Through the Online Looking Glass

America Online, Internet service provider extraordinaire, recently hosted a "Wedding Day."

That's right: online wedding vows, complete with members of the clergy as officiants. Sans hors d'oeuvres and "Here Comes the Bride," of course, but with no shortage of brides and grooms with bright, shiny faces - glowing not from sunlight or photo flashes or even joy and anticipation, but from computer screens flashing 15 inches away.

Predictably, America Online was oh-so-proud to show "just how far we've come from a little white chapel and flower girls!" How far we've come, indeed.

Taken alone, this event is more of an oddity than anything else. The weddings themselves were not legally binding. Each was followed by a traditional ceremony. Bizarre, perhaps, but not too significant. But, taken as an example of a much larger trend, it becomes downright scary. With each passing day, as the Internet spreads to every aspect of our lives, it becomes clearer how society is rapidly transforming - and what an online society could look and feel like. And, in many ways, the picture isn't pretty.

Schools. For instance, an online society would at least partly replace conventional schooling - teachers, books, and classrooms - with the unrigorous, homogenized, and impersonal "schooling" of Websites and CD-ROMs. Federal programs, school budgets, and Microsoft's overt marketing leave little doubt as to this direction.

Personal safety. The World Wide Web, until recently thought of simplistically as a last bastion of freedom of thought and expression, now seems likely to wind up no safer than your average city street or back alley. Pornographers and stalkers, child abusers and terrorists, drug dealers and thieves are already wandering the Web. Today they do so with relative impunity and anonymity, though as recognition of the problems increase, so too will regulation and law enforcement.

Public life. Institutions like libraries, post offices, shopping districts, bank branches, and government offices seem destined to lose customers and support. Festivals, political rallies, and ceremonies are bound to be similarly affected by the move online. The citizen of the foreseeable future will vote, bank, communicate, read, and shop from home - presumably to avoid troublesome human contact.

Work. The white-collar corporate world has already begun a huge transformation, often forsaking productive contributions from experienced employees, choosing instead to amass a force of computer-interfaced workers whose skills may not extend far beyond manipulating the mouse, responding to e-mail, and upgrading their Windows PCs every six months.

Recreation. Family and community recreation like Little League baseball, board games, family dinners, and walks in the park, even live theater and music, seem to be gradually giving way to downloaded digital music, the NBA Website, and of course a limitless assortment of electronic games and activities that are solitary but pretend not to be.

Physical experience. And finally, we may be witnessing the yielding of physical reality and experience to the seductive appeal of "virtual" reality and "virtual" experience - digitally enhanced photos, computer animation, and even simulated tactile feedback in place of actual touching, feeling, moving, and living. This frightening transformation stems from the growing perception that there's no need to actually experience something when it can be virtually experienced from the living room.

These troubling trends are neatly encapsulated in America Online's "Wedding Day" - which is, at its cold digital core, a wedding between us and the Internet.

So let's decide, while the choice remains ours, whether the bride and groom's first kiss should leave lip marks on computer monitors. Whether a laser printer should take the place of a photographer. Whether a honeymoon should become a trip to Honolulu's tourism Website.

Let's decide for ourselves that we're still people - that frequent and varied human interaction is what we're made of, what truly is in our best and natural interests. That some "old-fashioned" ways are the best ways. Let's decide right now that "I do <Enter>" should never replace "I do."

* Daniel Nahmod is a Chicago-based writer on computers and the Internet, as well as a professional programmer/analyst.

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