Love on the Line
In relationships, are there any virtues to virtuality?

When the world crashes in into my living room
Television man made me what I am
People like to put the television down
But we are just good friends
(I'm a) television man

-- David Byrne/Talking Heads

By Eric Francis
Planet Waves Digital Media
Originally in Loving More

........Every now and then, I get a call from someone who informs me that she has met her soulmate online. They found each other one night in the Parcheesi chatroom on CompuServe, and have, in three months, exchanged a pile of emails 41-inches high that has consumed $396.46 worth of Epson ink cartridges. He, unfortunately, is married, but he's planning on getting divorced in 2003, after his second daughter graduates from high school.

........But he is The One; they are In Love.

........Then she asks: what do I think?

........At this point I will take a very deep breath, and then another. And I will try to think of a good question. Like for instance, "Have you ever talked to him on the phone?"

........It's stories like this -- and I think we've all heard at least one -- that make us wonder what we're really doing when we have online relationships. I don't just mean meeting online and then proceeding fairly soon thereafter by some means into a realtime 3-D experience, such as eating dinner together, a tryst in the Bahamas or getting married by Elvis in Las Vegas. I don't mean to sleight those who have actually found decent relationships on the 'net, and there are some who have. I speak, rather, of the massively popular phenomenon of conducting entire affairs in the online environment. This is occurring in a culture which we casually call cyberspace or, more appropriately, Cyberia, without realizing that this realm is a whole new kind of collective interior, one more akin to what psychics call the astral plane than, say, to a kitchen. Ask any psychic: they will tell you the astral plane is a slippery place.

........Yet there can be no doubt that this plane or dimension of space exists, in the scientific sense of existence: repeated objective experiments prove that it's there; we keep logging on. Whether we think online relationships are good or bad, whether we accept or reject the studies that say the more time people spend in front of their computers, the more miserable and isolated they are, we can be sure of one thing. No matter how much we crave hugs, eye contact and the smell of another human body near us, those of us who relate to one another in Cyberia can be sure that we are pioneers in a new dimension of reality. All pioneers are part prisoner, trapped in their own commitment to, curiosity about or plain inescapability of what they are exploring, but here we are. It's a dimension that's becoming ever more pervasive, easier to slip into with each development of the email beeper, the world-wide web cellphone and the upcoming e-purchase soda machine.

........We forget that this whole reality was the fantastic stuff of fantasy novels we still have on our bookshelves, and in that moment of forgetting, we go to sleep.

........For sure, much of the content of internet relationships is fantasy. Fantasy sex, for one thing, and fantasy projected onto our e-partners to fill in all the thousands of missing sensory and emotional details and nonverbal cues, like whether a person seems shifty, for instance, or when was the last time they washed their clothes, or the sweet way their hair falls across their face. Fantasy about what may someday be in the future; fantasy about what a real relationship with the person would be like; fantasy about a day in the park together to share all this supposed love.

........Face it, it's a world of fantasy identity, fantasy gender, fantasy sexual orientation, fantasy age; it's an unreality of entire fantasy lives that omit the husband, the wife or the girlfriend sleeping in our bed upstairs. The same ethical questions can exist in a dream as they do in 3-D -- things such as, do I tell the (actual) person sleeping upstairs that I type every night with so-and-so in New Mexico? Cyber relationships often condense enormous emotional energy, and share many other attributes of supposedly real relationships, like possessiveness, butterflies in the stomach, deep yearning, commitment, and, in there somewhere, the risk of vulnerability. Yet often, these experiences resonate entirely within us, absent a place to express physically -- a place to work things out in bed, as the old saying goes.

........I heard this story today. A man is involved with another man online. The guy he's involved with has a girlfriend, who doesn't know anything about what's going on, but via online chat he is secretly revealing all of his domination fantasies and other assorted interesting things he'd like done to him. The one hearing these confessions has set aside his entire romantic life for his online chat partner -- he has no other lovers because he considers this one to be his partner.

........It seems that the computer screen filters out a lot of the social mores that have been pounded into our heads for the past 2,000 or so years, which can be a start -- some of them desperately need to be dealt with. Online confession sessions can develop a kind of intimacy that's almost unachievable with those people in our "real lives." When someone is not enmeshed in our daily experience of laundry, parking tickets and dandruff, it's easy to tell secrets and reveal the less familiar facets of ourselves. They're not a part of our personal politic; they stand far outside of it, existing in a vacuum.

........If we're really paying attention, though, we can see that loving people online does something else that is quite surprising. It can strip away the masks that cover the extent to which all relationships are composed of internal psychological dynamics. It removes the costume covering how much of what we experience in so many realtime entanglements is actually some kind of internal virtual reality; that is, a fantasy, and how much of the working-out we do with others is really working out ourselves. Roy Lichtenstein nailed it in his painting of a young woman waking up and thinking, "Good morning darling!" as she gazes at a picture on her night table. But her statement is contained in one of those thought balloons; she never actually says the words, and nobody hears her.

