IT is a lovely spring morning and Dr. Nelson, the lecturer in Technology and Communications, is no longer talking Greek to us. By now, our second semester at the University of London's Center for Media Studies, my classmates and I finally understand all things digital as well as analog.
We're now into cellular and mobile personal communication and Dr. Nelson is explaining how the digital revolution is leading to a true convergence of all communication networks--computer, wired, and wireless--such that in the end there is going to be just one network. The information society. The martini effect. The … what? Syu-Chin. the Taiwanese girl raises her hand and asks Dr. Nelson.
The lecturer is taken aback by this. He looks us over one by one, each of us shaking our heads in turn. Instead of explaining, he says we can consider it as a possible essay topic: "What is the martini effect and how will this be brought about?" I guess it's not a very lovely spring morning after all.
MY boyfriend Roy seems to he flirting with the other girls in the mailing list that has us both as members. I don't want to imagine how he must be behaving in chatrooms. Funny, the thought of his virtual life frightens me so. It's probably because I just finished the case study: "The Internet as a playground where more and more people are migrating."
Roy and I used to meet at IRC's #filipino channel in the first months of our separation until I realized that I was spending way too much time online and this was affecting my performance as an overseas graduate student. I explained this to him and he said he understood. So we've kept ourselves to e-mail and the occasional long distance calls ever since.
It's only been a year, but it's like I don't know him anymore. I learn more about his life now from our e-group. "I can't help missing the old republic of two we used to have," I e-mailed him once. "Nothing to worry about," he said, "that republic still stands." Checked its flag lately? I wanted to ask, but it would just be a waste of bandwidth. Redundancy is all very fine, even necessary in face-to-face communications, but e-mail is a different terrain.
Even my mental picture of him has faded to a blur. I asked for his pictures recently and the jpg files he sent me as e-mail attachments showed him with shoulder-length platinum yellow hair. He exuded a look of self-consciousness that wasn't there before, probably because he took the pictures himself with a digital camera. He'd started growing his hair before I left for London. He'd started losing himself in cyberspace at around that time, too.
Do I have a right to complain? I left him to follow my dream, didn't I? But I shouldn't be thinking of this right now. I have work to do.
THIS e-mail looks like good news: "Hi, I'm Simon Ellis. I badly need the BT Technology Journal which you have--1997, Autumn issue. If it's alright, can we meet so I can photocopy the articles I'm looking for? I might also be of help if you're working on a related research topic or problem. You can find me in my cubicle at the second floor of the College of Electronics and Engineering during office hours. Cheers, Simon."
Apparently he got my e-mail address from the engineering library where I borrowed the relevant materials right after Dr. Nelson gave us our new research topic. The postgraduate adviser wasn't kidding when he said on orientation day that we'd soon be reading technical books and journals for our courses.
It's been a week and right now, I'm at a dead end in my research. Whenever the martini effect is mentioned in the readings, it's always taken for granted that it doesn't need any explanation. It's starting to feel like an elaborate joke played on the uninitiated by the engineering community. So, Simon Ellis's e-mail is a cause for excitement, indeed.
I e-mail Roy: "hi babes, guess what? somebody from engineering wants a journal that i have. maybe he can explain things to me. no?"
Roy e-mails back immediately: "it's your good karma at work, karen."
Whatever he means by that. The Force does seem to be on my side.
SIMON, it turns out, is a neat looking MSc research student of electronic engineering--well-trimmed hair, polo and slacks pressed using just the right amount of starch. He looks... uncomplicated. I notice his well-pressed clothes because I can't quite manage this trick myself. This is actually why I usually go for the grunge look. Today, for example, I'm in a tie-dye shirt and well-worn jeans, my hair in a braid because I didn't have time to wash and dry it this morning.
Naturally we were both happy to see each other. He asks me what a Communications student like me is doing with this technical material, so I explain the multidisciplinary nature of our program--the aim is to equip us so-called creative people with enough know-how so we can work with the technical people in bringing about the killer apps of the information superhighway. He tells me he's working on possible interfaces for third generation mobile telephony for his dissertation.
As I hand him the BT Journal, he asks how my research is going. I say, "Not too good… Do you happen to know anything about the martini factor or martini effect?" He smiles, surprised, then says, "Yes, of course, it refers to the martini adverts showing you can have a martini at the beach, on board a plane, in a bathtub… and is used to describe the coming information environment where you can have information anytime, anywhere." "That's all it is?" I ask. "That's it, yes," he says.
