I like to think I discovered using the Internet to make phone calls long before anyone else did. The year was 2000, and I was backpacking through Asia and had stopped in Calcutta, India to visit with my friend’s extended family. My friend’s cousin and I had gone out nightclubbing and when we returned to his apartment at two o’clock in the morning, he offered for us to call my friend back in San Francisco, for free. Calling from Asia was pricey enough for me to stick to email throughout most of my travels, and I envisioned us breaking Indian law when I watched him put on some headphones and sit down at his computer to make our phone call. The next thing I knew, I sat like a customer service representative with my headphones and talked to my friend while she shopped through Chinatown. After a quick laugh and a shock to her system to hear from her cousin and me, we noted that the connection wasn’t half-bad and marveled that we could chat for nothing while halfway across the world.
I was hooked.
What followed were the developments of VoIP software, Peer-to-Peer (P2P) technology, and a series of companies that sprung up like hotcakes around the world. Out of the United Kingdom came Skype, the most popular company using P2P, which allowed someone from one computer network to call someone on another computer network over a broadband Internet connection for free. Once I downloaded the free Skype software, bought a computer headset that had a microphone (as well as two separate connectors, one plugged in for the microphone, and another plugged in for the speaker), and connected over a high-speed Internet connection, I was ready to have Skype dates. Skype is free for both users (if you’re both on it), but many times I had to call my girlfriends’ cell phones or landlines, and then had to leave a message when they weren’t at home. Then I remembered that one had a new baby and the other worked night shifts, so I got smart. Instead of emailing back and forth the current stories of our lives, or calling them only to leave my life story on their voicemails, I started to make Skype dates with these friends.
Hendy was in Toronto, had two young boys, and had started her own data migration business with her husband. Between midnight feedings and chasing her three-year-old on the hockey rink, Hendy had only a few windows open to chat with me. I was working on my first book and spending my summer in the mountains of Idaho. With a short-term rental, I couldn’t get a home Internet connection, so some friends offered up their wireless connection at their house. I pulled my Volvo into their driveway, turned on my laptop, put on my headphones, and called Hendy. My friends with the complimentary wireless connection were heading out for a mountain bike ride and laughed when they saw me armed with a laptop and customer-service-like headphones in the front seat of my car, so I waved them over, rolled down my window, and introduced them to Hendy via her webcam. (Skype allows users to see one another through their calls if they have a webcam attached to their computer.) And though I wasn’t high-tech yet, Hendy gave us a virtual tour of her new house in Toronto. She carried her laptop on her tour and stopped in the nursery. Then she angled her laptop and webcam and whispered, “Meet Charles,” as I was virtually introduced to her second-born son.
My next Skype date was just last week, but not as peaceful as my visit with a sleeping babe. I had a virtual date with Nikki, my Australian roommate, who I worked with in Bangkok and now lives in London. Nikki works nightshifts as a producer for the BBC and I was now editing the last chapters of my book. For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to change my work environment on those final days and spend it at a girlfriend’s “tree house” nestled into the mountains of Marin County. It didn’t occur to me to ask if their Internet connection was in working order, so when I set out to test the technology, I bumped up against some difficulties. My cell phone was dead and the nearest wireless connection, if there was one, was down a long set of stairs called “The Dipsea Stairs.” The Dipsea Stairs were built by locals to walk from the hills into downtown Mill Valley and are used by yuppies to train for marathons or by Mommies who hike with their green-living babies. The Dipsea Stairs are not the mode of transportation that a rushed woman armed with a laptop bag wants to use when she has to make her Skype date. I wish you could have seen me, dressed in my urban garb red-corduroy pants, posed as a tree-hugger rushing down the redwood stairs. By the time I got my coffee in town, and was told that the only free wireless (because my mantra is that no one should ever have to pay for wireless) was at the library down the street, I had five minutes to go before my Skype date.
I had forgotten deodorant that day, so I stank. I hid my coffee cup behind the outdoor ashtray and entered into the beautiful building filled with books and rules. I found a table next to a storybook window that looked out onto the redwoods, got out my headphones, launched my Skype, and then hid between the Fiction Authors stacks. No one was around, so Nikki and I got to share what was up in our lives for a good thirty minutes. But our date was finally interrupted when the librarian came to find a book. At first, she didn’t know what I was up to, crouched over my laptop with headphones while speaking quietly into a microphone, but then librarians are usually smart, so she spoke up.
“Um, there are no cell phones in the library,” she said, just barely waving her finger at me.
I felt like the teenager I had been in high school who also got caught passing notes.
Nikki and I had a laugh and flipped over to the instant messenger-like chat aspect of Skype in order to not break the rules (another mantra I don’t follow). Then we made our next date for Skype, but this time I promised to stay in the city.