INTRODUCTION: WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED ‘LOVE’?
What is this thing you call love?
It’s a cliché of science fiction dramas that a beautiful alien princess will ask a dashing Flash Gorden type that question. If an intelligent alien race were to pick up signals broadcast from Earth and could convert them into TV and radio, they would be lead to the conclusion that, whatever this thing called love is, it must be of singular importance to our species. It is no easy task to think of a song or film in which no mention of love is made at all. On the other hand, it would be easy to name many songs and tales in which the pursuit of love is the central theme.
Given that love and sex are woven so deeply into our dramas, both fictional and in our personal lives, the aliens would not be surprised if they accessed the Web with its online social networks and online worlds, and found that here, too, we are preoccupied with love and sex. They would also come to understand that love and sex come in many forms and that different social codes of conduct result in clashes between what is deemed acceptable and what is deviant.
I wanted this series of essays to be an exhaustive study of all forms of love and sex in cyberspace. But such an endeavour would be a truly epic undertaking. I am not up to the task and I have a feeling that neither is anyone else. Instead, I am going to limit myself to the main points people raise in Thinkers discussions where ‘love and sex’ are the topic, and my own special interest which is to explore the ways technology shapes psychology.
When I host discussions about love and sex in Second Life, these are the points most commonly debated:
The issue of trust. Can you trust that the avatar is a faithful representation of the person behind it? When (if ever) does roleplaying cross over to deception?
The acceleration factor. Compared to the actual world, intimate inworld relationships develop faster.
‘Inside out’: The belief that, whereas in RL we are first attracted to our partner’s physical attributes, in SL it is the ‘inner qualities’ that attract us.
In order to understand these issues, I believe one has to think of relationships in online social networks/ worlds as being interactions between different kinds of people: Humans, avatars, and computers. Now, this may raise the objection that two out of those three are not people at all. Koshian himself said, “I could not see myself writing an “erotically charged love letter” to a configuration of pixels on a computer screen’. And, in their paper ‘Machines and Mindlessness: Social Response to Computers’, Clifford Nass and Youngme Moon wrote, “of the thousands of adults who have been involved in our studies, not a single participant has ever said that a computer should be understood in human terms or should be treated as a person”. No doubt a majority of people would rationalize like Koshian and the thousands in Nass and Moon’s study. Avatars and computers are tools of communication that put real people in touch with one another. But ‘people’ we feel attraction toward? No way.
But Nass and Moon’s study, along with many others, reveals a stark contrast between what people say, and how we subconsciously act towards computers and avatars. The evidence shows that people treat computers as having personality and apply social rules and expectations to them. For various reasons, the evolutionary drives that compel us to fall in love with people can also be triggered as we interact both with and via our computing devices.
Admittedly, those who develop a romantic attachment to ‘a bunch of pixels on a computer screen’ are probably a minority right now. But the numbers may well increase in the future. There is a long tradition of using love and sex to sell products. Now, some companies are turning love and sex into products to sell. Futurists point to current research in haptic devices and full-motion sensors, declaring that in the future, intimate encounters in cyberspace will not lack anything real life offers. Some technology forecasters believe the time will come when roboticists can make artificial people so sexy and skilled in the art of seduction and empathy, intimate relationships between people and machines will be commonplace. For some, these predictions promise a kind of paradise where nobody need be deprived of great sex and a loving relationship. To others, this is a dystopian future in which deluded souls engage in superficial encounters that cheapen human life. Regardless of what viewpoint you agree with, it does seem likely that advances in certain technologies could blur the distinction between humans, avatars, and computers. Currently we easily distinguish one from the other. In the future, this might not be so simple.
But all that must wait until later in the series. We need to start at the beginning. What makes love and sex in online worlds so interesting, I think, is the fact that it involves our most ancient and primal evolved drives being thrown into the mix of our most modern technologies. In the next part of this series, we will take a look at those primal urges and how they influence our actions online.
Coming soon: Why Do Fools Fall In Love?