While President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev win headlines at the Washington summit this week, another lesser-known meeting of American and Soviet minds is taking place--an electronic summit by computer.
Because of the pioneering efforts of Joel Schatz, founder of the San Francisco/Moscow Teleport, American and Soviet scientists, film makers, publishers, designers, teachers and others meet on-line on a regular basis to exchange information and produce joint projects. The result is an electronic community that reaches across space and time and also spans the political gap, “a group that has shared births, deaths and holidays together,” as Schatz puts it.
In the fall of 1984, Schatz, then 47, made his first trip to the U.S.S.R. The 6-foot, strapping American innovator with thick, curly black hair, a scruffy salt-and-pepper beard and round wire-rimmed glasses, made his way one day through the winter snowfall toward the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences. Wearing jeans, a white sheepskin coat, rainbow-colored ski cap and gloves, Schatz carried a four-pound Radio Shack 100 computer in a purple cloth carrying case. With fogged glasses and a snowy beard, he arrived at his destination 20 minutes late.
He cracked the door open to see six high-level Soviet officials in dark-blue suits seated around a table, which was backed by a large portrait of Lenin.
Shocked by Appearance
Schatz peered in. The Soviets, shocked by his casual appearance, froze in their chairs. After an awkward pause, Academician Boris Naomov flung his arms wide and said: “Ah, a Californian.”
Today, in his San Francisco office, Schatz moves between his MacIntosh computer, which is delivering messages from Soviet colleagues via electronic mail, and a television on an adjacent table, which is broadcasting Soviet programming. Three years since his first tentative efforts toward U.S./Soviet electronic detente, Schatz and his wife, Diane, who was involved in the project from the beginning, run the San Francisco/Moscow Teleport, the only private telecommunications system that operates with the approval of both the United States and Soviet governments to open up choked lines of communication between “qualified customers” in the two nations.
Their track record includes social and cultural exchanges between recovering alcoholics and political cartoonists in both countries; scientific research exchanges on the effects of Chernobyl, the exploration of outer space, and the spread of AIDS; commercial joint ventures in design, film and television; electronic mail services, and a series of formal and informal electronic conferences.
The operation also boasts the only link between the two countries by video phone, a low-cost, experimental form of communication featuring “video snapshots” relayed by telephone in 10 seconds.
The Teleport was originally funded by real estate entrepreneur Don Carlson, former chief executive of Consolidated Capital in Emeryville, Calif. Now it’s a project of the Washington Research Institute, a private, nonprofit educational foundation headed by Henry S. Dakin.
Schatz, a former military intelligence analyst for the U.S. Army, was trained in psychology and communications. Earlier in his career, he conducted mental health research at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, and then went on to a five-year job as state energy adviser in Oregon.
The Teleport came about as a result of persistent efforts by him and his Soviet counterparts.
“During 1983 and 1984, I was already working on some U.S./Soviet projects and had sent about 30 telexes to Yevgeny Velikhov (vice president of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences) proposing that we establish a computer link to exchange information of all kinds. I got no response.
Sent Another Message
“In December, 1984, I got my first computer, a Radio Shack 100. I immediately sent another message to Velikhov, this time on the Western Union account.”
Two weeks after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, Schatz received four telexes inviting him to the Soviet Union. As a result of several trips, in May, 1985, the computer link was established with Soviet permission.
“A few months later, the U.S. government decided to shut us down,” he said. “But by October, we were legalized, and up and running again.”
At the November summit meeting in Geneva that year (1985), Schatz said, Reagan and Gorbachev called for broadening contacts between the superpowers, including educational, scientific, and cultural exchanges. “That’s what we’re about. For us, the timing was fortuitous.”
Schatz explained the rationale behind the Teleport:
“My impetus was the realization that, among our other problems, the terrible state of communication between our peoples is a bottleneck to progress. Our countries have 50,000 nuclear warheads, but only 25 telephone circuits between the U.S. and Moscow. This is a situation that calls to be remedied. After all, when you don’t communicate, you imagine the worst.”
The computer seems made to order for these communication purposes, Schatz said.
“Computers represent a break with history. They are by definition a planetary-scale technology. Their decentralized quality of communication is changing the architecture of international boundaries.”
Of course, computers are scarce in the Soviet Union, and official approval is needed to use them, he said. In addition, the United States places restrictions on the transfer of technology to that country. Schatz, who now has 12 modems in the Soviet Union, also has detailed disclosures and export licenses with the U.S. Department of Commerce, Exports Administration.
The Teleport’s Soviet counterpart in Moscow is based at the Institute of Automated Systems of the Academy of Sciences.
Lab chief Vladimir Serdiuk, interviewed for the first time via electronic mail, advocated the use of computers to bring the citizens of the United States and the Soviet Union closer together. “It’s difficult to overestimate the prospects of (this technology) for acknowledging mutual understanding between our peoples.”
