Love and War in Cyberspace

Brandon and Denise were not like other people. They were smarter, more introverted. They adored computers.
Courtesy of Jim Birney

Brandon Langley and Denise Hewitt met in an online bar.

He was living in Houston at the time, a nervous, six-four, big-boned twenty-year-old who wore a polo shirt and shorts, white tennies, and wire-rimmed glasses that rested on top of his dimpled cheeks as if he were an adult-size Harry Potter. He had learned the basics of computer programming at the age of seven. He was a brainy introvert, a software whiz, and a fanatical game player on the Internet. One of his legs would twitch and bounce when he talked. You would recognize the type: techie, nerd, geek. The guys who populate the tech companies of the so-called New Economy.

Twenty-three-year-old Denise, who lived in Connecticut, was his spiritual twin, a female version of the same type: a bright person who saw the glow of a computer screen as a necessary and important liberation from actual interaction with other human beings. Because of the sort of people they were, they both played a type of text-based Internet game in a domain called a Multi-User Dungeon. That’s MUD for short, although Denise joked that it should stand for “Multi-Undergraduate Destroyer” because it was more responsible for her friends’ failure to graduate from college than anything else she could name. (A gamer’s ethos was something akin to “tune in, turn on, drop right out of the outside world.”) Denise and Brandon played the same game so often they began to recognize each other by name. They sidled up to a MUD chat area called “the bar” and typed back and forth while tossing back virtual alcoholic drinks. They eventually got to know each other well enough to swap outdated photos via snail mail. He saw Denise’s long, red hair, her sweet, round face, and a big smile that showed the tiny space between her front teeth.

One night Brandon was electronically quieter than usual, and Denise made a move that was the equivalent to sitting down next to somebody on a bar stool, typing, “Usually you’re pretty chatty. What’s the deal?” This question led to $500-a-month phone bills and a meeting in the Hartford, Connecticut, airport and love with a capital L. Denise moved to Houston, and in November 1997 they got married. She went to work as an assistant manager for a mortgage company while Brandon worked as a customer-help phone operator for software companies, in technical support at the University of Houston, and as a junior programmer at Schlumberger. Their lives consisted of little more than work. They loved each other, and they loved their computers and their gaming on the Web. But they were bored. They needed something to make it perfect. That was Walden.

Seen from the outside, Walden was a complex of fairly ordinary looking apartment units on the west side of Houston. On the inside it was a techno- commune, a utopian foster home for folks like Brandon and Denise—outsiders, loners, virtual gamers, fanatical users, and other alienated types who were more deeply affected by the personal computer and by the vast new worlds of the Internet than the rest of us. Almost all of them were in their twenties and thirties; all were trying to map a course in an adult world. Walden was the brainchild of a multimillionaire Houston commercial real estate honcho named James Birney, who came up with the idea of creating a New Age community around what he advertised as the world’s fastest residential Internet connection. That connection was the T-3, a fiber-optic data line so powerful that it could handle the telecommunications needs of a small country. Birney’s idea was to sell the technology but also something intangible: a sense of belonging. He wanted to create a sort of Woodstock for the digitally obsessed—a place that would make a bridge for these new, uncomfortable grown-ups between the virtual world and the real world.

So in 1997 he fixed up a run-down two-hundred-unit Houston apartment complex and landscaped it with rustling palm trees and Hawaiian volcanic rocks and bubbling fountains that cascaded into a clear pool. Then he named it after Henry David Thoreau’s essay celebrating the natural world, installed the T-3—the big, fat pipe, as it was called—and moved himself and his wife into one of the apartments. The pipe cost him $6,500 a month, but he figured that with enough rental income from the apartments, the T-3 would pay for itself. Then he advertised with the slogan “Come for the Bandwidth, Stay for the Community.”

The idea worked. Birney had courted Houston’s information-technology workers, the hordes of people like Brandon and Denise who were the underbelly of Texas’ New Economy, and Walden soon filled up with all sorts of computer types—techno-outsiders, hacker anarchists, ponytailed Web designers, and right-wing code analysts—who operated on the bleeding edge of technology. The new residents didn’t sleep; they napped. They used terms like “grep” and “mobo” and proclaimed things like “Today, when I was just north of Freeport Southern Desert, I raised my intelligence by three points.” They had nicknames like KilGrinch and WebGirlie. Most of them had worker-bee jobs in the computer industry, doing things like customer support or motherboard design or software consulting, but in some respects they were not like other people. They were smarter. They were more introverted. They owned awesomely powerful computers, which when hooked up to the T-3 delivered information to them like nerve impulses across a synapse. Click. Tick.

Within a few months, more than one hundred people had moved into Walden. Birney welcomed them. “We are committed to maintaining a cutting-edge environment for cutting-edge people,” he e-mailed the residents. “So keep on cutting. That’s how the Ganges and Brahmaputra maintained their ancient southerly course and cut through the Himalayas.”

Like the others, newlyweds Brandon and Denise heard the siren song of the T-3. For them, it happened in February 1999, when they saw Birney’s sign boasting “Fastest Internet Connection in the United States.” They toured the landscaped paradise with Walden’s tall, easygoing technology specialist, Alan LeFort. LeFort showed them the ten-ton volcanic rocks

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