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They Call It Cyberlove : How Can Reality Compete With a Companion That Adores You for Your Mind?

September 12, 1993|Margo Kaufman | Margo Kaufman is a contributing editor of this magazine and the author of "1-800-Am-I-Nuts?," published by Random House. Her last article was on pet parents

Greetings From Cyberspace!

I fell down the electronic rabbit hole a few months ago when I went to visit my friend Jon. I was worried because I hadn't seen him for months, and whenever I called he seemed distant and distracted. At first, I thought he was mad at me, but then a mutual friend also expressed concern that he was withdrawing. We speculated that he was having a torrid love affair or an attack of agoraphobia.

But when I got to his house, I discovered that Jon had just moved to cyberspace.

"You've got to see my new system," he said, beckoning me into a dimly lit study dominated by a Macintosh IIvx with a built-in CD-ROM (a souped-up drive that holds staggering amounts of information, like an unabridged Oxford English Dictionary); a high-resolution color monitor, two laser printers, a scanner, a modem, plus more than 100 software programs.

For three hours he demonstrated his new pal's capabilities. In addition to such prosaic computer tasks as writing or balancing a checkbook, it could play a riff on a snare drum, bark, turn an image into a fresco and lead me on an interactive journey through the Australian Outback. Whenever I introduced a non-technological subject, Jon's eyes wandered back to the screen. "Let's go into the living room," I pleaded. I thought my brain was going to crash from over-stimulation. "Wait," he said. "I haven't shown you Morphing." I politely watched a special-effects program turn a man into a woman and back without surgery.

Jon isn't the first person to prefer virtual to everyday reality. While there have always been computer addicts, more and more casual users seem to be going off the deep end. Either they're enticed by the lure of extra power, or multimedia capabilities, or the ability to pick up girls with just a hello and a :-) (that's bulletin board-ese for a smile). But they find that time off-line just can't compete.

Take Robin Williams, the Santa Rosa-based author of "Jargon," an informal guide to computer terms (Peachpit Press). She recently had an intense love affair via electronic mail with a man who lives in Atlanta. "Love in cyberspace is so much deeper," Williams said. "When you're writing, you phrase things more beautifully. And you can say things that you never have the opportunity to reveal in person. I was able to go on at length about things that were inside me, without being interrupted." (As many women know, this is impossible to do with a man in real life.)

The physical bodies in this virtual romance turned out to belong to a 24-year-old guy and a 37-year-old single mother of three. After a passionate weekend, they went their separate ways, two :-)'s that passed on the information superhighway.

I guess it's only natural that Williams socialized on-line, since like many writers she's at her keyboard from early morning to the wee hours of the night. Occasionally she gets her realities confused. "Once I woke up in the middle of a dream and thought, 'Do I save on floppy or hard?' " she said. "And I look at cars on the freeway and want to click on them and hit delete."

Whenever someone annoys me, I create a file with his or her name on it and drag it to my Mac's trash icon. If I'm really angry, I empty the trash, and whoever was bugging me disappears into the void."

Perhaps one early warning sign is when you develop a bond with your machine. Granted, it's hard to resist an intelligent colleague that doesn't gossip or stab you in the back and makes you look smarter than you really are. "It never lets you down," Jon marveled. "It's consistent, it's reliable, but at the same time unpredictable in terms of wonder and surprise."

"I threaten to spank mine periodically," said Heather Sherman, a computer analyst at Caltech, who categorizes her relationship with her machines as "usually antagonistic." One system's computers are named after Shakespearean characters ("which is odd at Caltech, since nobody's heard of them") and she tends to personalize them. "I'll say, Juliet was upset because Romeo crashed last night. I came to the conclusion that we should never name computers after tragic figures again. Hamlet was always crashing disk drives."

Still, it's one thing to anthropomorphize and another to turn your Amiga into your amigo. "I've got the whole interface configured so when I start it up, it says, 'I've been expecting you Mr. Fergerson,' " said James Fergerson, an assistant director of institutional research at Hamilton College in New York. "Then at night, there are times when I won't go to bed unless I'm told. So, I digitized the voice of the doctor from 'Star Trek.' She orders me to go to bed."

If I were a digitized voice, I might order him to get some fresh air. But people don't nag in cyberspace, which is another big attraction. There is no ageism, sexism, or racism, since all you see are words. It's also cleaner, safer and more efficient than reality, and above all, you're in control. Or at least it seems that way.

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