Sara Roberts

This is a piece of fiction, the prologue for a web play that is not yet online, but will be in the near future. The play itself concerns the internal dynamics of a special group, a “karass”, as described below, during the course of a crisis within the group.

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Note: This is a piece of fiction, the prologue for a web play that is not yet online, but will be in the near future. The play itself concerns the internal dynamics of a special group, a “karass”, as described below, during the course of a crisis within the group.

This play will appear online at as weekly installations, starting May 2005.

What is a karass?

If you’re of a certain age, or a voracious reader of any age, you may remember what a karass is. The concept of karass comes from ”Cat’s Cradle”, a Kurt Vonnegut book read widely in the ‘60’s. In Cat’s Cradle, the prophet Bokonon teaches that “humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass …We may notice, as we advance in years, that there are particular people whose lives seem entangled with ours for no logical reason, these may be members of our karass.”

Quoting from ‘Cat’s Cradle”, Bokonen’s 53rd Calypso describes the karass:

“Oh, a sleeping drunkard

Up in Central Park,

And a lion-hunter

In the jungle dark,

And a Chinese dentist,

and a British queen—

All fit together

In the same machine.

Nice, nice, very nice—

So many different people

In the same device.”

What is selling? sells, for about what you’d pay for a high-end cell phone, an instrument whose sole function is to put you in voice contact with a sort of technologically-assisted karass. As a subscriber you will be part of a group who can speak to, or listen to, each other, any time of the day or night, without knowing each other’s individual identities.

How does decide who is in what karass? Isn’t God supposed to do that?

The members of a karass are chosen, admittedly, not by God, but by a body of governors that guards its secrets as closely as God.

It could be, of course, that just takes the twelve most recent subscribers to pay their deposit and makes them a group. Or not.

Theories abound about what criteria are used to form the group that becomes a karass. Members speculate—is there some kind of personality matching that goes on? (The form filled out when you subscribe is surprisingly brief, and the only personal question it asks is : what language are you most comfortable with? )

So, does have other ways of getting information?

Is the distribution geographic? Demographic? Are they striving for variety or are they grouping types? Are karasses socio-economically diverse? Is there an element of the supernatural, is this done by divination? will not reveal their methods.

It is certain, though, that you will not know the other members of your group.

How can be sure you won’t know anyone in your group? How do they know who you know?

Even in the unlikely event that you do have some acquaintance with another member of the group you will not recognize them. All voices filtered through this instrument come out as one voice — the purring voice of the instrument, like small beach gravel, or light static, words formed of grains, perfectly understandable until you listen too closely.

Still, you might ask, won’t speech patterns and phrasing give identity away? Supposedly telegraph operators recognize each other in just the “hand” of their Morse code…

No. To overhear someone you know in the anonymous world of the karass is to hear a side of them you will not recognize, despite the familiar way they turn a phrase.

But, really, most effective in the matter of anonymity is protocol. The subscribers are there for anonymity. The few simple rules are scrupulously followed if you wish to remain with your karass and the overwhelming majority of subscribers are very, very interested in keeping their hand in.

How many people in a karass?

Twelve. Studies show that the larger the meeting, the greater is the number of people who won’t talk. Twelve is a threshold number, in a group of twelve there is one person who won’t talk.

Of course the karass lasts longer than a meeting, and the number of members on line varies throughout the day. There may often be just one or two of you.

Why do people want to join a karass?

Why does a karass member subscribe? Given the popular image of karass members it is hard to imagine. Since its earliest introduction the karass has been a rich source of jokes for talk-show hosts. Publicly disparaged, ‘keezers’ are subject to unceasing low-level derision. They are considered to be, like support groups, cults, or liposuction, the sort of thing that a strong individual has no use for.

Indeed, the karass has no place for individualism.

Much could be said about what people ‘get’ from their karass, but that has little bearing on why they join in the first place. Loneliness, in all its many varieties is why people join. Alienation. Confusion. Seeking a place to vent, a companion, a talking pet. Voyeurism, the opportunity to anonymously overhear others. The opportunity to confess.

Don’t people get tired of it after awhile?

Some do, but, being tired of it does not release you from the bond of a karass. It is unlike a health club membership. There are others to consider; does one tire of one’s family?

How do you become a subscriber?

You fill out the (very simple) on-line subscription form, make your deposit, and sign off on the small print. You will receive a package in the mail, containing a chestnut brown case. Once you get it open (it has a tricky catch), there it is, your instrument. You will call it by the name particular to your group. They all look identical, human figures made of a rubbery substance, they vary from a peachy yellow to a dusty bronze color, pleasantly warm and dry to the touch. They are about eight inches high, with a peacefully exhausted, empty look. Their eyes, heavy-lidded, do not confront you. The figures are washable, bendable, throwable. If something goes wrong with one you report it to a website and receive another in the mail the next day, Fedex. They hardly ever break.

Why have this ‘figure’? Why not just a regular cell phone?

Initially, people do use it like a cell phone. But consider holding a puppet—you might talk to it, but you will also talk for it.

The figure assumes more importance as the karass matures, people speak less as themselves, and more as the karass.

The voice of the group emerges through the figure.

Why that particular figure?

Ahh, the figure. Coming up with the figure was a trick. It has to be empty, but somehow appealing enough that you want to fill it.

How does the instrument work?

Two indicator lights show you all you need to know.

One, in the heart area, pulses slightly, through the skin. It indicates how many karass members are on line; the more there are online the faster and brighter the pulse.

The other is in the cupped palm of its left hand. It lights up green when the line is clear. Touch the light with your fingertip, then speak.

The devices come with a set of simple gray clothes, which you are welcome to use if its nakedness bothers you. Many subscribers will alter, or dress their figure to make it “their own”, and while this is not discouraged, identity is not the point.

How do you activate the instrument?

The instrument will speak its first words when the new subscriber has gone through the following routine:

A plastic tab is torn away to activate the battery.

The new owner agrees to a code:

you will not reveal your individual identity.

you will not seek to know the individual identities of the others in the group.

you will speak at least once a day to the group.

you will observe the entry and exit protocols for your time with the karass.

Agreement is signaled through a spoken code.

Then the new member speaks a long text to the instrument, to train it.

Finally, the owner speaks her first words to the group: “What is your name?”

And, for the first time, hears the voice of her karass.

What happens if the rules are broken?

Complaints are deliberated by the protocol board of If the accused is judged to have deliberately broken a rule, membership will be revoked, permanently.

If there is no activity for several days reminders will be sent. Continued inactivity will result in termination of the membership. Rumors that might “patrol,” listen in on, or secretly participate in the activity of any karass are false.

Isn’t it hard to stay anonymous?

You would think maintaining anonymity would be a great challenge to human nature. Consider the role that the instrument plays in the life of the subscriber, and how the karass has figured into society. People reveal less about what goes on with their karass than their sex lives, their therapy sessions, or their confessionals. Breaking the anonymity rule is relatively rare.

And, like telling a dream, it isn’t easy to remember the conversation of a karass.

How many people actually subscribe to guards, steadfastly, the privacy of its subscribers. Figures are not available. Suffice it to say; many, many, more people are ‘keezers’ than admit it.

What, really, is the point of a karass?

We return to ‘Cat’s Cradle’ to quote again from the Calypsos of Bokonon:

Tiger got to hunt,

Bird got to fly;

Man got to sit and wonder, “Why, why, why?”

Tiger got to sleep, Bird got to land;

Man got to tell himself he understand.

v. 0.1 :: last modified: 15 Feb 2005 3:34 PM