Tangled Webs

    A Living Doll
Issue 4.14
Nov 3, 1999

You Are Entering Another Dimension

I had thought that this trend was inevitable and that its real impact would be seen first in Japan. I was right about inevitability, but wrong about location. On the Internet, the line between real and virtual has been largely irrelevant for years, and in 1996 HoriPro introduced the world to Kyoko Date, a computer-generated model/actress. She was welcomed into Japanese pop culture with open arms, and few seemed to care that she had no independent existence.

Most attributed Kyoko's mainstream popularity to novelty, but something much more fundamental was, and is, afoot. Those wishing to find out more about Kyoko can do so at http://www.dhw.co.jp/horipro/talent/DK96/index_e.html. The site contains pictures, a brief biography, interviews, and lists of Kyoko's likes, dislikes and future aspirations.

Kyoko's career has been rather typical for a Japanese pop star. For a few years, she recorded albums, hosted TV shows, did a fair amount of modeling work, and made a few marginally successful attempts to attract notice overseas. Recently, however, Kyoko's career has been in the doldrums. Many of her Japanese fans have found other objects of affection and internationally, she has been pushed out of the limelight by Lara Croft, the absurdly buxom heroine of the Tomb Raider series of computer games.

There's the Signpost Up Ahead

While reading or talking to people about Lara or Kyoko, one quickly realizes that most of their fans view them as quite real. Of course, everyone is aware that neither Kyoko nor Lara have a corporeal form, but that does not seem to stop large numbers of people from developing strong feelings for them.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of websites devoted to Laura. Fans who not only post interviews, trivia, and pictures but their own poems and love letters to Lara. Eidos, the game's publisher, receives quite a bit of email for Lara and in fact encourages people to write to her. (http://www.eidos.co.uk/lara99/letterfront.html)

Granted, all manner of peculiar predilection can be found on the Internet, and as I pointed out before, the line between real and virtual has been irrelevant for some time. So perhaps the fact that thousands of Internet users have a crush on Lara or Kyoko is not all that surprising and does not indicative a larger societal trend. We can simply shrug our our shoulders and suggest that thousands of Internet users need to get a life. Lara, however, is having an even greater influence outside of cyberspace than in it.

The Across the Harbor festival held in Amsterdam in June consisted of dance troupes, DJs, performers and artists of all types, and it centered entirely on Lara Croft. Not the Tomb Raider game, but on Lara herself. Outside the the event, concerned parents debated whether Lara Croft was a suitable role model for young girls. A role model. Lara is very real to a lot of people.

Perhaps the clearest signal that Lara's charms reach beyond the bounds of cyberspace, however, was her appearance in the August edition of Playboy -- which I obtained for research purposes only, I assure you. The photos were of a physical model. The tie in with Lara Croft was to boost sales. Unfortunately, the plan backfired on Playboy. Core Design, Lara's creators, stepped in to defend her honor and received a judgment requiring stickers to be placed over the offending images.

The Next Stop...

So how strange is all this? Should people who are infatuated with women (or men) who don't physically exist seek counseling? Probably. But after a great deal of thought, I must admit that I honestly can't see how an infatuation with Kyoko Date or Lara Croft is significantly different than an infatuation with Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe.

Granted, at one time Audrey and Marilyn did unquestionably exist, and for those both old enough and fortunate enough to have met them, they had a real physical existence. For the rest of us, however, they are not and never will be physically real. All we will ever know about them will come from third party biographers, and our contact with them will always be confined to a two dimensional projection.

Frankly speaking, the situation is much the same with celebrities who are still alive. Advances in virtual reality software aside, most people have approximately the same chance of running into Sandra Bullock as they do Kyoko Date. And when we occasionally meet celebrities, we often find that they are not at all like the personas created by their marketing and public relations teams. The person we image them to be does not exist.

Perhaps when the cinema was new, falling in love with movie stars was considered odd. For better or worse, however, society has gotten over it. We see nothing peculiar about people being attracted to celebrities and talking about them as if they were close friends. Intellectually, most of us understand that we really know nothing about these people, but emotionally it does not matter. How much of a stretch is it to simply remove the need for the human representation of the persona?

Apparently, it is a very small one and one that many have already taken. Within a generation, there will be little significant difference between physical and computer-generated celebrities. Teens will swoon over them, magazines will write exposes about their secret pasts, politicians will use them to rally support for their causes, and parents will hold them up as role models.

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© Copyright 1999, Tim Romero, t3@vanguardjp.com
This article fist appeared in the November 1999 edition of Computing Japan.
Tangled Webs may be distributed freely provided this copyright notice is included.
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