This is the way the eWorld ends . . .

March 27, 1996|By Blake White

POINT, POINT, click, click, dial, beep; presto, chango, I am transported to a virtual world where a pleasant, mildly interested voice says ''You have . . . mail'' and plump, innocuous cartoon characters welcome me with stubby little open arms.

I am on-line. I am in the middle of Apple's eWorld. The world issues chipper little suggestions: Learn meditation techniques at the reflecting pool, it says, find the political news from Greece, enjoy the scandals from France, get deeply into the soccer scores from England.

My friends in London send me elegant messages, and my daughter in Boston keeps me informed. Even my sister in Bethesda sends me mail. Whenever they do, a darling little red truck pulls up outside the virtual post office and blinks sweetly. While I was writing my novel last year, chapters flew back and forth with comments and revisions and suggestions.

Virtual habit

I have been checking the vagaries of the stock market and the news from Reuters twice a day for a year. The virtual habit of signing on to eWorld has become part of the fragile structure of my writer's days, along with feeding the cat and avoiding naps. I don't talk to strangers on-line and I don't spend excessive amounts of time playing games; I do like to see what the weather is like in Helsinki and Paris and Rio.

A month or so ago, the former head of eWorld posted a poignant farewell message, sentimentally sloppy about his customers and colleagues. Then a few weeks ago, I began to get mail from the e-management. They say, without possibility of parole, that the end of the eWorld will occur Sunday. The eWorld goes down then, never to rise again. The reflecting pool will be drained, the virtual post office will be torn down, and the arts-and-leisure pavilion will be leveled by e-bulldozers.

The closing-down messages, from someone named Diana Keith, remind us that change is inevitable; in other words, get with the program and find another service. At the same time, other messages suggest exploring aspects of the eWorld I might have overlooked.

An imposing red button led me to a gathering of unconsoled eWorld residents, a chat room for puzzled customers. A baffled, keening wail arose from the screen, of strangers having a last-days crisis discussion. People with aliases were whining and worrying: ''What will we do? Where will we go? Does anybody know?'' Grumbling voices, including mine, likened this whole experience to being downsized.

Then I realized what an alarming turn of events this really was. Loyalty between employer and employee has been relegated to the ash pit of history and companies discard people at a more than brisk clip. Hardly a human hasn't now had the employment rug snatched out from under him. We're used to that.

The eWorld, in its abrupt demise, has revealed the deluge of the future, the tidal tug of economic chaos. It has announced that the relationship between customers and companies is withering away. Did Apple ask us if we would be willing to pay more or accept a smaller world? No. It no longer wants our business under any circumstances. It says it still loves us and will miss its community; it never tired of trying to please us; but Wall Street analysts have said that, no matter how much we love the product, it will have to go. I am saddened.

But I am not surprised. The reluctance of a company to provide a product is not exactly new. I remember being in a department store a couple of years ago (one still, oddly enough, in business) with money in one hand and a lamp in the other, and being told that, no, I could not have the lamp.

Limping lampless

''Why not?'' I said, waving my money at the sales associate. ''Whyever not?'' ''Because,'' she said, none too patiently, ''it doesn't have an inventory number.'' Lampless, I limped out of the store, baffled by this failure of capitalism. I felt betrayed, jilted by my society. Surely, the exchange of money for goods is ever so basic to our way of life; yet we are increasingly told that companies have other goals.

The eWorld has told us that it will help us relocate to the web. It will find us other homes. It recommends America Online. It will forward our mail. It will do just about anything to get rid of us, its customers, standing foolishly with our money in one hand and our modems in the other.

This may not be the end of the real world, per se, but it is, I think, a dress rehearsal, warning us that the world may end not with a bang, or a whimper, but with a collective beep of despair from a hundred thousand electronic refugees, pouring sadly down the information highway, belongings on our backs, phone lines trailing behind us, and yet another world to inhabit briefly, until it tires of us and kicks us out.

See you all, my fellow customers, in the next eWorld.

Blake White is a writer in Laurel.

Pub Date: 3/27/96

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