He gives me a copy of the early chapters of his thesis for possible use in my research. He also shows me some more references he has--transcripts of recent European mobile telephony conferences. Apparently, it is on the wireless front that things are happening in Europe. "You can borrow whatever you want," he says, beaming. I took him up on his offer, of course.
BEFORE Simon explained the martini effect to me, I'd tried to do a little participatory research. When I went out with my classmates to celebrate Sayaka's birthday at a Japanese restaurant along West End a few nights ago, I had two martinis--dry. It didn't taste particularly strong, so I gulped one after the other. Dmitri, the Greek guy, was a bit to blame for this, actually. From the corner of my eye, I saw him watching me maneuver my chopsticks. I met his gaze as I put the sushi in my--gasp--wide open mouth and he didn't look away. He even smiled. I must have spaced out after that because the next thing I knew, Sayaka was asking Dmitri, with a hint of exasperation in her voice: "Are you gay?" Dmitri, his eyes sparkling in amusement, said, "No,… why do you ask?" That was all he needed to get started on Greek stuff--this time the island of Lesbos. I wondered to myself why he didn't choose to tell us of the common homosexual practices of ancient Greek males, which seemed more appropriate.
Sometimes Dmitri would get so lost in his country's past it's just heartbreaking. He tried to explain to me once what exactly was going on in Bosnia by going back to 14th century Macedonia. I was, however, too lost in those dreamy Mediterranean eyes of his and his lullabyish accent to absorb anything.
"In Greece, we're so hung up about our past," he said, "because the present is disappointing."
"Well, at least you have something," I said. "We Filipinos don't even have a past to fall back on. We're a people with short memory," I said.
Our hang-up may not have anything to do with time, but with space, I thought as I watched the kimono-clad Filipina waitresses in the restaurant. Even the chefs who cooked teppanyaki-style right before our eyes, juggling eggs, carrots and spring onions in the air before cooking them, were Filipinos. My classmates--a group of Asians and Europeans--had been amused both by this fact and the cooks' performance. The manager of this place, however, is a stern Thai woman. I know because I sometimes work as a waitress here too, and every time I relax my smiling muscles, she gets on my case.
At the end of the night, Dmitri said he was seeing me home because we were both taking the Northern Line, anyway. We took the tube, then walked the short distance from the station to my flat. It was chilly. The weather seemed to have regressed to winter while we were busy with dinner. Dmitri took my bare hand and we walked in silence, the full moon hovering above us profoundly. At times like these, I guess, it's but natural to think of what-if's-and-all-that, but I told myself it was just the weather and the night and the moon, nothing more.
TODAY'S Sunday. I wake up before nine in the morning, which is good. If I wake up after that on a Sunday, I usually end up puttering about in my bathrobe the whole day. No one is in the kitchen when I come down for my breakfast of strawberries, chocolates, and coffee. My flatmates--all British girls--will probably be lying in till after lunch. Sunlight streams through the kitchen window, it almost feels like I'm back home. I feel lethargic when the weather is like this. It doesn't matter, I tell myself. I can't waste any more time today. I've lost enough time already the past few days going out with friends or just staring at the ceiling.
Go-go-go. I urge myself, rolling up my sleeves. I vacuum the carpeted floor, change the sheets, leave the laundry in the washing machine, then soak myself in the bathtub. Afterwards, I work on my technology essay and review for an exam. I can hear the crowd going wild in my head, cheering me on. Then I hear a referee whistle. Break time. I read The Guardian and come across a news item about credit card bills being stolen en masse and the thieves making mail orders using stolen account numbers. A thought flashes through my mind--my bank wrote that my credit card statement was on its way. That was about a week ago. I can see the crowd getting listless waiting for the game to resume, for the players to come running back on to the field. But nothing happens. This is a well-behaved crowd, though, and instead of booing and throwing things, they quietly leave, some of them scratching their heads as they do so.
As the day draws to a close, I think of Roy. He said he'd call in his last e-mail. He always calls when he says he will. What could be keeping him? It's early evening here in London already, so it must be past midnight in the Philippines. I'm a woman waiting for the phone to ring. Sheesh. I grab my denim jacket, take some coins with me, and go out to make a call from the streetcorner payphone. I had used up my phonecard which I need to call from my flat's phone, so I need to use one of those coin-operated units outside. When I dial his number, though, all I get is a taped voice in his answering machine. I can't believe it. Since when did he have an answering machine? I go to the Indian store and buy fags. My vision is so blurry I can't even see the price and have to ask the vendor how much it is. Three pounds and fifty, he says.