Sergei Alexandrov, telecommunications coordinator for Novosti Press, came on line to extol the virtues of the Teleport’s electronic mail system.
“It’s quick, cheap, flexible, and accessible,” Alexandrov said. “You can send messages, receive responses, hold group discussions, prepare summaries together, vote on questions, or ‘chat’ electronically.”
Schatz now has 10 accounts with major Soviet agencies, including the Space Research Institute, the Ministry of Health, Mir Publishing, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Novosti Press, the Society of Soviet Designers, the National Center of Data Communications, Sovinfilm, Gosteleradio, and the Soviet Cultural Foundation, which was created with the support of Raisa Gorbachev to develop projects of international cultural import that fall outside of normal bureaucratic channels.
Schatz acts like a matchmaker for joint collaborations. The Planetary Society in Pasadena is now working with the U.S.S.R. Space Research Institute on several projects involving the planetary sciences. Lou Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, said in a telephone interview that his group is using the Teleport’s electronic mail services to expedite communications. “The link could make a cooperative Mars mission easier to bring about.”
Internews, a nonprofit television programming company, worked with Gosteleradio to link members of Congress with members of the Supreme Soviet on a recent ABC-TV special series. Physicians at the Harvard School of Public Health have joined members of the Soviet Ministry of Health and the Space Research Institute in using satellite communications to improve Third World health.
Last September, Owen-Breslin & Associates of Dallas, hooked up with the Society of Soviet Designers to produce Fashion Design Week in Moscow. A Dallas show scheduled for March will offer Soviet fashions.
“It was extremely difficult to keep this large a production on schedule, given the geographical distance and the cultural differences,” Michael Owen said from his offices in Dallas. “With electronic mail, we were able to spell out the details of contracts and communicate with each other immediately.”
Physician Andrew Weil of the College of Medicine, Arizona Health Sciences Center in Tucson, meets on-line with Soviet neuroscientist Aaron Belkin, head of the Institute for Psychoneuro Endrochronology, to discuss the use of medicinal plants and fungi as anti-viral and anti-cancer agents. “The mail had been so difficult and slow,” Weil said. “With the Teleport, it’s easy to send messages back and forth.”
Face-to-face linkages of citizens in both nations via video phone hold more potential emotional impact, according to Diane Schatz. The videophone permits users to talk on the phone and, at the same time, view visual material. The images displayed on a screen can be stored on discs or printed out with Polaroid-like quality.
In October, the Schatzes took this technology to AT&T; in Pittsburgh, through which all telephone calls from the United States to the Soviet Union are routed. “We wanted the AT&T; and Moscow telephone operators, who work together day and night, to be able to meet informally and to see each other,” he said.
One Soviet woman brought her daughter to play guitar. Others showed family photos. “Thanks to the video phone, the operators went away with real-time pictures of the event,” Joel Schatz said. “And AT&T; officials reported that after the event, telephone service improved.”
On New Year’s Eve two years ago, Schatz linked up the parents of newborns at St. Mary’s Hospital in San Francisco with the parents of newborns at Hospital 15 in Moscow. While doctors exchanged X-rays and discussed delivery procedures, the new parents cooed over each others’ babies.
Last New Year’s Eve, Schatz invited 200 artists, writers, scientists and others to the Teleport offices to meet and toast their Soviet counterparts at Moscow’s Cosmos Hotel. The groups read poems, sang songs, cracked jokes and sent messages via video phone for two hours.
In other hookups, university students in Moscow, U.S.S.R., met university students in Moscow, Ida.; recovering alcoholics in San Francisco joined with members of Moscow’s Sobriety Club to form the group Creating a Sober World; cartoonists at the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner exchanged their work with cartoonists at Komsomolskaya Pravda, the official youth newspaper; members of Honolulu’s business group, The Winner’s Circle, met their Soviet peers via video phone; and this past Halloween (a holiday not previously celebrated in the Soviet Union), Schatz responded to an invitation from a group in Sun Valley, Ida., to link, by video phone, costumed American children with children in Moscow, who were also dressed as ghosts and goblins.
Earlier this year, the Teleport became bilingual. Schatz added Russian translation software, including a Cyrillic font, developed by Michael Kleeman.
This opens the way for joint publishing of books and reports, such as Addison-Wesley’s book about cosmonauts and astronauts, done in conjunction with Mir Publishing.
“There’s a lot of room to make new initiatives now,” Schatz said. “Governments and bureaucracies are at a dead end. Creating new things is not their job. They just regulate for the best interests of cultures.
“The real creativity will come from larger degrees of freedom. Today a really good idea will be accepted by both sides. People are desperate for ways out of planetary suicide.”