Erotic Computing


by Douglas Davis, Ph.D.  


So I assumed a double part, and cried -- and heard another's voice cry -- "What, are you here?" Although we were not. I was still the same -- knowing myself yet being someone other -- and he a face still forming. Yet the words sufficed to compell the recognition they preceded. ... T.S. Eliot -- Little Gidding

Is it real? The ending of Jess Weiss's "Virtual Love," to which I pointed you last week, poses one version of this question. After 20 minutes of frenzied typing, college boy Brock is delighted to think he's about to score the phone number of a live one, writes her number down on his wrist, logs off just as she asks the answer to his riddle. "Me," he thinks. And somewhere, high-schooler Jason shuts down his modem and returns to worrying about the SATs. The Question -- the one asked again and again by friends and neighbors to whom I try to explain my fascination with the little computer and its big connections, my conviction that all our scripts are being re-drafted.

I owe my early convicton that something new was happening in the online world in large part to a pair of pieces in Ms a decade ago by Lindsy Van Gelder, one of my favorite commentators on this and other scenes. In the first, "Modems: close encounters of the computer kind" (Ms, September 1983) she described her surprise at discovering that real friendships had formed with other women she knew only through nightly chats on Compuserve. Two years later, in a followup (Ms, October 1985), Van Gelder recounted "The strange case of the electronic lover." Here's the abstract, from Wilson's Index:

In a bizarre experiment he undertook to experience the reality of being female, a male psychiatrist in his fifties carried out a long-term impersonation of Joan, a young, disabled woman, on a computer modem network. Communicating only via computer or mail, the impostor created a believable story behind the supposedly mute, disfigured "woman" and developed intimate friendships with several women. Upon learning the truth, however, the women felt betrayed; some mourned the loss of their relationship with Joan. The case of on-line transsexualism raises questions about reverse gender discrimination and the emotional restrictions placed on men in American society. The goal of a gender-neutral culture remains a long way down the road.

In the postmodern '90s, every self-presentation can be deconstructed as a form of drag. "Joan"'s alter ego -- "Alex," as I recall Ms. Van Gelder's piece -- met several women Joan's pitiable state had set up for him, seduced them "in real life" (IRL). And one wonders, as in an Anouilh play, where the deception really started, and whether it ever stops. Each form of human communication creates its own rhetoric, its own distortions, its own virtuosos. Regular postal service allowed courtships to flourish on the turn of a borrowed phrase and on a flowing hand. The telephone enabled a rich voice to ask what acned face could not have broached. Email and MOOville are present-day analogues of aerogramme and 'phone -- and someday historians will try to reconstruct the pace and tone of our social life from today's log-files.

Brock's not destined to meet Jason, I'd suppose. Not IRL, in any case. Hell, they're not even real -- just figments of Weiss's imagination. But Jason gets to play at a form of interaction previously impossible for high-schoolers in this most homophobic of cultures, and gets to "see" himself mirrored back in dim Brock's prose. What's in it for Brock? Ask Jess.

Next week: summer at the lake.


Van Gelder, Lindsy. (1985). The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover. In C. Dunlop & R. Kling (Eds.) Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices (2nd Ed.). Boston: Academic Press, 1991.

Stone, Allucquere Rosanne. (1993). Violation and Virtuality : Two cases of physical and psychological boundary transgression and their implications.

Weiss, J. (1994). Virtual love. Cyberkind.

Douglas Davis, Ph.D. <>

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Copyright (C) Douglas Davis 1994. All rights reserved.