Zink: No STDs, but other dangers in virtual life

In his novel “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture,” Douglas Coupland coins the term “ultra short-term nostalgia,” defined as the modern feeling of “homesickness for the extremely recent past.” That’s the sentiment I felt on Tuesday, immediately upon discovering the existence of sexually-transmitted-disease e-cards.

It is now possible to send digital greeting cards via e-mail anonymously to notify your romantic liaisons — or gullible, hard-partying friends — that you may have given them a venereal disease.

“Who? What? When? Where? It doesn’t matter. I got an STD,” one card reads. “You might have it too.” Says another; “It’s not what you brought to the party, it’s what you left with.” Beneath the slogan is a generic encouragement to get tested, followed by a space for a personalized message, such as “P.S. Happy Birthday,” or “Don’t worry, I think it’s one of the curable ones.”

The operators of the free notification site, InSpot.org, argue that while STD e-cards may be perceived in some quarters as being tacky, they offer a tangible benefit to public health by controlling the spread of disease. Often, people do not notify their sexual partners about their infections because, as e-card proponent Deb Levine, executive director of Internet Sexuality Information Services, told CNN, “It’s not the easiest thing to do.”

Levine’s comment calls to mind an old “Saturday Night Live” sketch in which a doctor diagnoses James Bond, the womanizing British spy, with 107 separate sexually transmitted diseases. The alarmed doctor admonishes Bond that it is his duty “as a government agent and a gentleman” to personally call each of the 8,000 women with whom he had slept in the last five years and deliver the news.

A telephone conversation ensues:”Hello, is Octopussy there? Great! Hello. Hi, honey, it’s James. Uh, listen, something kind of funny’s come up! No … not laugh-out-loud funny but more just weird. Yeah. I have 107 venereal diseases. Hello?”

This sketch was uproariously funny when it aired back in 1999. But in 2008, it is becoming an anachronism. In the near future, viewers will stare blankly at their televisions, computers or holo-screens, wondering why Bond would have willingly subjected himself to an eight-day ordeal of awkward cold calls. Why, they might ask, couldn’t the suave secret agent have simply forwarded around the appropriate e-card to the Bond-conquests-discuss mailing list?

The STD phone call isn’t the only messy social interaction that has been made tidier by the rapid progress of modern technology. Online comment boards provide a safe, anonymous forum for heated arguments, mean spirited gossip and the general venting of rage. Relationships can now be started or ended through a host of impersonal media: e-mails, Facebook messages, online chats, Twitter, LiveJournal.

In Malaysia, it is now possible for a man to legally divorce his wife via text message.

Some people are choosing to vacate real life altogether. Last August, a Wall Street Journal article recounted the heartrending story of Sue Hoogestraat, whose husband Ric had become fixated on the online game Second Life, even finding for himself a virtual girlfriend. “You try to talk to someone or bring them a drink,” Sue lamented, “and they’ll be having sex with a cartoon.”

The allure of Second Life is that it offers an immense range of possibilities, all divorced from the unsightliness of the real world. In Second Life, there’s no old age, obesity, pain, death, children, bad breath, hunger or venereal disease. Freed from these constraints, you can make and sell your own digital works of art, build that restaurant you’ve always dreamed of owning or meet a virtual partner.

Yet if the risks of a second life are less pronounced, so too are the rewards. Virtual art sucks, virtual food is tasteless and virtual relationships seem mainly predicated on brightly colored animated characters enacting pixilated parodies of various sex acts. In Second Life, your character can fly, but you can’t feel the wind on its face.

When we use the Internet to avoid personal risks and to cop-out of difficult social situations, we likewise shut ourselves off from a range of meaningful human experiences. Even personal rejections, tears, harsh words and recriminations have important lessons to teach us. And they make the good times — the real, tangible good times — all the sweeter.

So the next time you suspect you’ve transmitted your venereal disease, don’t reach for the e-card with the kittens and the “O HAI, U HAV STD” slogan. Pick up the phone instead. You’ll probably get an earful, but you could learn an important lesson in the process: Stop giving people gonorrhea.

Michael Zink is a senior in Saybrook College.

Comments

  • Amen

    "Your character can fly, but you can’t feel the wind on its face". Great line. Hopefully, in light of recent events, society will begin a swing back toward reality.