DotCom Vs. NotCom

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It was war, a titanic clash of wills. In one corner was DotComGuy, a silicon shut-in, living a life that is normally forced on felons as an alternative to incarceration. Not allowed to leave his home, and subject to round-the-clock surveillance by a battery of 16 cameras webcasting to computers around the globe, 26-year-old Dallas resident DotComGuy (known as Mitch Maddox before he changed his name) has turned himself into a sort of wired groundhog, vowing to spend an entire year ordering everything he needs to live, from food to furniture, over the Internet. Like a switched-on Thoreau at a virtual Walden Pond, he devised the stunt to teach mankind that the age of e-commerce is here--and that it is good.

DotComGuy's adversary, his Luddite doppelganger, is Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, 42, a.k.a. NotComGuy. Vaguely troubled by his dependence on electronics, NotComGuy cooked up his own experiment. Instead of withdrawing from human society into his computer, NotComGuy set out to withdraw from his computer--and his cell phone and fax machine as well--into human society. Reasoning that "this stunt has a difficulty factor 52 times greater than DotComGuy's bagatelle," he announced he would go cold turkey for a week, then report on his discoveries in print.

The results of this cultural struggle were announced by Zorn last week, and they're not encouraging for those who yearn to return to simpler times. NotComGuy lost. He snapped under the strain. "You kind of get addicted," he confessed, "to being in touch with everything at all times." Cut off from his e-mail, he felt alone, adrift. "You can exist without it, sure," he said. "You're just sort of living in a different milieu." Worse, the journalist learned he wasn't able to write coherent sentences without his word processor. "The new style becomes a scribbly, scratchy mess covered with arrows," he wrote in his column.

The futuristic DotComGuy, on the other hand, continues to live happily inside his cyberden. The equivalent of a 1920s flagpole sitter, he shows no sign of cracking; indeed, if his virtual exile goes as planned, he will earn more than $90,000 this year. His website, which features streaming video of nearly his every move, receives millions of hits a day and is laced with advertisements. What's more, he's lined up corporate sponsors that include online grocer and bookseller . Wrote an admirer in an e-mail to DotComGuy's site: "What you're doing is a job, and more important it is the very essence of what makes our country so great."

DotComGuy is more modest about his life as a homebound professional consumer. The idea came to him last year when he found himself growing restless during a shopping trip with his parents. "I'm fed up with this," he told them. Hoping that people will "learn from my experience," he leads a rich, if isolated life, with regular visits from an aerobics trainer to keep him from physically merging with his couch (bought online, of course). "I was able to go shopping in bed last night," he says. How long voyeurs will be willing to log on and watch him click his mouse is questionable. Then again, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire continues to receive high ratings.

In the meantime, Zorn, having shed his NotComGuy handle, remains unimpressed by his rival's novelty act. "I don't think it's very hard what he's doing. It's like Bio-Dome. It's Gilligan's Island, except he has everything." Zorn may have a point. If his own experience is a guide, the true test of DotComGuy's character will come 11 months from now, when he will have to face the outside world again, no longer safely cocooned inside the Web. Perhaps he'll retreat when he finally sees his shadow.