Virtual Spouse is the product of two authors, Troy Funk and Sam Racine,
who are each
involved in intimate, long distance relationships. My recent phone conversation with my significant other started me thinking about how people communicate. I was having a trying day and my spouse took the brunt of my frustration. After a few minutes, Spouse said, "So, this is the conversation where everything I say is wrong, and all you want to do is yell at me." Spouse, a very intuitive and intelligent person, was absolutely correct. I was not looking for an exchange. What I wanted was a conversation prototype--a scripted set of responses (or in this case, non-responses) that would fulfill my expectations. Likewise, there are times when Spouse wants a prototype--different from the Need-To-Vent version but a predetermined, agreed-upon script nonetheless. Sometimes, it's the I'll-Always-Love-You-And-Miss-You performance, sometimes it's the You're-The-Best-You-Can-Do-Anything production.
After the third year of our long distance affair, Spouse and I began to communicate electronically, to the almost complete exclusion of telephoning. Email has several practical advantages over telephoning: it is economical, more convenient, and allows for editing (with email, you can take back your words). Beyond practicalities, there are several other benefits--benefits often labeled as criticisms. Telephone may be "the next best thing to being there," but there are times when I don't want to be there. I am tired of interruptions and distractions. Yes, email removes vocal inflections, which means Yes! email removes vocal inflections! No grumbling, no sighs, no strident voices or that I-told-you-so mumbling.
A few months ago I realized that several people have access to Spouse's personal computer and password. I wasn't concerned that people were reading the mail I sent (even though I may have tested the waters of love-as-pornography), but I did start to wonder if I was corresponding with someone other than Spouse. Maybe someone else had intercepted my messages and was now communicating with me. If so, did this change my past communications? Were they still "real" messages from Spouse? If it was someone else, then was my perception of "Spouse" real? To what extent have I created Spouse? Turkle writes that when examining electronic communication, "people are confronted with the degree to which they construct relationships in their own minds" (207).
Turkle tells the story of Peter who flew from North Carolina to Oregon to meet a woman with whom he fell in love while engaged in a MUD (Multi-User Domain). He returned home crushed, realizing that on the MUD, "I saw in her what I wanted to see" (207). Is this why email benefits me, because I only see what I want in Spouse? I don't have to see Spouse as a corporate guru since our conversations are no longer interrupted by Spouse's work? I don't have to feel insignificant since I no longer hear Spouse yawning as I speak?
Having enjoyed/participated/endured long distance relationships, my co-author and I have spent a fair amount of time considering how we construct relationships based on communication--creating Virtual Spouse has forced a lot of our vague ideas to coalesce and crystallize. What follows is a discussion of some of the issues that Troy and I considered when designing Virtual Spouse: language and its role in creating "reality," the privileging of embodiment over disembodiment, and how these views of language and bodies can shape perceptions of electronic communication.
Virtual Spouse is a simulated conversation between you and an electronic "other." Virtual Spouse asks you to create the spouse with whom you will correspond. After creation, you choose a scenario for how you feel, then add details. Next, you chose what type of reaction you want which initiates a conversation in which Virtual Spouse responds. You will converse again, and then chose the type of closing you want. After you finish this conversation, you can initiate another. The possible combinations of creation, scenarios, responses, and closings are exhausting.
If you have time, experience Virtual Spouse again and consider its design in light of the previous discussion. Access to the comments page appears at the end of the Virtual Spouse Response and again at the end of the next discussion. Let us say that we understand that "Spouse" suggests a privileging of married, heterosexual relationships over other lifestyles. It is not our intention to do so, however, this does not excuse our insensitivity. Version Two will be named something else. We appreciate your response and hope you enjoy Virtual Spouse.
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