Virtual reality

Years ago, a friend said he thought that young people today were blurring the distinction between real and virtual relationships.  I said that was ridiculous, that human beings would always need the sights, smells, and touch of other human beings. A relationship based on language alone would never prove gratifying.

Now I wonder.  My students recently had to write an essay on “love and marriage,” using a set of poems and stories, and the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw.  They were also allowed to use outside sources, personal anecdotes, the results of small polls they devised, etc.

Three essays used news reports about professional celebrity Kim Kardashian’s recent marriage to Kris Humphries as a source, informing me why she got married in the first place, and why they divorced after a couple of months.

There are, of course, several reasons why these are inadequate sources for any academic work.  Pygmalion (as opposed to news reports about Kim Kardashian) follows a relationship through many ups and downs, and in different social environments, involving family members, friends, professional concerns, etc. One can develop an opinion as to why things turned out as they did.  Poems, too, condense profound issues through intense use of language and symbols, etc.

I pointed out to my classes that the Kim Kardashian they had met in the magazines in the supermarket was no more a real person than Eliza Doolittle. The students have allowed the daily drip drip drip of Kim Kardashian to invade their systems, giving the illusion of reality. They confused literary art with commercial endeavors – selling magazines, that is.

I asked my classes if an online relationship, in which one person has never met the other, could ever be defined as a romantic relationship. This is not as simple a question as one might think. When I was single, about five years ago, I had a long and frequent email correspondence with a married man. He wrote to me of his marital and professional problems, his plans for the future, his deepest thoughts and feelings. At 2:00 am one morning he was writing me a long email when his wife passed silently behind him, barefoot, going to the bathroom; he had not heard her coming. The thought that his wife might see his email to me frightened him out of writing for several weeks.  Was our relationship adultery, or betrayal of his marriage? He was quite sure that, whatever it was, his wife would have been upset.

So the line between real and virtual is not so clear sometimes, but academia is one place where a bright line can be drawn. The uncheckable, semi-fantastical world of celebrity publicity and cannot be used as an academic source.  If the world of online relationships is included in an essay, it should  be approached with care, as we have not yet gotten our moral arms around the online world. We do our students a favor if we draw the line clearly between virtual and real, and may be doing the world a favor if we draw them into a substantive discussion of the new set of morals and behavioral norms which the online world has drawn us into.

Exercise:  There are daily examples of online experiences and celebrity publicity which can be discussed.  Perhaps students could be enticed into providing a moral parsing for the close but virtual relationship I had with a total stranger online. Was he betraying his marriage vows? If you are brave enough, you might venture into the influential world of online pornography — according to news reports, online pornography has changed the expectations and sexual practices of especially men.

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