From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

September 26, 1999*: a petal fallen from your soul

Everyone has their own way of commemorating Yom Kippur. Over the years (and particularly before I had a family) I used to devote much of my day to listening to music that ranged from cantorials, to Bach to jazz. But having young children in the house makes that particular liturgy difficult, and we've learned to partake in that favorite of Israeli Yom Kippur pastimes - watching videos - instead. This year, however, an accident prevented us from using our video in this important and traditional manner.

Toward the end of the day, however, a movie showed up our on kibbutz video channel which I felt it was my professional obligation to watch, and since I hadn't seen any television throughout the day, I felt I could permit myself a film. Thus it was that I finally saw You've Got Mail. And though the film has already received more attention than it deserves from countless internet sources, it's hard for me not to give my own take on the film here - especially since from the inception of this column its subtitle has been "an occasional column on computer and information technologies in everyday life".

You've Got Mail is, of course, a remake of The Shop Around the Corner, updated for today's technology. Is there anything significantly different between the pen pals of the original corresponding by mail and today's heroes corresponding by e-mail? Not that I can tell, or at least remember.

The film's producers are aware that there's something alienating about sitting in front of a computer all the time (in our popular culture, at least), even if what's transpiring is a love story. Thus efforts are made to make the computer more personal. We see our heroine in bed with the computer, for instance (the movie couldn't have been made before laptops), and instead of having to read the letters on the (computer) screen over our heroes' shoulders, we get voice over. (That's a real life possibility today as well, though I doubt that anyone would choose it.)

But of course the central idea around which the story revolves is that there's something missing in the real life relationships of these people, and that via an e-mail relationship that "something" can come out. There's nothing really strange or novel in that idea. After all, one of the nicest aspects of letter writing in general, and thus also of e-mail, is that we have the time to consider our thoughts, to choose our words, to construct our sentences. We don't expose ourselves immediately, but instead only click on send when we're ready. We're always on a stage, choosing how to present ourselves, but with letters and with e-mail we also have a chance to hold a dress rehearsal. Our popular culture is filled with stories of love that has blossomed from a chance meeting in a chat room, or through an e-mail correspondence. We really shouldn't be surprised that people find soul mates in this manner. Ours is a culture that puts great importance on physical appearance, while paying lip service to the idea of a real me beneath the surface, an identity that doesn't get to present itself because physical appearance  so dominates people's opinions. Today's virtual media allow us to pick and choose the aspects of our character that we want to present to others. It's neither more or less real, but simply by being less immediate we have more control over how others will see and judge us.

The computer screen reads:
Sapphire: My company specializes in making plastic gnomes.
Dirk: Really? My company makes plastic gnomes too!
We also shouldn't be surprised when these love affairs suddenly fall apart completely and one of the parties exclaims: S/he was totally different from the charming person I met via the internet. It's not a question of the real person suddenly being revealed. It's simply a case of people presenting themselves differently in different settings. If you meet someone in a bar it's a fair guess that they'll behave differently than if you meet him or her at a concert, or at a sporting event, or at a library, or even in some virtual realm. People who remain just friends often do so because they discover that they don't succeed in translating their relationship from one setting to another. None of these meeting places is more or less real than any other, though I suppose that if you're going to establish a relationship with someone and you expect to conduct that relationship in libraries, that person's behavior in a bar wouldn't be the best basis upon which to judge the future quality of that relationship.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film for me was the deepening of the virtual relationship expressed by the transition from using e-mail to communicating via an instant messager. Though both of these are internet based text media, there's something distinct about each. Yes, one can still consider what you've written before clicking on send, but there's definitely something more immediate about the messager. You know the other person is there at the moment you're writing, and that that other person is waiting for you to write something. Such a move, from the laid-back, take your time about it atmosphere of e-mail, to the pressured, get your message off already realm of ICQ could definitely be a test of a relationship, but, not surprisingly, it doesn't get examined in the film. The film is about real versus virtual as prototypes, not as truly real realms unto themselves with numerous nuances within each type.

Though You've Got Mail is essentially a remake of The Shop Around the Corner, to my mind both films owe a great deal to Edmund Rostand's classic play Cyrano de Bergerac (hint, hint). In these newer versions the hero's words win the love of the heroine only when they're divorced from his physical identity and are expressed on paper (or via bits). In the Rostand version the words become someone else's, and that someone else (Christian) wins Roxane with, and because of, them. Cyrano's words have taken on a life of their own, and it's hard to decide which is the virtual and which the real. When Roxane discovers that it was Cyrano who wrote Christian's letters she confesses that it was really him that she loves. But he responds that in fairly tales that would be enough to change the beast into a prince, but that in real life:

I remain the same, up to the last!
In Hollywood the conflict between the virtual and the real worlds has to be resolved (with the real winning by taking on the best aspects of the virtual). In Cyrano's world the two are fated to remain separate. In our own I'm not sure it really matters.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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