberspace cafe' sounds a lot of fun. I had a rather unpleasant experience last year. It involved a British male crime writer who has enough chips on his shoulder to start a restaurant. In my role as a reviewer, I tend only to bother covering books that I like - why waste space on a negative review when you can use it to promote a worthwhile book?

But I had made an exception in this case because the writer in question had been self-promoting so obnoxiously and hyping himself up to the degree where I wanted to set the record straight and point out that actually, he wasn't the most perceptive and incisive writer of a female detective in the canon of crime fiction.

He took the opportunity at my own publisher's party at the Bouchercon to nail me to the wall and demand to know why I had given him a bad review and what I didn't like about his writing and that I only hated his book because I was one of those rabid feminist Sisters in Crime who hated men and didn't think he could write about women. I was somewhat taken aback by this; seldom have my accusers managed so many inaccuracies in so short a space!

Val McDermidShortly after thus, I got myself wired up to the Net and started dipping a tentative toe into the CompuServe forums. Imagine my surprise when I discovered, the very first time I dipped into one of these, that the first strand I pulled down contained a libellous statement about me and also suggested that SinC had rigged the Anthonys!

Not being given to keeping my gob shut in the face of such diabolical liberty-taking, I weighed in and found myself, over the following weeks, the victim of a vicious vendetta at the hands of this male writer. He was offensive at every opportunity, snide and underhand, but seldom making remarks that could be pinned down as direct flames. When I did respond, he twisted my words and claimed I'd implied things that you'd have to be more twisted than Freddy Krueger to read into my posts. It even reached the point where he accused me and a fellow woman crime writer of having him black-listed by his publisher and taking the bread out of his children's mouths.

This was the point at which I declared war. I spoke to my agent, an editor at his (by then former) publishing house, but most of all, I protested at great length. in detail and forcefully, to the sysop and wizop (those people who monitor and control the list), who of course had not understood what was going on because of the coded terms which this man was using to harass me and other woman writer (whose only crime had been to support me).

… you can take action against harassment, particularly if you threaten service providers where it hurts them most - in the wallet - Val McDermid

But what really made an impact on them was that I explained in words of one syllable that if they didn't sort this guy out for good and all, I would leave CompuServe and find another service provider, and make damned sure the world knew exactly what I'd done and why. And given that I am a former national newspaper journalist. . . It was this corporate blackmail which did the trick, I suspect. Anyway, the wizop weighed in. I later heard in a private e-mail from one of the syops that the writer in question had been told in no uncertain terms that if he harassed either of us again on the for a that he would be thrown off. Since when, he has been good as gold.

The moral being that you can take action against harassment, particularly if you threaten service providers where it hurts them most - in the wallet.

I hope the evening is a great success.

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