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THE GOODS : High-Tech Path to Enlightenment

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shhhhhhh. Type very softly.

Calm yourself. Let your computer screen remain as blank as possible as you meditate. Allow yourself to become one with cyberspace as you enter Zen MOO, the quietest--and one of the strangest--of Internet sites.

For almost two years, Net surfers from around the world have visited this computerized Zen master, which operates 24 hours a day out of a mainframe computer at Occidental College.

After signing on to Zen MOO as a new or repeat visitor, you do almost nothing. Occasional, computer-generated messages will flash across your screen, but most are mysterious at best. Two recent examples: “Work tells why that wantis not she,” and “I’ve lost who for feet.”

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Every once in a while, just to make sure you are paying attention, one of the messages will be in the form of a cogent question you are expected to answer. If you don’t type in a response promptly, you get the message, “Sad, so sad when you fall asleep like that,” and you are disconnected.

Zen MOO is not a kindly sage.

Type in spurious comments, and you receive from the computer retorts such as: “Your typing detracts from your enlightenment” or “Stop fidgeting, you’re bothering the others.”

As a final warning you are simply told, “Meditate, or die.” And then if you don’t shape up by shutting up, the Zen MOO computer disconnects you.

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Even so, Zen MOO has a devoted following. Almost 10,000 Internet users have signed onto the service at one time or another, and a few have accumulated more than 100 hours of time on Zen MOO.

It sounds like some kind of interactive joke, and it was. At least at the beginning.

“The idea for this came to me when I was sitting around with a bunch of friends at dinner, says Regis Wilson, the founder of Zen MOO, who at the time was a computer science student at Oxy. “We were mocking the games people play on the Internet.”

Specifically, they were joking about a type of game called a MUD, which stands for multiuser dimension or multiuser dungeon, depending on which “understanding the Internet” book you’re reading. A MUD is a role-playing, text game on which you take on the persona of a character that fits into a particular MUD world.

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“It’s amazing people would spend so much time at something that seemed to us to be pointless,” Wilson says. “So I thought it would be fun to come up with a MUD that would be really pointless, that would not do anything.”

Wilson decided on Zen as a good basis for his “pointless” MUD, although he admits he didn’t know much about it.

“I just had the Western stereotypes about Zen,” says Wilson, who is now 23 and works as a computer network analyst for a Woodland Hills firm.

He made Zen MOO so that anyone with telnet capabilities on their Internet service could access its address--CHESHIRE.OXY.EDU 7777. Users are greeted by the message: “Amid the smell of incense and the sound of gongs and chanting, you have come upon the glorious Zen MOO. Please be quiet, and enjoy your meditation.”

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Wilson expected Zen MOO to last only a few weeks at most, but word of its existence spread quickly on the Net. More than 3,000 people checked it out in the first three months. “I figured that once people figured out that you didn’t do anything there, the novelty would wear off,” Wilson says. “But people kept coming back.”

Other “pointless” sites have cropped up on the Internet. A student at the University of Cambridge rigged up a video camera to show a coffee carafe that sits on a counter in a computer laboratory. Hundreds of people every day now check the coffee level, even though the vast majority are far too distant to walk over to the lab and pour a cup. Similar cameras on the Net show an office aquarium, an outdoor scene in Finland and a pet iguana.

Zen MOO goes beyond novelty for some people, again to the surprise of Wilson.

“There are people who write to me to say they really meditate on the messages they get from Zen MOO,” Wilson says.

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Those messages are derived at random by the computer from the answers typed in to the Zen MOO questions. But some devotees find them meaningful.

“One woman said her life was in shambles and that she was helped by Zen MOO,” Wilson says. “I wrote a kind of snide reply, but she wrote back that she was being serious.”

He has gotten other similar letters. “If people say it has helped them, fine. Who am I to question that?”

Wilson does not himself look to Zen MOO for spiritual guidance. But he has on occasion found it unsettling.

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One night he was monitoring the system to repair a couple of bugs in the program when, “Suddenly one of the random messages came up,” he says, “and it said: ‘I can love you.’ ”

Wilson pauses and gives a little laugh.

“That really frightened me. No one had typed that message in. It was really just the program putting together words at random. It was Zen MOO.

“I immediately disconnected and got out of there. I didn’t like the idea that the machine could scare me.”

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* Cyburbia’s Internet address is Colker@news.latimes.com.


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