........And then there is revealed the isolation that is so endemic in so many one-on-one, realtime partnerships, alienation which is based on a failure to disclose ourselves that would, for example, leave us in a position where our "intimate" female partner does not know that we're secretly bisexual and crave domination by a man. Here, the 'net is an outlet. But where exactly does that outlet go?


........To understand the depth and nuances of our peculiarly human, unquestionably modern predicament of seeking and sharing intimacy in the sphere of virtual reality, we need to understand a little bit of media history and theory, and follow the map to how we got here. For the internet is part of what we call "the media"; I compose and transmit my emails using Microsoft Outlook Express, the very Microsoft of MSNBC fame and anti-trust notoriety. Media theory is not a popular subject these days, but we'd be wise to take it up again, given how pervasive the media are in our lives.

........My friend Jenny wrote to me yesterday, in response to my (of course, electronic) request for suggestions for this article, and posited her view that, "The internet is a high-tech tool that permits us to connect with people in an old-fashioned way. Many of the world's greatest romances began and were sustained through the written word." Good observation, Watson; I used to think along these lines, and at times, I've been very happy that the 'net was getting people back into language, leaving us with no hope for relating other than to write what we think and feel, skills that have surely been lacking in our culture, rapidly degrading with the rise of television. And I've often thought it was great that people were, finally, openly writing about masturbation, which means, admitting to it, and sharing the details, since masturbation is the only form of physical sex you can do "with" a partner online.

........Yet the actual point of interpersonal contact online, if you can call it contact, is a mental phenomenon. It is not physical, and it is barely, minimally sensory. I can feel the keyboard; I see the screen; I tune out the rest of my environment. And God knows, most of the writing is not exactly Fitzgerald. And where have all the "shift" keys gone?

........Back in the 1960s, there was a guy named Marshall McLuhan, who had the job of explaining the media to us. This was not long after that shaky image of Felix the Cat inaugurated the television airwaves, and in the days when New York City's seven channels would go off the air for the night. But after The Star Spangled Banner played behind ancient black-and-white video of a rippling American flag, something else was happening, on the radio. On WABC, there was Big Joe, who would bring on as guests people with sad stories, and the audience would call in and pledge money. His slogan was, "Have no fear, Big Joe is here." Barry Gray created the "call in talk show," except that in his day you couldn't hear the caller. Gray would paraphrase what was said. The shows appealed to a variety of people who were, for one reason or another, up during those late hours. Many were alone at home, and lonely. It was a way of connecting, or seeming to connect, with other people. It was talk, conversation, oral communication, but set in a collective reality -- all things we are rapidly losing.

........Then, video killed the radio star. We were suddenly lost in a world of cop shows, game shows, soap operas and the Wide World of Sports, and lots and lots and lots of flashy commercials. During these decades, telephone slowly emerged as a one-on-one oral communication tool, but we were charged by the "message unit" or by the minute to speak; interpersonal communication, the stuff of our hearts and minds, became a commercial commodity. Then one day, a strange hybrid of television and telephone arose like the tide at the Bay of Fundi: the 'net. But through all these changes, one condition remains: loneliness, born of a culture of ever-increasing isolation. Karl Marx predicted the onset of rampant alienation with the rise of capitalism more than a century ago, and he was right.

........The internet emanates this loneliness: the solitary, late-at-night atmosphere of nothing better to do; the one person waiting in the gay chatroom for someone else to show up, and not knowing what to say when they do; the endless chatter of nothing at all in the singles rooms; and all the people we encounter there, so many of whom have nowhere else to go, no one to hang out with, nobody to call, no one to touch. If I log onto America Online with a woman's screen name, I will get an instant message about once every three minutes. It is incredibly invasive, and it's astonishing.

........Even merely asking for someone's phone number in a chat session can have that strange sense of discomfort, of invading someone; it would be, after all, opening the door to someone entering your life in a more vivid way. If you answered the phone and it was them, you could not suddenly pretend not to be there. Conversations would require actual responses. Words cannot be edited in or out of a phone conversation, not yet, anyway. It's very nerve-racking. (I've noticed that, in meeting a woman in person, it's often less threatening asking her for her email address than for her phone number. But threatening? What exactly is the threat? Conversation?)

........Sure, some folks who encounter one another online actually meet; some even get married, and not just by Elvis. But not most. Anyone who has met a chat partner knows that actually meeting can be a very touchy thing to anticipate, and to experience. There is that chance that the actual physical people in their physical bodies won't really connect, and it's a pretty good chance, and then the bubble bursts, and suddenly it was all for naught. The intimacy created in electronic environment is often not enough to carry sexual energy. And then suddenly, in the presence of flesh and eyes and nonverbal cues and the way one's breath smells and the general experience of the whole person, all at once, all that was so missing in Cyberia becomes evident.

........Then there are the online personal ad services. My friend Bill once explained his trick for getting results on write one generic letter, do a wide search for your basic parameters (age, region, smoker status, etc.). Then, send it out to 100 people. A few will bother to respond; you might like two of them; one might like you;. It seemed too horrendous to try.

