THE SHOWDOWN BETWEEN IN-PERSON AND CYBERSPACE RELATIONSHIPS:
CAN I HOLD YOU IN CYBERSPACE?

by John Suler, Ph.D.

Humans need physical contact with each other. Infants sink into depression and die without it. How parents interact physically with them becomes a cornerstone of their identity and well-being. Adults deprived of tactile contact for long periods will tell you just how depriving it feels. In day to day relationships, never underestimate the power of a handshake, a pat on the back, a hug, or a kiss.

On this level of human relating, cyberspace falls short... way short. In multimedia chat communication there are some vague hints of physical contact, as when you snuggle up your avatar next to someone else's. But this is a far cry from the in-person counterpart. Unfortunately, it's not very likely that CSR -- even holographic ones -- will ever develop kinesthetic capabilities, unless technology figures out how to accurately record someone's caress and transmit that digital record into the other's nervous system. Not very likely. You can argue until the cows come home about how you can psychologically and emotionally embrace someone through words alone, but the bottom line is that you can't and probably never will be able to hold your loved one in cyberspace.

In the physical, tactile, spatial world we also can do things with people. We can play tennis, go for a walk, eat dinner together... and, of course, have sex. Doing things with people creates bonds. It creates a history to the relationship. Are these things possible in CSR? Sort of. In multimedia environments, we can "meet" people at some specified site and move with them from one visual setting to another. It feels a bit like "going places" with them. There also are lots of games we can play with others via the Internet -- games that sometimes have an imaginary physical feeling to them. Then, of course, there's cybersex, which mostly consists of talking dirty to each other. That's "doing" something, isn't it?

While doing things with others certainly is possible on the Internet, it doesn't have as powerful a physical, tactile, or spatial feeling as activities in IPR. Almost anything you can do with someone in cyberspace you could also do with them in-person, simply by the fact that they can be sitting side-by-side with you while you do it. But the reverse isn't true -- everything you can do with someone in-person can't be duplicated in cyberspace. That's a big disadvantage for CSR.

09/05/98

John Suler, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at Rider University and a practicing clinical psychologist. He has published on psychotherapy, mental imagery, and eastern philosophy. He currently maintains several web sites.

 

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