|We have met the enemy|
|Written by Nelson KingHits : 434|
|Thursday, 31 December 1998 19:00|
At about noon on a very cold day in Eastern Europe, I was picking my way through the ice patches toward the university. The cobblestones bent my ankles in 40 directions, making it difficult to avoid the slippery spots. I was trying to hurry to be on time for a lunch meeting with a man who administers a computer facility at the university.
I didnÕt know much about Vladimir (not his real name) except that he was in his late 30s and was one of the top three physics students in the Soviet university system. After the empire disintegrated, he lost interest in physics and found interest in computing. In post-Soviet times, computer jobs pay more than math and physics, I was told. The meeting was set up because Vladimir had been informed I was an expert in Internet telephony. IÕm not, but I figured this was a good opportunity to talk with somebody who is familiar with the computing scene in Eastern Europe.
Although many buildings at the university have been renovated (the grime blasted off the exterior, the interior repainted), the one I was heading for had not. It looked heavily used, not like the dank and drippy industrial atmospherics you see in horror movies, but a kind of dimly lit worn and smudgy look.
The unlighted stairways of solid stone had sags ground into them by millions of passing shoes. The walls, once painted in off-white and olive green, weÕre now utterly dingy and flecked with white spots where the plaster had chipped off. Exposed wiring draped from most hallway ceilings.
In general, Eastern European countries have chosen to rebuild their commercial infrastructure before education. TheyÕre putting in new phone systems, rebuilding roads, renovating the downtown areas and expanding airports. Meanwhile the salary of the average university professor is about $350 a month. ThatÕs what I like about these countries; the economic choices are often stark and so are the results.
After climbing a four-story stairway (elevators are rare, and seldom work anyway), I found the door to the computer lab and presumably VladimirÕs office. The door was festooned with notices, grade postings, and miscellaneous advertising. It reminded me of outdoor information kiosks at home, which nobody even attempts to readÑ-making a good case for electronic posting, on both sides of the Atlantic.
IÕm not sure what I was expecting by way of a computer lab. In the good old U.S. of A., IÕve been in schools that had computer labs full of Apple IIs (high schools). I didnÕt expect Pentium 450s, and there werenÕt any. But there were about 35 Pentium 150s and 200s, mostly running Windows 95 (from what I could see), and on a network (which I learned was Novell). The room was redecorated in a flat but tasteful combination of gray and white. The computers were in carrels, which provided a small amount of privacy. In other words, it could have been any computer lab in any university in the United States.
The place was packedÑ-I mean not just one person per computer, but in some cases, one or two people leaning over the shoulder of the person at the computer. Tag team term papers, or something. It was also a room in Babel. I could hear German, English, Russian, several other Slavic languages (I think) and probably some Baltic tongues as well.
Then I met Vladimir. I donÕt suppose everybody carries an image of RaskolnikovÑ-DostoyevskiÕs anti-hero in "Crime and Punishment"Ñ-in his or her head. The movie was on American TV last fall, but nobody watched it. Vladimir looks like Raskolnikov, only much taller. Narrow face, dark black hair (somewhat wild), beetling brows over piercing dark eyes. Then I remembered that Vladimir isnÕt Russian, and in fact would be insulted if I stereotyped him as one. He was wearing a suit, dark and rumpled.
When I first saw him, his knees were covered with dust from crawling around under the tables while connecting network wires. Some things never change. Since we didnÕt have an intermediary, and Europeans in general donÕt have the glad hand like Americans, our moment of introduction was awkward. I hate sensing that, but under the circumstances I didnÕt want to come off like a jerk by pushing the friendliness bit. It was just as well that I didnÕt.
Vladimir speaks good English. ThatÕs different from speaking it well. What English he knows is correct, but he talks very slowly and tends to leave phrases hanging. Frankly, I was happy he spoke English at all (although I had presumed he would, since virtually every other European under 40 speaks English). Being a computer person, he would almost have to speak English, I suppose. The problemÑ-more mine than his-Ñwas that his incomplete expressions tempted me to fill in the blanks. This was distracting.
Even more distracting was his poker face. I was astonished at how little muscle movement was generated by his speech. Although his eyes made contact, there seemed to be no animusÑ-nothing behind the look. It wasnÕt a dead look, just utterly neutral. It reminded me of images I have of the old Soviet Politburo members, granite hard stares, set mouth, terse use of language-tough people.
When I asked him what the students thought about the choice of PCs and Windows (certainly a leading question stateside), his response was, "The lab is running very well." The lab was obviously busy, but his deliberate indirection put me on my guard.
"HeÕs hiding something," I thought. That, combined with the stereotypes I formed from his appearance, led me to think that something odd or illegal was going on. Perhaps my reaction triggered him, because he immediately appeared to become defensive.
I had the strong sense that this computer lab was not only his space, but that he was also in charge of the culture. That meant he exerted, or attempted to exert, control over what students did with the computers, what they used and how they did it. The control was friendly enough, but those piercing eyes that followed each studentÕs activity are sufficient to set the tone. It reminded me of what IÕd seen on the Microsoft campus while touring with some of the senior staff.
As if reading my thoughts, he said, "We are a Microsoft beta site. About half of the computers are running Windows 98 with Office 2000. The students seem to like it." I smiled. If IÕd had the flexibility to do so, I would have kicked myself.
That made me consider something. Vladimir is the product of a society that has spent the last 80 years (or more) under the thumb of one totalitarian regime or another. In this type of society, if you encountered officialdom (police, inspectors, ministers, whatever), it probably was a matter of self-preservation to remain as completely nondescript and neutral in expression as possible.
I resolved to discover if there was an unofficial side to Vladimir, one without pat phrases and formal responses. Two hours later, during which we both fielded questions from students, I could say that we had found some sort of rapport, at least in areas of common interest. We talked about the Internet and how it was changing the world for students like these, how they could see what others were doing in their fields. The sense of academic isolation, while still very real in Eastern Europe, is breaking down under the educational community without walls on the Internet.
Along the line of open communication, we talked about Internet telephonyÑinexpensive international phone callsÑthat we both agreed was a harbinger for radical changes in the way the telephone is handled (relying on packet switching rather than dedicated phone lines). The Europeans, spurred in part by their artificially high phone rates, have been very busy with Internet telephony, and Vladimir could point me in the direction of several interesting products.
I also agreed to help with his favorite project, artificial intelligence programming for IQ testing. (Not something I know much about, but I do know some people.) Because I was trying to be helpful, I didnÕt raise the often heated issues surrounding IQ testing. Besides, between his English and my ignorance, I didnÕt think controversial discussion would lead to anything positive. So it is with strangers. Sometimes you can share, sometimes not. Sometimes you trust them, sometimes not.
As I was leaving, I stopped to look at a poster on the back of the computer lab door. It said: "The Perfect New EuropeanÑDiscreet like a Dane, calm as an Italian, drives like the French, cooks like the English, humorous as a German, optimistic as the Swedes, sober as the Irish, organized as the Greeks, modest as a Spaniard, mechanically gifted as the Portuguese, and generous as the Dutch." That poster made me think. I remembered a line from a most courageous cartoonist, Walt Kelly: "We have met the enemy and he is us."