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November
Monday the 10th

The Loneliness Engine

Monday, 4:27 PM
In 1971 a small advertisement appeared in the back pages of Scientific American. It read, simply:

Never Be Alone Again.

It has been estimated that some thirty-five people responded to the ad, and another seventeen the following year. However, it cannot be ascertained at this point whether these fifty-two participants comprised the entirety of mail-in replies or merely selected out of a larger pool. In either case, each of the fifty-two respondents received a package approximately six weeks after enclosing twelve dollars in an envelope and sending it to a P.O Box in St. Paul Minnesota. The package contained a simple lightboard, various cables, a 103A modem, and a black button that depressed with a satisfying click. Those given to perusing the advertisements of Scientific American had little trouble connecting the pieces. The lightboard sparkled with an array of small LEDs, in seemingly random formations — the button alone did not seem to have purpose or effect, lying dormant beside the cables. In fifty-two living rooms, puzzled men and women stared at the board, trying to understand the patterns of light. And patterns there were: around 5:00pm, a great number of lights flashed on, so too around 9:00 am. During business hours there was mostly blackness on the board. Late in the night, clusters shone, and in the pre-dawn hours, there were always one or two. Slowly fifty-two souls began to realize that the tiny lights must ignite when other users turned their systems on, that each LED was another person who had seen the St. Paul ad, so was staring intently at the board, who was alone, who was like them. The button presented a mystery — though each one of them experimented with it innumerable times, the lights did not seem to be affected. Through the winter, fifty-two boards glittered in the dark, and fifty-two people watched the other lights, steady, unblinking, silent and anonymous, but somehow comforting.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, Milo Barnes sat at the switchboard of an AT&T public branch exchange. He worked the night shift, connecting jack to jack, watching the lamps light as calls connected, the drone of human conversation in his ears. He was a quiet man, taciturn towards his fellow operators, isolated in his threadbare chair. One of the only black families in his rural hometown, he had never had many friends. His parents had been farmers: onions, greens, root vegetables. Milo had gone to the city after a brief try at college, and found himself enveloped by the warm arms of Ma Bell. He remained introverted and painfully shy, despite being surrounded by a cloud of lively talk every night. In the eighteen months that the 103A modems were active, he never mentioned his thoughts to anyone, was never caught taking them from branch offices, moved through the PBX like a ghost.

In March 1972, the lightboards began to blink. It was not a very great logical jump for Barnes’ enthusiasts to recognize Morse code, and it was, after all, a short and simple message, repeated endlessly.

All’s well that ends well yet

Rose-Marie Gascoigne of New Orleans was the first to answer. She had sat with her lightboard for hours each evening, accompanied by two disinterested tabbies. She said later that her heart had “just plain stopped” when the lights began to flicker on and off. “The whole world just held its breath. I could hear the blood rushing in my head. I knew what to do–what the hell else was that damn button for? It just took me a couple of days to work myself up to it. It was like sending a message to God.”

She reached out to the all but forgotten black button, and tried to remember what she knew of Morse.

She was not the last. Danny McKitterick sent his message from Portland just minutes after Rose-Marie, by all accounts, and in the very small hours of a Minnesota dawn, Milo Barnes sat breathless among his jacks and his lamps as one by one they flashed on and off, a slow and tremulous human server in the days before the whole of the world was networked thus, finishing his line, answering his brief, quiet message, lights in the dark:

Though time seem so adverse and means unfit though time seem so adverse and means unfit though time seem so adverse and means unfit

Over and over, again and again. Milo must have smiled–it is a comfort to think of him smiling. While the other operators worked around him, oblivious, he sent out a new message to each machine that had supplied the coded response he sought, and this one was simpler than the others, more direct, and more frightening.

Pick up the phone at midnight.

As the moon came up in St. Paul, Milo Barnes closed his eyes and slotted a silver jack into place. And another, and another. San Francisco to Cheyenne. Phoenix to Charlotte. Seattle to Sacramento.

New Orleans to Portland.

Milo sat among his lamps and wires, his hands taut, and held his breath.

In Louisiana, Rose-Marie Gascoigne held hers, and put her ear to her receiver.

“Hello?”

The Loneliness Engine | Invisible Games

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