Virtual pain, virtual love

“Dial this number, and just listen to the voice message; don’t ask what it’s about,” my daughter admonished me the other night.  A classmate of hers had earlier beeped her to do the same.  My son got a similar tip from a friend.  Our youngest daughter got phone calls from at least two other friends, urgently telling her the same thing: dial this number now and listen.

Curious what this latest gimmick of Generation X was all about, but at the same time fearful of violating private unknown spaces, I ignored my daughter’s dare.  “What’s it about,” I insisted.  She gave me the look of someone who had just eaten the fruit of knowledge and wanted to share her guilt, puzzlement, or whatever.  This was her account.

There’s the pained voice of a boy on the line, confessing to his former girlfriend his despair over the end of their relationship.  He can’t live like this, he wants her back soon; that’s his ultimate wish.  “That’s it?” I asked, demanding an account and wondering if I had missed something very subtle or generationally nuanced.  They had found it funny at first; then it dawned on them that the pain was real.  It was the voice of a contemporary, a fellow sufferer in the “hour-hand of life”. They wanted to console him, to ease his burden, and to let him know that, by unintentionally sharing with a larger public his voice-message to an unnamed girlfriend, he is  no longer alone.

On a day probably like this, 120 years ago, Nietzsche wrote: “Life consists of rare, isolated moments of the greatest significance, and of innumerably many intervals, during which at best the silhouettes of those moments hover about us.  Love, springtime, every beautiful melody, mountains, the moon, the sea – all these speak completely to the heart but once, if in fact they ever do get a chance to speak completely.  For many men do not have those moments at all, and are themselves intervals and intermissions in the symphony of real life.”

Our anonymous lover, phoning-in his heart’s gloom to an unsympathetic voice recorder, unwittingly spread silhouettes of his own rare isolated moment before an unintended public.  In so doing, he permitted his legions of eavesdroppers to fill in the long dull intervals that seem to characterize virtual living today, and perhaps to pay greater attention  to their own rare “moments of the greatest significance”.

Those moments are becoming rarer and rarer in the modern world. There is a tendency to buy a comprehensive insurance against the risk of pain, disappointment, loneliness and despondency.   Which is why in lieu of real relationships, we go for simulations.  In fear of life, we seek controlled engagement in the company of toys.  That is what the phenomenon of virtual pets, now sweeping  Japan and the US, is all about.  In Japan, the same country that invented a virtual teen idol, millions of crazed buyers are gobbling up this toy as if it were a vital life-support system.

A New York Times editorial describes the fast-selling cyber-toy called Tamaguchi thus:  “The game shows a baby chick that hatches from an egg on a liquid-crystal screen the size of a watch face.  The pet ‘sleeps’ at night.  But it requires constant attention during the day – beeping when it wants to be played with, fed, or given medicine for its illnesses.  A happiness meter on the device rates the owner’s parenting skills.  The pet expires if left unattended for more than five or six hours….The toy can be reset to grow a new pet, but the first one is gone forever.”

Elsewhere in the world, tens of thousands of Rwandan refugee children thirst for a little tenderness.  But the images of their emaciated bodies on the TV screen have become clichés for a turbulent hopeless continent.  They seem so distant, like ghosts from a forgotten land.  They do not feel as real as the virtual pet in your hand.

Virtual experiences give us a taste of simulated sentiments – of the joy of commitment, the tenderness of loving, the emptiness of loss — but they insulate us from the real pain.  It is the closest we can get to a “life” without risk, without commitment.  By re-setting the toy, we can start all over again.

But Tamaguchi is different from an early generation of games of simulation.  This one appears to have a mind and a life of its own.  It has needs, and it begs for attention.  It dies when it is not cared for, and its death is “marked with a cross and a gravestone.”  A soon-tobe-released new version, I understand, resurrects the dead pet in the form of a ghost, a virtual ghost.  Pushing simulation one step further, its creators have re-created a permanent memory of loss.

It is fascinating to see how much money is spent developing these devices for virtual living.  But I doubt very much if the geniuses that created Tamaguchi can ever simulate life the way a poet like Gary Granada re-creates it by the clever device of a Ginebra basketball game standing as a  metaphor for the Filipino’s highs and lows.  O kay ganda ng aking umaga/ Feeling ko wala akong asawa/ At ang dati kong boyfriend ay hiwalay na/ Pag nananalo ang Ginebra.

Everyday life in this country remains foolish, dangerous and unpredictable enough for many of us, that I doubt very much if we shall ever need Tamaguchis to speak to our hearts or lend texture to our lives.


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