I once swore never to smoke again, but what the heck. It's all I can do while somebody somewhere is probably stealing my credit identity, and Roy… well, what's that answering machine supposed to mean?
WHEN I went to my bank to check up on my credit card statement, I was startled to find Simon Ellis working there. I wondered at first what he was doing there banktelling when he was supposed to have his hands full helping shape a future technology. Then l realized it wasn't him, just somebody of the same age and type. Anyway, this reminded me I had to return the materials to him. I was also reminded of Sophie, my French classmate, who had wondered aloud in our International Communications class how the Chinese policemen were able to identify the people they were doing to arrest from that sea of chinky-eyed (and to her, identical) faces in Tiananmen.
AFTER I give him back his materials, Simon asks after some small talk: "Would you care to have martinis with me one time?" I feel the blood rising up to my cars. "Oh, I don't know," I say. "I'm terribly busy right now." I try not to feel stupid as I say this, thinking of Roy, his broken promise and his answering machine. There's too much static between us now. Or is all that the signal itself and I'm just missing it like a fool? No, once my work here is done, I tell myself, Roy and I will talk things over and… I'm almost sure everything will be alright between the two of us, just like before. I'll probably be wondering every now and then about Simon and Dmitri and all the could-have-beens, but I'm pretty sure it's not going to he something I can't live with. I realize I'm more afraid of the future, of the unknown, than I'd care to admit and this is why I'm holding on to Roy. Tried and tested Roy. We've been together five years, after all. That must be worth something. "Thanks a lot, Simon. See you around," I say as I turn to reach for the door.
LIFE abroad has meant checking e-mails from people back home first thing it the morning, as soon as I get to school. It has become like drinking coffee to me. I even check my e-mails at the nearest computer cluster during coffee breaks. It's strange but I seem to be more in touch with them now than I ever was when I as in Manila. Oh, except for Roy…
Roy's e-mail today has as subject: "my bombshell." I double-click it. It's probably nothing to do with us. He had e-mailed me a bombshell a few months ago, when my good friend Annie came out of the closet and left her husband to be with her girlfriend. Roy was so shocked. "She's so feminine and so beautiful," he'd said. "I don't care if it's not politically correct to say this."
Hey, what is this? A practical joke? "dear karen, i miss you a lot and i wish we never got separated. i need to tell you something very, very important. and i want you to be the strong woman i have always known and loved. i have fallen in love with someone else. i love her very much, though we have never met in person. i know it sounds crazy but from her first e-mail, the connection is just so strong…"
I've known all along without knowing, haven't I? Headlines chased each other in my mind: "Girlfriend Left Out Cold in Cyberia"; "I Find Her Bits More Attractive Than You!"; "Man Dumps Real Life Partner For Cyber-Love." It's like my subconscious has been composing the news item all along for this very occasion. I've been reading The Sun a lot, I realize.
"Karen? Are you alright?" a familiar voice pulls me out of it.
I look and see Dmitri, then shake my head. He leads me out of the computer cluster. I tell him the story in between puffs of strong Hamlet cigars, over ouzo, at the nearby Ole English pub.
I'M ready to hand in my essay. I have everything put this time around--how exactly the wireless mobile telephone is about to become a universal personal communicator and usher in the martini effect. Basically, mobility (and therefore, wireless) rules, as the third generation will combine the features of a telephone. a computer, a television. a newspaper, a library. a personal diary, even a credit card.
The third generation mobile essentially means three things--global coverage, a handy pocket-sized terminal, and multimedia capability. Scenario: while waiting for your flight, you can download and watch Trainspotting on your mobile phone or maybe read the daughter you've left behind a bedtime story until she falls asleep. And just as the martini has endless variety--there's Blue Martini, Dirty Sicilian, Dean Martini, and so on--the services of the next generation of mobile telephones can be customized to fit specific needs and preferences. Welcome to the information society, where you can have information/communication anytime, anywhere.
There's still a lot of work to be done to get there, of course, both technically and politically, but the industry is confident that the martini effect is just around the corner. As I see it, the choice of metaphor for what is to come betrays a great deal of optimism and enthusiasm, even giddiness. It tends to sidestep one big question: Is the world ready for/Do we really need all this?
I'm submitting the essay well ahead of time. I'm all set to leave, not for Manila, but for Greece. With Dmitri. There's a lot to learn over there, I feel. I check my e-mail today for the last time. I think I'll take a break from all this brave, new world stuff once I'm in Greece. I think I'll try classical studies or archaeology there for a change.
This story has previously appeared in print.