Endpaper: Due Apprehension in a Brave New World

I got a virtual valentine. I received data-matches. I've been date-sited. Pass the chardonnay and turn up the Marvin Gaye.
By Andrew K. Mandel

I got a virtual valentine. I received data-matches. I've been date-sited. Pass the chardonnay and turn up the Marvin Gaye. Somebody stop me 'cause I'm on fire.

Not quite.

Since Datesite.com hit Cambridge, virtual love has been coming out of the Ethernet. The premise is haunting, really: You write some names down. Datesite sends those lucky seven an electronically generated message, encouraging them to visit the site and guess their secret admirer. If there's a match, what's next? Maybe a little cyber-banter? Go so far as to exchange emoticons?

Datamatch is one thing. It's a lame version of MTV's Singled Out, really. You tell the computer matchmaker about yourself. Our friends at Harvard Computer Society (HCS) automatically weed out the clearly incompatible and magically tell you who also thinks that "The Sound and the Fury" is the appropriate book title to describe their life. Never mind the fact that none of these people will ever talk to one another. This stupid cupid leaves a little intrigue in your life--who are you, Carmen Iglesias?--and technology has done all it can to bring some unlikely pairs together. Case closed.

But Datesite is scary--and is emblematic of the post-modern phenomenon that we will soon face. There are too many choices. Ah, the millennium. In the olden days--say, five years ago--you might send your one sweetheart some daisies to let her know you care. To join the author of last week's endpaper, Noah Oppenheim, in the casino for a moment, in the past, you would bet the farm on a harbored romance and send a dozen roses to votre cherie.

Today, we can place our chips on different parts of the table hoping the roulette wheel will award us with a winner. Maybe one of these possibilities can come true, we say as we toss some names to the lovedocs at Datesite. If I receive a Datesite message, the odds of guessing your intentions are slim. Maybe I think that you put me because you thought I put you because I thought you put me.

Exactly. As I second-guess you--as we all just whiz by one another on the superhighway--the more we get tangled in the Web, searching. More matchless souls in the void, struggling for links.

Call it disposable love. The Internet is pulling us farther apart than closer together. Sure, the global network--the wires, waves and cables spanning the planet--facilitates connections once inconceivable. But the links take us farther away from one another here at home. The Internet encourages a choose-your-own-adventure book that never ends. Like Datesite.com--which sucks more people in with every failed match--the Web as a whole is a self-perpetuating, all-consuming being that almost guarantees we will never be satisfied. Links move us farther along on a tangent; dead-ends make us frustrated.

The Internet is a global reality that is both all-encompassing and hyperexclusive. It brings people together who might never have found one another. It's also anti-community at its zenith, encouraging neither conciliation, nor patience. Spurn what other people want--you are the master of your domain. You choose where you want to be. If that's a "Facts of Life" fan page at 3 a.m., no one can deny you quality time with Tootie.

But where will the hyperlinks end? The Internet redefines the limits of human desire, zipping instant images of gratification 20 inches from our eyeballs. We click at our discretion and can quickly remove ourselves into our own fantasy slide shows. Seventeen roads diverge on a 17" screen.

This mentality extends far beyond the terminals. We don't have time to make do with anything slower than a T-1 connection. We can live virtual lives. Something tells me undergrads weren't pulling out their planners 25 years ago to pencil in Sunday brunch with their roommates. We hear the casualties of the computer age during exam time--with those who can no longer think sequentially and long for a word processor to help them organize their thoughts. Never mind love--there's no time for anything. Off to the gym, off to coffee, off to call the broker. You can go virtually anywhere in the world (except, I suppose, inside the Porcellian). You can obtain a virtual identity (I could be dirtydancer666, if I so chose). We can use virtual money and maintain virtual space. We have become more profilic in our exchanges with one another thanks to the technological revolution, but we spend more time trying to "communicate" than ever before. I'm sure the library checkers who once saw procrastinators scan the periodicals shelf now love to gape at the e-mail receiving line that winds around the lobby. The checkers whisper to one another: "They used to work; now they wait."

We line up to make all sorts of exchanges nowadays--financial, even personal. At the ATM. At the drive-through. We line up in voice-mail and e-mail inboxes, waiting for our turn to be answered. And our frustration with this must be unhealthy, as we clench our fists when the driver in front of us waits five seconds before moving at a newly green traffic light, or as we wring our hands when someone (heaven forbid) has checked their inbox but has not responded to our messages. We have become so paranoid about physical space that we screen calls. We finger-stalk. We struggle to remember password after password, half-recognizing that our information--our data, our ideas--could suddenly vanish if either we or our computers have a lapse in memory.

And while we lack the snazzy conveyor belt that showered, clothed, primped and fed the Jetsons, we can still speed through our minutiae. No more blaming our short attention spans on Sesame Street. Datesite is convenient. Here are some names--find me a date while I dash off for more Jolt and recharge my cell phone. Hand over the remote control and bring on the Ping Pong Network.

Oh, baby, it's a wired world.

Andrew K. Mandel is the associate managing editor of The Harvard Crimson.