........Then there is porn, which reveals the climate of the 'net more than anything else, I think: it is sold with ads that say things like, "The best sex you ever had! Click here." The "hot teens" are not exactly hot; they are tiny, flat and the temperature of my monitor. Who is fooled?


........McLuhan sought to explain to us that the media were, on one level, extensions of our nervous systems. For example, the telephone is an extension of the ear, which feeds remote (tele, as in "teleport") sound (phone, as in "phonetic") into our brains. The television camera is an extension of the eye, which projects far-away images into our vision. He predicted an emerging world of people interconnected along the web of one giant nervous system. It was McLuhan who came up with the expression "global village," which is of course a popular brand of modem. But I don't think he expected that the modem and the keyboard would become extensions of the clitoris.

........Yet he made it clear that the media's power to connect us was also the power to disconnect us. This is the short history of television: for one stunning weekend in November 1963, the nation was united in grief by television during the funeral of John F. Kennedy. Then, for the next 12 years, nightly images of the brutal, incomprehensible, 12,000-miles-distant Vietnam War, with the reporting innovation of nightly body counts, shut us down, and divided the nation. Lives and history were reduced to the number of boys killed in the jungles that day, yet we never saw their faces, and never got their names, not till that monument was built in Washington, DC. It was, McLuhan said, a "hot war in a cold medium," so it came across cold. (But the Cold War of the 1950s was fought in a hot medium -- the newspapers -- so people believed it was real.)

........The medium, he said, is the message; not the supposed content, but the medium itself. It may seem like difficult concept to grasp, but consider that getting a letter, written perhaps in fountain pen ink in your friend's or lover's familiar hand, on soft paper, maybe with a daub of rose oil and a leaf enclosed, handed to you by a person, is one experience.

........Receiving an email of identical verbal content with a flashing credit card ad at the bottom is, well, something else. Same exact words, totally different experience. Or, I write to you from the atmosphere of my room one dusky evening, candles lit, the sun reflected on the ocean. You open the email in a busy office the next day, phones ringing, with all kinds of spam, FWDs, rumors and newsgroup messages cluttering my post, above and below.

........The reality is that we are, on the 'net, often trying to express something that cannot be expressed in that particular environment. In the atmosphere of alienation of our moment in history, we are seeking contact; evidence of life. We allegedly seek companionship. The message of the internet, in McLuhan's terms, is the monitor glaring in your face. We forget that it's a television. We allegedly seek sex and passion. Yet we're hot people in a cold medium, and come across cold. Or, perhaps we're getting cold, and so scared that the allegedly safest way to connect is to strip away any chance of connecting.

........"Modem" is short for "modulate/demodulate." Scientists experimenting with teleportation machines would be concerned that the molecules of a person or thing to be sent over the beam would be reassembled in the right order. When we get demodulated and remodulated online, our message comes out as something else; the conversion is akin to the shift from fact to fiction. We know the people we see in television programs are just TV people, and that what's portrayed isn't their real lives. But we get very engrossed in them nonetheless. We identify with them. We give them life.

........When we meet and engage online, it's fair to consider the idea that we are, in a sense, "television characters" to one another; we can post web pages and become porn stars, explorers of the universe, commentators on the issues -- right from home! We grew up worshipping TV personalities, loving them, wishing we could be them. The television is sometimes our only friend, right? In our lives dominated by the media, we have become the media: as McLuhan, bless him, said, we create it, then it creates us. Like real media figures of Allie McBeal and ER, we reveal highly selective facts about ourselves, and we do so through the media, with the surgical caution of a highly-paid publicist. We are often reluctant to come out from behind the sunglasses of our aliases and reveal our actual names. It's scary out there, and you never know who anyone is. And, in a moment, we can disappear into the latticework of fiberoptic cables, satellite links and microwave stations, deleting any unwanted messages without reading them if things become too real, too confused or too messy.

........It is all the ultimate attempt to have relationships without being vulnerable, but that is a sign of the times: sex, after all is risky. It's wet and you can smell it. You might get AIDS. You might fall in love. Meeting people at work is risky, too. You could get sued for sexual harassment; somebody is always a subordinate. Human contact is inappropriate. And, after all, you'd have to face the person every day. You can't delete a breathing human who cares about you from your life so easily as you can block their incoming email. You can't delete yourself.

........Many of us often go to Cyberia first when we want to connect. In this reality, we can go to a cyber café, at which people sit side-by-side in the dark at little work stations, scarcely acknowledging one another's existence, drink coffee amidst the smoke and blaring music, and type to other people elsewhere. I have a memory of sitting in one of those places in Regensburg, Germany one evening. I'd finished what I needed to do. There was a woman in the corner, at a work station. She looked interesting. There was a book in English on the desk, so I knew we spoke the same language. But she looked intent on what she was doing, I hesitated, and did not say hello.++

Eric Francis is a professional astrologer soon to be located in the Seattle area. He edits two web pages: and Thanks to Jenny, Maya, John, Silva and Dad for their contributions of ideas to this piece.

June Horoscopes | Contents | PolySciFi-451 | What's New