‘T here is no new thing under the sun,” said the preacher (Ecclesiastes, 1:9). Well, the preacher had it half right. Sometimes people come up with a brand-new thing in response to an age-old reality. Consider the case of Hong Kong-based software developer Eberhard Schoeneburg. According to recent reports, Mr. Schoeneburg took the age-old reality that the world is full of lonely, socially inhibited men, paired it with the age-old truth that there is always money to be made out of people’s pain and came up with the brand-new idea of Vivienne — a virtual girlfriend who can be accessed, starting later this year, on a brand-new third-generation (or 3G) cell phone.
It’s a potentially brilliant idea. Mr. Schoeneburg is betting that lonely men will pay many times over for this bizarre online companionship: first for monthly access to Vivienne, who is really just a blend of a computerized voice, streaming video images and text messages, and then for the virtual chocolates, flowers, meals, movies and other things that will helpfully be made available for real-life swains to buy “her.”
And that’s just the money he hopes will flow to his company, Artificial Life. The hopeful or curious souls who sign up to sample Vivienne’s cybernetic charms will also have to buy the fancy 3G phone and pay airtime costs to cell-phone operators. Vivienne is no cheap date.
What will buyers actually get for their money when Vivienne is unveiled in Malaysia and Singapore next month and in other countries later in 2005? Both less and more than you might think. This is not pornography. Vivienne doesn’t even disrobe; her most titillating outfits are gym clothes.
What she really is is a tarted-up translation and information service. She is reportedly fluent in seven languages — Chinese, Japanese, Korean, English, German, Spanish and Italian — and can answer questions on 35,000 topics, from sculpture to Swiss banking regulations. Since similar services are already available for free on the Internet, the developers must be counting on the allure of information delivered via a make-believe personality that a man can think of as his friend.
Little girls already know how that works. It’s called playing with dolls. Artificial Life’s version could be called Dolls Without Borders, since it features a much blurrier line between the real and the imaginary. It will even allow a smitten customer to “marry” Vivienne — for a price — whereupon he will acquire a virtual mother-in-law who will call on his real-life cell phone at midnight to check on her daughter.
You would think it couldn’t get any more convoluted than that. Then you read that Artificial Life is working on a virtual boyfriend for women and virtual same-sex partners for gay men and lesbians, and you don’t know whether to laugh or weep. You have to hand it to Artificial Life’s concept developers, though. They may be cynical, but at least they are fashionably inclusive: “Look!” they seem to exclaim. “Women and gay people can be losers, too!”
Losers are what Vivienne is all about, in the end. Mr. Schoeneburg and his team doubtless do not care what form their future customers’ social ineptitude takes — whether it is shyness, awkwardness, ugliness or workaholism that keeps people at home or in the office with their computers and cell phones when everyone else is out having a life, as they say, and meeting flesh-and-blood people. Artificial Life is simply betting two things: that there are a lot of lonely people and that they are infinitely gullible. (“How could they not be?” the company must have reasoned. “They’re losers.”)
One hopes otherwise. It is sad to think there may be men out there whose social skills and aspirations are so deficient that they will pay real money for pretend tanning sessions and opera tickets for a pretty bunch of pixels, following up with a pricey pretend wedding. But the auguries for their deliverance are not good.
The whole story recalls the quintessential literary loser, T.S. Eliot’s poetic antihero J. Alfred Prufrock, whose words still sum up male social paralysis and self-doubt after 90 years: “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?/ I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk upon the beach./ I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each./ I do not think that they will sing to me.”
If Mr. Schoeneburg had been around in 1915 he might have been able to sell poor Prufrock a Vivienne. It probably wouldn’t have done any good. Losers are hard to help. Eliot, a bit of a Prufrock himself, married a woman that year whom he later called, in a play, a “restless shivering painted shadow” — an uncanny anticipation of the look of a video image. Her name was Vivienne. The marriage failed disastrously.
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