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Simulationships: Is the Body Becoming Obsolete?

Also published for my column Inner Actions on Feminist.com

My niece and nephew, twin toddlers, practically pee their pull-ups over the elaborate “kiddie” train at their local park, where there also sits an Amtrak-like railcar, a projected ride called “The Simulator.” One day out of the blue, after weeks of barely noticing it existed, the Simulator suddenly became a source of deep curiosity, and the preferred ride of choice.

Of course it was closed, and we waited and waited for 10 whole minutes (two hours in toddler time) for the attendant to open the Simulator just for us. Anticipation and crankiness mounted. I was interested to see how it worked. I hoped it would remind me of the delightful, dizzying sensation of floating amidst the stars in outer space at the Hayden Planetarium in my youth. But when the Simulator’s big steel door finally opened and exposed a row of flimsy plastic seats and scrawny “seatbelts,”the whole gig felt claustrophobic. The twins immediately changed their minds and fled out and on to the good ol’, real live “kiddie” train; a rickety, three minute ride through cardboard towns, with an actual breeze eliciting whipping noises from the little colored flags attached to each miniature cart, with its live conductor yelling “All Aboard!”


The whole event made me think of relationships. (I know, for those who know me, everything makes me think of relationships). Technology provides us with many new ways to relate, and new beings to relate to. But there is a distinction between the relationships we have with real people in our lives, i.e., our family of choice and origin, nieces and nephews, therapist, or even the dry cleaner, and the “simulationships” we have with our online paramours, Facebook friends and Scrabble game partners. Simulationships do not start with, and may never include, an actual body. They occur either onscreen between two people, or between one person and a computer generated being. I have divided simulationships into four categories, from the least potential for actual contact to the greatest:

Graphic Pals

Refers to the type of relating you do with animated online or onscreen characters, such as pet graphic animals, or your virtual opponent in a Wii game. These are symbolic representations of real life. If you want to play sports, you can order up a simulated image of Tiger Woods, or a “tennis”partner. If you want a pet, you go online and adopt a computer generated horse or a panda.

Virtual Personality

Refers to the relationships you build through an online persona only. That persona may be very close to who you are in real life, as in a blogger, or further from who you are, as in a made-up personality you create on a site that invites you to cultivate relationships with others who are doing the same.

Virtual Affairs
Refers to a virtual personality who you actually intend to meet, although that may not happen. A glowing friend revealed that she and her “new guy” had “hot sex” but had not actually met . . . yet. They were just “sexting.” You may e-mail, text or IM your “virtual paramour”every day to touch base and catch up. It’s as if you are relating to a person you know well, but in truth, they only appear on your laptop, tablet or phone.

Virtual Celebrity
Aren’t Facebook birthdays the best! Who knew so many people would take the time to come out of the digital woodwork and drop you a line. It can make you feel loved and appreciated and . . .the thing many of us have all craved since high school . . . POPULAR. How many friends do YOU have???

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Let us be clear about this: I love the new forms of online communication. I like to share something that has touched me with others. I enjoy wasting and investing time watching how others present their thoughts and their lives to the world. I like to browse other people’s musings when I am waiting for the train or avoiding writing in the mornings, or just taking a break from a stuck moment. I love having friends I can talk to across the globe. I genuinely appreciate keeping up to date and filled in on some of my close friends whereabouts, adventures, trials and tribulations. People have more access to powerful information. I am very grateful for being able to let a large number of people know when I am teaching and speaking. So generally, I am a fan.

However, technology makes it so easy to reach out and touch someone that I fear actual touching potential, that is, face-to-face contact as an essential aspect of intimacy, is becoming endangered. Although I don’t consider them simulationships, I can and do conduct therapy and consulting sessions by phone and web-cam with people I have never physically met. Think about it; with all the options to communicate these days, what if the body is becoming obsolete?

Sitting with someone in the flesh is an awesome endeavor. The body is amazing. It emits energy, and reveals essential truths about a person — posture, breathing patterns, smell, facial expressions — all communicate more than words. The body can be touched, invaded, brought to bliss or tortured. It cannot be obliterated by the closing of a screen. Naturally, the vulnerability and risk in a live encounter is much higher.

For all the people that you play with online in the above-mentioned formats, it is very difficult to feel genuinely connected to them when you really need the presence of another. Often, when one is not truly connected to oneself, Facebook, Twitter and forums like it can be a place used to circulate a lot of drama and negativity. I have seen long threads of virtual arguments that ultimately do not have any significant content. I have listened to stories about how people log on to feel connected, but end up feeling bad about themselves, by comparing themselves to images of what other people are doing. It can be very painful and confusing when someone you have never actually met but who you feel a strong connection with, drops off the face of the screen, and even more disappointing when you actual try to transition a simulationship into a real relationship but the live person is nothing like the avatar that you bonded with.

Loving social media as I do, I am a huge proponent of real, physical contact. The risks and responsibility inherent in actually getting to know someone in the flesh are also where much of the pleasure of life and learning lives: seeing someone’s smile light up; understanding what makes them tick; what turns them on and off, and how they react when things don’t go their way. There is great value and importance in creating relationships with people who will show up and come through for you in a bind and for whom you can do the same. Real relationships provide essential nutrients for the soul. Social media can at times be like candy. It tastes good and satisfies a craving in the moment, but does not provide the sustenance of healthy embodied relationships.

So I am with the twins. I see the lure, I like the idea and the newness of simulationships, but I much prefer riding the real relationship train. Yet I am also willing to accept, in this new day and age, that I need both. So I vow to play online consciously, in order to create healthy balance and to avoid the empty, virtual-contact hangover that too much time online can produce. Here are the questions I am engaged in. I invite you to explore them and answer specifically as a way of honoring yourself and keeping your heart and mind clear of detritus and 2D, harmful thoughts.

      • For what purposes do I use social media and online interactions?
      • Do I feel my body, and if so, what happens in it, when I spend time online?
      • Is there anything about spending time online that is problematic for me?
      • Do I need to create structure around online time in order to maintain a healthy sense of vitality and stay connected to myself and to others?
      • What, if anything, am I avoiding by being online?
      And remember,

Love Yourself

    no matter what.
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