Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Lost In Space

Those of you lucky (?) enough to have your television sets conjoined to Kabelvision's cornucopia of cack may have seen a recent commercial for a business calling itself, ‘Table for Two Jakarta’. Apparently, these chaps will set you up on a date with someone from their files at a posh restaurant in town... for a fee naturally. Intrigued by the idea of a dating agency in the Big Durian I browsed to the company's website in order to investigate. For research purposes only you understand. The site is well constructed and promises, "Consultation and insightful matches." There is no mention of fees anywhere though which I'm taking to be a bad sign. No doubt the company charges in the executive price bracket. One also has to go through the complicated rigmarole of a consultation meeting, form filling and membership contracts. "Let us be the one who opens up your new beginnings to true love and happines (sic) in this life," Table for Two pronounce and if this greetings card style whimsy hasn't sent you doubled up to the vomitorium then perhaps you should give the service a try.

This is a strange time to be setting up a dating agency though. Over the last couple of years or so, Internet social networking sites such as Friendster and My Space have become hugely successful by essentially providing exactly the same service as dating agencies to all and sundry. What’s more, these websites are free and subscribers have the total freedom to pick and choose from among thousands of people from the comfort of their own homes. My Space has built up a huge user base and the company was recently bought up by Antipodean Antichrist Rupert Murdoch for a massive $580 million. Dating agencies, in comparison, seem quaint and anachronistic in these digitally connected times.

Indonesia's youth are fond of using Friendster in order to chat with their online pals. My Space, on the other hand, represents a more flirtatious use of the possibilities offered by cyberspace. Here, one can browse the personal pages of users from one's own city or country from within certain self-selected criteria (age, marital status, sexual orientation, etc.). One can read personal biographies and look at photos. Find someone that takes your fancy and then simply zap them a message asking them if they would like to meet you for a glass of non-alcoholic lager and a plate of organic fried rice and Bob's your uncle.

Various friends of mine are ardent 'Spacers' however my own single attempt at a My Space meeting saw me fall prey to what I have dubbed the reverse Cinderella syndrome. Many local young ladies enjoy blowing their cash on visits to the many photographic studios that are to be found in the city's shopping malls. Here, their images are airbrushed, touched up and generally Photoshopped until they reach the requisite Vanity Fair front cover standard. This means though, that when you actually meet the person in question in the flesh, there can be a marked discrepancy between the reality and the pixelated perfection of the photo that they uploaded to the web site, effectively rendering the whole experience a blind date.

Personal gripes aside though, the whole My Space culture that has sprung up around the world can be considered subversive in a positive way when viewed within the national context of Indonesian society. In Western, multicultural countries, trans-ethnic and trans-religious relationships are largely accepted these days. If I said to my mum, for example, "Hey, I've met this nice Indonesian girl and we are going out together," I know that she'd reply along the lines of, "That's nice dear, why don't you invite her round for tea next week; I'd love to meet her." Over here, however, I've only on one occasion ever been introduced to a girl's parents. And this frostiness doesn't only apply to Indo-Bule (Westerner) pairings. An Indonesian friend of mine has to keep his Christian girlfriend a secret from his parents and so-called, "Backstreet," relationships are a well-known cultural phenomenon here. I guess that there can be a vociferous thrill in such clandestine relationships but it's also rather sad that so many young Indonesians are unable to introduce their paramours to their folks without incurring their disapproval or even anger.

Indonesia's national motto is, "Unity in diversity," however, as is so often the case in this country, the reality contradicts the platitudinous ideal. At a broad social level, trans-religious marriages are not even legal and many opt to travel to Singapore in order to have their unions blessed. At a more personal, family level, many Indonesian parents are fastidiously strict about who they will allow their offspring to date or marry and semi-arranged marriages are still commonplace.

In this context, My Space fulfills a subversive and yet progressive social function in Indonesia; one that could even help to negate the sectarian and ethnic bigotry that is currently threatening to tear the country apart. Let's hope more cyber savvy Indonesian youngsters join the My Space revolution and engage in transgressive dating; in the interests of promoting a more tolerant society of course. Just watch out for those reverse Cinderella touch up jobs.

Simon Pitchforth