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During my latest visit to Rome, whilst waiting for my luggage to appear, I happened to overhear a conversation going on between youngsters at the airport. It was a while ago, they were part of a school trip and were returning home to spend the rest of the weekend.

“Ok guys, I’ll see you on Facebook!”

“Yeah, see you there then!”

The spotty “Emo” teen actually used the verb “to see” to define what was going to be unequivocally a virtual encounter with a list of names on his computer screen. Gosh…. Me and my friends used to meet down the street, on the same spot: the benches under the trees “See you at the benches!” was the general invitation among us. None of this Facebook nonsense.Then it struck me. Why am I surprised? And why do I think I am not another victim of virtual-living? Listen to this extract of conversation between me and my other half:

“Hun, what are you doing?

“I’m just finishing to harvest some potatoes….”

“Come on! We’re running late!”

“WAIT! It took them 12 hours to grow…. I can’t miss the harvesting now or they’ll all go bad…”.

So very important.

Or, more scarily:

“Hun, Gabriel needs changing, I think he’s pooped…”

“Oh…. Crap…. Do you mind doing it? I’m still arranging some stones around my plantations….”

And even:

“MARCO! You are burning our dinner, can’t you see? WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING ON THAT STUPID PHONE OF YOURS?:”

“Uh? Oh! Sorry…. I was just planting some watermelons for the night….”

Me bad.

Before you start wondering, no, I haven’t ditched my city living in favour of a countryside existence revolving around cockerels, cows, muddy wellies and apple-picking festivals…… I wish I could…. I have fallen for another trap: The Smurf’s Village. A cute little virtual village where you get to be …. Well….. GOD!

I decide what to build and where, also I get to decide what to plant and how to lay down roads and stuff. It gives me the thrill of an outdoor stroll, with all the birds chirping and the little river murmuring away under the bushes and no muddy boots to deal with afterwards. It sounds like a teenage nerd dream, but here I am , 35 years old, with a son to look after, trying to jostle my day between nappy changes and potatoes to be harvested. What the fuck! So sad, really.

Furthermore, I do come from the countryside, back in Italy. My dad would start vomiting crucifixes if he knew that I spend the evening planting potatoes and digging trenches for my irrigation plant. God knows he had to restrain me and throw me in the trunk of his car to get me to the land and do some work with him. What can I tell you? Me and dirt under the nails don’t go together.

But returning to the impending demise of my real life in favour of my virtual one, why is it all happening? Is it happening only to me? I mean, the signs are all there: I do my food shopping online and get it delivered at home on a weekly basis (Ocado.com, Nifeislife.com), I do my internet banking, my bills get paid online, I socialize mainly online (Facebook, A Small World) as all my friends are in a full-time employment whilst I am a full-time parent, hence isolated from the physical world. I even use Skype to get in touch with people across the globe and have a ‘face-to-face’ chat whilst sitting comfortably on my sofa. Scary uh? I could easily live my life without ever leaving my sofa. The image of the morbidly obese lady that was found dead on her sofa and had to be ‘peeled off’ it, as she spent so much time sitting on it, she was welded on its fake leather cover, sprung into my mind. Oh my God! Am I going to get fat? Luckily my sofas are upholstered in linen. That was a close call….

I don’t even remember when it was the last time I wrote a letter…. It seems unthinkable now that we had to write to somebody to stay in touch. As a nearly-recluse teen, I used to write my knuckles off to a large number of pen-pals…. I used to have several sets of letter-paper and envelopes and several sheets of stamps. My I have wasted so much time…. Today, the email has killed off the romantic art of letter-writing in favour of a no-fuss, not time wasted electronic reality.

Also, I never carry cash on me. I always seem to have cards. Whatever money I have to spend each month is a ‘virtual credit’, a number on a computer screen that keeps going down each time I make a purchase on my card. At the end of every working month, at payday, we get a credit into our account and we could spend it all without ever touching a penny. So there. The 80% of my life takes place in a virtual bubble. Now even the Smurfs are here to lure me deeper down in the cyberspace and away from my reality.

Computers rule the world, they have made our lives better, more organised, more efficient, more productive, more convenient. Our laptops have made us more independent, more ‘in control’. In fact, we are so independent that we are facing isolation more than ever. The sense of control or productivity, the perceived sense of being organised… All of these reassuring notions, get so strong because they tap into our laziness, our unsociability, our desire to escape natural selection and social competition. Which is what we’ve been doing ever since we moved our first steps into the world. If Darwin’s theories are to be believed and also considering that, through science, technology and medicine we have ‘exonerated’ ourselves from the laws of natural selection, are we going to fall prey of a virtual-reality selection? The survival of the fittest replaced by the survival of the fastest broadband?

It all seems an exaggeration, and yet, if you think about it, to somebody, it only takes a click of their mouse to erase me or you from their lives. If I am not on your screen, I don’t exist anymore, my name, face and details irrevocably consigned to a bottomless virtual limbo. That’s precarious living. With the ever more readily available internet connection advancing, what’s going to happen to the world as we knew it? To the little post offices on the corner, the little shops where you can always find that particular item you cannot find anywhere else, to the telephone that helped us stay in touch with far away loved ones for so many years, what’s going to happen to our well beloved money?

What’s going to happen to us?

Are we going to evolve and mutate into some sort of sofa-sized potatoes with long tentacles, not very mobile and agile, but very fast at typing?

Are we going to get square eyes? Eyes that are resistant to the retina-burning effects of overexposure to a computer screen light?

It seems a reality that is already creating some concern among health organisations.

A year and a half ago, in Italy, at the Policlinico Gemelli in Rome, a new ‘Web Addiction Unit’ opened to the public, with the aim of treating all of those people that, whether by choice or circumstances, find themselves embroiled in a dependency from their online existence, to the point of neglecting their real lives.

Scary thought….

Even scarier the fact that, after 18 hours, my pumpkins are ready to be harvested on my Smurf’s Village and I am here writing….

Sorry, gotta go.



Q