Images of Aging in Virtual Reality: The Internet and the Community of Affect

Article excerpt

Uncharted opportunities.

The Internet is rapidly becoming the focus of an intense debate concerning the dangers and promises it brings to the postmodern world. Most public discourse calls attention to its promise as a medium for enhancing global commerce and exchange. But its chief promise for our private lives lies in its potential to enable large numbers of people seeking intimacy to come closer together in virtual reality and thereby alleviate their alienation and isolation.

The Internet is also surrounded by controversy because of its unique potential for exploitation and harm in the private domain of affection. When people seek intimacy in virtual reality and in the privacy of their homes, they experience a kind of anonymity that reduces their need for love to its most primal level and, at the same time, allows them to express their needs in more genuine, open, and vulnerable ways than if they were literally standing next to someone they knew. By definition, virtual reality is devoid of any social context, so on the Internet an individual can shed his or her most obvious social and physical attributes: age, gender, and physical appearance to name a few. Moreover, in virtual reality people can represent themselves not as they are, but as they wish to be. In one case, an 83-year-old man "escaped" from a nursing home to rendezvous with a 14-year-old girl he had met online and begun to love. Another case involved a Palestinian woman who lured an Israeli youth to his death through the promise of a romantic adventure.

Certainly, people in face-to-face relationships can disguise and mask their social and physical images in order to manipulate their identities. But the degree of manipulation possible in virtual reality represents something revolutionary, a creative fantasy, an entirely imaginative persona, that is not possible in face-to-face relationships. This quality explains why fraud has become rampant and why, in response to such dangers on the Internet, parents seek legal protections against pornography and chat rooms that their unsupervised children can visit.

As seekers of family intimacy on the Internet, older people, too, are subject to both its promises and its dangers. Today in the United States an estimated 40 million "distant" adult children and their elderly parents live too far apart to maintain frequent face-to-face contacts and communications (Climo, 1992). Almost half of these elderly parents have at least one child living over 150 miles away, and one-third have at least one child over 500 miles away (Moss, Moss, and Moles, 1985; Federal Council on Aging, 1982). By the 1990s, some 7 million elderly Americans, about 25 percent, had children living 100-200 miles away, but none living closer.

The time has come to examine the nature of affective relationships and communications in these dispersed families. A recent article in Newsweek (2000) described a woman's complaints and frustrations concerning the unprecedented issues that arose in a family feud on the Internet. Because we know very little about how people sustain distant intergenerational relationships in the new virtual diaspora, basic research is vital if we are to understand how dispersed generations in families use the Internet to express their affectional attachments, family solidarity, and other sentiments that bind them across space and over time.

To begin this inquiry we must set aside prior theoretical models and their residual and misleading assumptions-for example, that feelings of generational affection are solidified in the universal dynamics of childhood experiences in faniilies and are therefore identical for both near and distant adult intergenerational relationships. Instead, we must consider the possibility that our psychic as well as our cultural lives may involve qualitatively different dynamic processes and reactions to near and distant adult relationships (Climo, 1992). Even a cursory view reveals that some important dimensions of intimate proximal relationships are lost or changed in virtual relationships and communications. …