CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 18 . . . .May 13, 2005
Technology is about overcoming our biological unluckiness.
Almost Real: Connecting in a Wired World raises two intriguing and inter-related questions: Does virtual community pose an improvement upon, or an impediment to, real community? Furthermore, in a world increasingly dependent on technology, is the distinction between the real and the almost real necessary or even valid? To explore the social impact of Internet technology, director Ann Shin interviews a cross-section of North Americans. The interviewees range in age from an eight-year-old boy to a retired couple, and although their motives differ vastly, all rely on the Internet on a daily basis.
As the documentary unfolds, interviewees articulate what it means to them to be "connecting in a wired world." Some unexpected parallels emerge between the most unlikely individuals. First, there is Aquinas, who in the solitude of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, New Mexico, is developing wireless prayer technology. Meanwhile, in London, Ontario, one hundred Counterstrike devotees congregate for a LAN party. There, they don headsets and team up to wage virtual counter-terrorist warfare. At farther remove, somewhere in the English Channel, Ryan runs an encrypted data haven at Sealand. Ryan's parents live in Pennsylvania; he last saw them two or three years ago. He prefers spending time with his online friends who share like-minded interests. Due to Ryan's reclusive habits and primarily nocturnal existence, his co-workers have nicknamed him "The Ghost."
Turning from spectre to spectacle, the documentary next profiles a couple about to be "collared" in an online ceremony as a pledge of their faithfulness to each other - at least, as long as they both so choose. "Lisa" presents herself as a practical divorced Colorado parent by day, but by night, her alter ego finds fulfillment as a "love slave" to her "Master" in London, England, in a Dominance-and-Submission chat room. Up in Canada, 55-year-old Bernard from St. John's, Newfoundland, reveals his penchant for partying well into the wee hours of morning with twenty-somethings like his roommates, Meaghan H. and Meghan K. His love of the night life, however, takes second place to his passion for designing and populating virtual worlds.
Elsewhere in Canada, the parents of eight-year-old Cody rely on web-based tools and the LearnNet curriculum to homeschool their son. For this Edmonton, Alberta family, online learning is a viable alternative to traditional education. It certainly provides Cody with a reprieve from the undeserved punishment he feels he suffered at the hands of former teachers. In direct contrast to Cody, for whom the world is expanding, for Carlos and Vera Beeck, an elderly couple in Portland, Oregon, the world is contracting. The Beecks reside in a wired seniors' home, their movements tracked by "Wander Watch," an alert monitoring system. Even as Carlos is tracked, he eagerly tracks stem cell research on the Web, hoping that new discoveries will reverse the effects of Vera's Alzheimer's. One way or another, all the interviewees look to technology to help them transcend physical limitations and reach their full potential.
Interspersed with footage of the seven types of techno-users are clips of interviews with three men, never identified within the video, but whom the closing credits thank and list as "experts": Jaron Lanier, Pico Iyer, and William Gibson. According to biographies on the Web, Lanier is the coiner of the term "virtual reality," and an all-around Renaissance man—"a computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author," while Iyer is a travel writer and journalist. Science fiction author Gibson envisioned the reaches of "cyberspace" in the gritty, futuristic Neuromancer. He wrote the novel on a typewriter during the personal computer revolution of the early 1980s; today, he has his own website and 'blog.' All three share not only a fascination with technology, but also a healthy skepticism about its psychological and social implications. Lanier and Gibson likely agree with Iyer's assertion that there is a "shadow side" to technology, the danger of people living a "secondhand" existence. However, as Iyer is quick to point out, this "dark side" is only a manifestation of the "disconnect" between human beings that always already exists.
Nor is Almost Real immune to that shadowiness, despite that it highlights many benefits of connectivity. As Bernard so eloquently phrases it, online "you can be more deliberately who you want to be." Whatever he may be in the virtual world, it is unsettling to find Bernard in the real world setting up house with two females half his age; on the surface, anyway, such an arrangement appears potentially exploitative or predatory. More troubling still is any attempt to reconcile the different identities of "Lisa." On the one hand is the woman who meticulously folds laundry, cuts the stems off strawberries, and juggles her children and career. Conversely, there is the woman who explains what the overlapping abbreviation BDSM stands for, and who admits that her online submissive persona behaves contrary to her dominant self in real life. At the very least, these two examples caution viewers against the potential misuse and abuse of power within virtual relationships.
Still, Almost Real strikes this reviewer as neither technophobic nor technophilic; rather, the director's choice of visual imagery accentuates the film's ambivalence towards technology. The images are studies in contrast: of light and dark, old and young, natural and manufactured, past and present, solitude and society. For instance, the gray, overcast sky and wind-whipped waves of the English Channel stand out in stark contrast to the sun washing over majestic mountain peaks in the New Mexico desert as it rises and sets. Additionally, young Cody seems perfectly at home with being home schooled while Carlos and Vera Beeck are never quite at home in their "home," but have schooled themselves to quiet resignation. These and other similar juxtapositions create tension for viewers, yet the tension is always balanced.
Film editing techniques and camera angles further contribute to the fluctuating moods in Almost Real. In one particularly vivid example, Aquinas has no sooner vocalized his aspirations for wireless prayer technology than the film abruptly cuts to "Lisa" and Charles's collaring ceremony, moving the viewer from solemnity to festivity in short order. In tandem with the director's decision to splice together the seven different interviewee narratives, the camera's depiction of human bodies—or rather, body parts—heightens the disjointed feeling evoked by these rapid transitions. There are close-ups of hands and fingers, fingernails polished and plain, depressing mouses and keyboards. There are lids and lashes, dilated pupils riveted on monitors. There are ears, some pierced, some unadorned, and noses in profile, not to mention numerous backs. Viewers become aware of how fragmented human beings have become, how fused with computers and technology. Punctuated sporadically by the distinctive sound of a dial-up modem connecting to the Internet, the images suggest that humans have already become the "Cypersons" of Vincent Letellier's composition by that title, which plays during the end credits. Letellier's music brings the film to an appropriately ambiguous close, its haunting tune neither sorrowful nor celebratory, but both simultaneously.
As Almost Real emphasizes, one cannot reconcile the dichotomy that technology poses—at least not within the population represented by director Shin's predominantly Caucasian, middle-class, North American sample. Technology so permeates our North American lives that we cannot extract ourselves from its influences. If, as interviewee Carlos Beeck asserts, technology is "no more than what people make of it," then viewers need to contemplate the consequences of accepting virtual community as a surrogate for actual community and privileging the spiritual and emotional over the physical and tangible. Perhaps because the film exercises an objective detachment towards, maintains a critical distance from, its subjects, this viewer felt it lacked warmth. However, like the interviewees, each viewer must calculate his or her own personal attitude and response to the "wired world," the latest phase in human evolution.
Audience discretion advised. Some viewers might find objectionable the content that relates to BDSM chat rooms, even though it makes up a very small portion of the film.
Recommended with reservations.
Julie Chychota lives in Winnipeg, MB, with one husband, two cats, and many books. She works for the University of Manitoba and Red River College.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.