Last Updated: Mon Jul 25, 2011 02:15 am (KSA) 23:15 pm (GMT)

Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario / Social Meditations: Will you E-Date? E-Engage? E-Marry?

Beijing office worker Jiang Hui surfs the internet looking for love at a cafe in Beijing on February 5, 2010. (Getty Photo)
Beijing office worker Jiang Hui surfs the internet looking for love at a cafe in Beijing on February 5, 2010. (Getty Photo)

It’s not only calls to protest that are happening on the Internet these days. Outside the zones of citizens’ disquietude is a massive world where private rather than public affairs preoccupy those who sport a laptop, iPad, or cellphone.

One of the most intriguing, and perhaps most overlooked, developments in cyberspace is the “digitalization of intimacy.” Contrary to the widely-held perception that cyber-anonymity gives rise to opportunities for illicit liaisons, it has opened up limitless possibilities to search for the ultimate partnership.

Various websites offer different specs - religion, age, salary range, likes, dislikes - and commands allow for narrowed searches - children/no children; living at home/living alone; smoking/drinking; interfaith/mono-faith. Simply put, the Internet has become the hunting ground for meaningful relationships, the kind that may even culminate in lifetime togetherness.

Take Nanette, for example, a Filipina chat room enthusiast. Some five years ago, she met Rob through an electronic introduction from a fellow worker who met her husband via a chat room.

Seeing her friend’s marital success after a prolonged online courtship, Nanette thought she might give this a try. After all, she had little to lose. Work had become tedious and the daily grind hardly gave her reason to face the world every morning. Besides, she could always log off.

The first of many emails and Skype chats with Rob flourished and blossomed into an Internet romance - one that would last a good two years.

All that Nanette saw of her suitor was what was conveyed via webcam. Mostly, he was a series of text and email messages in Times New Roman font 12. During evenings when Internet connections were slow, Rob’s face would pixelate, his voice would slow down to a drawl, and so they would switch to chat mode.

The closest they would get to a physical embrace would be an exchange of Smileys and bear hug icons traded back and forth some twenty times before finally signing off.

Nanette’s story mirrors the larger intersection between emotions, history and political economy -- a three-way nexus that produces what the sociologist Nicole Constable terms “the cultural logic of desire.”

It’s a logic that works both ways. For Filipina women, the logic operates on a cultural belief about the widely-acclaimed American benevolence, a direct outgrowth of the Philippine colonial experience that ingrained among Filipinos the American values of equality and liberty.

For American men, or of late, the generic Caucasian male, the logic emanates from a perception of Filipinas as the last remaining vessels of traditionalism, conservatism, old-fashioned family ties with their attendant loyalties and devotions. A “lost last frontier of the good old-fashioned family,” if you will. Throw in a fetishism for Asian slimness, docility, and alleged subservience to conjure the perfect package of the idealized wife.

A further element in this cultural logic is the role of emotions. Is love possible in cyberspace? Without the attendant sensations of touching someone’s hand or caressing someone’s hair, is love even mentionable? And what about the thrill of instant chemistry and the emotional spontaneous combustion that occurs when two heterosexuals lock eyes for the first time?

Or is this purely pragmatic - a rational quest for increasing marginal utility? An economic transaction using the currency of emotions?

Perhaps we are all a little too taken in by bourgeois notions of romantic love. In the electronic era, Nanette demonstrates that the very meaning of love takes a different turn.

Two years and thousands of emails later, Nanette reads care, affection, honesty from Rob -- the kind that cannot be feigned for far too long because electronic exchanges can be dissipating when there is only pretense. She keeps a faithful record of all their exchanges.

Any inconsistency or lack of “forward trending” in their electronic conversations results in immediate feedback. If necessary, clarifications are sought, misunderstandings straightened. All of these, minus the drama, the argument and the tedium of face-to-face exchanges. It’s like going through spellcheck.

From email dating, the cyber-couple moved on to e-engagement. Rob offered to come to the Philippines. Nanette insisted he go straight to her family upon arrival at the airport.

This was the final test of his devotion. If he was willing to postpone seeing her in the flesh, opting instead to meet her family in a gesture of seriousness of purpose, then he would have demonstrated his commitment and she would yield to his electronic conquest.

Rob flew to Manila and met Nanette’s family, obtained their blessings and immediately presented Nanette with a diamond ring signifying his intention to marry her at the US Embassy even in her office clothes. He was firm about signing a marriage contract soonest, in hard copy, not a pdf or a Word doc. At the Ambassador’s cue, he lifted his bride’s improvised veil and gave her a big kiss, not via cellphone nor as a text message either.

On the morning of their departure for their honeymoon to the United States, they boarded the plane hand in hand, the very first time they were both not clutching a mouse.

Over the years, the queue of Internet brides lengthen, thanks to Facebook, Twitter and You Tube. Virtual love has just gotten easier. Unfortunately, Craigslist was caught with unsavory practices and their website for personals had to close down. But that’s another story for later.

(Teresita Cruz-del Rosario is Visiting Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. She was formerly Assistant Minister during the transition government of President Corazon Aquino. She has a background in sociology and social anthropology and specializes in development and development assistance, migration, governance, and social movements. She can be reached at delrosatess@gmail.com)

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