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Love in the Time of Asynchronicity

by Lila Allen

March 9,2010

I come back from work. I sit in my spot on the couch. I switch on my laptop and it makes a whooshing welcome noise. I feel greeted. I double-click 'Mozilla Firefox,' and suddenly I am in a new home: a familiar place, vast beyond my comprehension, but still an almost-physical space where I can learn, explore, shop, and communicate. And as the twenty-first century unfolds, this tool becomes more and more a part of me, increasingly catering to my needs and desires. I use it, and I begin to wonder: where does the Internet end and real life begin?

Several weeks ago, I walked into a performance space at StorySlam on Central Avenue. An inflatable raft containing two laptops, their owners, and twenty-four hours' worth of snack food perched before a glowing white screen. Using Google Earth 5.0, a satellite image-compiling program, co-captains Charles Westfall and Layet Johnson simulated an ocean voyage by 'paddling' through screenshot after screenshot of the Caribbean Sea, discovering islands, boats, and computer-generated glitches along the way. Calling their day-long installation a 'Platonic Voyage'- a nod to Plato's allegory of the cave- the duo formed an impressive, not to mention entertaining, commentary on virtual reality as a surrogate for physical experience.

Many of us use this web-life as a stand-in for its flesh equivalent on a regular basis. Social networking exists as perhaps the most obvious and common proxy for real-life interaction, and deserves an essay unto itself. But, dear reader, I must ask: have you printed this article? Are you holding it in your hands as a paper artifact? Or- more likely- are you reading it on a digital screen?

I love searching for my mother's home on Google Maps. I look at the house on 'Street View.' The lawn care service is there. I turn; my mother, fully recognizable in her hat and running shorts, walks my dog Lulu down the block. I zoom out, zoom in, and visit the house of my host-mother in France. Clicking (or is it walking?) my way through the town, I visit the stores and schools I may never see in person again. Looking for an apartment in Boston, I virtually wind my way down streets to get a feel for the neighborhood before committing to my lease. It is through this electronically-enhanced nostalgia that I reinforce my mind’s image of the places I have been, and create an image for the places I will soon see.

These days I’m tumbling down the latest and greatest of technological 'rabbit holes': the Internet craze ChatRoulette. Created by a seventeen-year-old Russian student, ChatRoulette video-connects a visitor to any of tens of thousands of 'Random Strangers' (their term) on the site at the same time. One second, I'm laughing as a man in a bunny suit and sunglasses shoots a fingergun my way; the next, I'm watching college students singing at a party. These visits are unique, ephemeral, voyeuristic, creepy, and joyful. But what makes ChatRoulette such a successful experience isn’t any of those qualities. It’s the humanity: the knowledge that no matter how expansive and disconnected the Internet may sometimes feel, through the ether sits a person just like myself, reacting.

Perhaps the revolution needed in the twenty-first century is a re-evaluation of our collective assumptions about 'reality': is it physicality, or experience? Is love false because it is conceived online? Millions of couples would argue no. Do I not feel the same curiosity and intrigue meeting a Random Stranger on ChatRoulette as I do in real life? For Layet and Charles, is spotting land after paddling through hours of screenshots of blank ocean not akin to the wonder and excitement felt by a 'real' explorer?

Some criticize technology for being an isolating force in contemporary society. But as life-embedding vehicles like ChatRoulette and GoogleMaps suggest, more and more users every day turn to the web for a connective experience that is entirely stable and human. A home in a face. A comfort in a place. And the knowledge that, despite our differences, most of us want the same things: to learn, and to feel.

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