Written by David Tebbutt, Director 03/90 - scanned

When there's a war on, one of the first casualties (apart from the truth) is usually the communications infrastructure. Wreck the enemy's ability to communicate effectively and you wreck their ability to organise themselves properly.

``What's this got to do with computers, especially personal computers?'', I hear you ask. The answer is that I've recently found myself in a war of sorts and personal computers played a significant part in sustaining the communications links when the normal ones were not available to the side that I happened to be on.

The `war' was, and still is at the time of writing, an industrial dispute. The whys and wherefores do not need to be explained here. Suffice it to say that a group of editors and writers who I work with decided that the management (who pay me) had behaved appallingly. Because I know and trust my fellow writers and because I had long wondered whether the management actually knew its job, I initially supported the strikers without being aware of any but the most rudimentary facts.

But, thanks to a computer-based conferencing system, I was able to argue, discuss, and even fight with the strikers, their supporters and, occasionally, their critics. I have had the issues explained in considerable detail and have been able to share thoughts and feelings with many of those involved. This would have been impossible without a personal computer.

Let me explain. A computer conferencing system allows you to leave written messages for people and anyone who `belongs' to the conference can access all the messages. Another part of the same system allows you to send and receive private letters. Conferences can be open or closed. A conference on green issues, for example, would probably be open, whereas a conference for writers in the computer industry would be closed to outsiders. People could only join by invitation.

You won't be surprised to learn that a writers' conference exists and it is where the striking writers, editors and freelancers were able to exchange their views on the strike, the management, its effects on their personal lives and so on. If the management made a move, anyone `logging on' to the conference could know in seconds, regardless of whether they were in the pub round the corner, the Scilly Isles or Australia. As long as you can hook your computer to a telephone line, you can access the conference and contribute your own two penn'orth.

The conferencing system we used is called CIX. This stands for `Compulink Information Exchange'. I have often mocked this kind of system for the banality of its contributions. Some of the conferences are full of superficial, trivial messages. But, with a focal point like the strike, the system became unbelievably valuable. Every single contribution was helpful - even if it was just a humorous observation. Most widened our understanding of what was happening and gave us a blow by blow account of the events surrounding the strike.

For example, I received a letter from the management terminating my contract at 8.20. By 8.30 anyone could read the letter on CIX. This helped others to refine their thinking on what the management's game plan was. By the time I arrived at another publisher's offices at 10.00, the messages of support and job offers had already started to arrive on CIX. Some of them came from people who I'd never even heard of. I cannot conceive of any other way of getting such instant response to a situation.

Now multiply this effect by the number of conferences - there must be at least a hundred on CIX alone - and you start to see what a powerful medium this is. You might be into gay politics, green issues or straightforward things like getting rich. All tastes are catered for and there's nothing to stop you becoming the `moderator' of your very own conference.

Perhaps Mensa should consider running one. If it were associated with this magazine we would give each other instant feedback, rather than having to watch arguments and discussions spread over months, as one reader's letter recently complained. The magazine could publish the most interesting contributions for the benefit of those without computers.

Because information is restricted to text, you can get into computer conferencing with the most rudimentary computer. You will need to connect it to a modem, a device which turns the on-off signals of a computer into the squeaks and whistles needed by our normally speech-based telephone system. You may need an `acoustic coupler' if you can't plug your modem straight into a telephone handset. Thus equipped, you can join the hidden world of electronic conferencing. CIX isn't your only option - there are hundreds of special-interest electronic bulletin boards up and down the country.

The major worry of any system of this kind is the ease with which the information can be accessed by unauthorised people. To keep a conference open and easy to use, it is best to send and receive messages in plain English. This means that the operators of the conferencing computer system can read what's going on, even in `closed' conferences. People who manage to pick up passwords and user names can also `log-on' and browse the information. I don't suppose either incidence is very common, but the threat exists. It would be irritating, for example, if our conference on the strike were to fall into the hands of the company management. On balance, though, I think the advantages of CIX to the strikers and their supporters far outweigh any advantages which the management would gain from `spying' on our thoughts.

The bottom line is that for people with computers (of almost any kind), electronic conferencing systems offer a unique and rapid way of keeping in touch with those who share the same interests and concerns, irrespective of their time zones or physical separation.