what is love in the computer age?

What is love when we’re all online, living out our relationships in front of everyone, from crushes to exes, to rivals? What happens when it all goes wrong – has the networked society made lovesickness milder, or bitterer than ever?

by Dean Kissick
27 October 2014, 6:10pm

"We'll always be together/ Together in electric dreams."Giorgio Moroder.

The other day my mate told me about "deep liking" on Instagram. I'd never heard of it, but apparently it's popular with young Casanovas everywhere. The idea is that if you fancy someone on Instagram you scroll down to their very first picture and like it, and maybe leave a saucy comment too. It's really creepy, isn't it? But supposedly it shows a level of commitment in taking the time to scroll through thousands of other snaps, and although it's not really up there with crawling over broken glass or launching a thousand ships, in these days of instant gratification it's better than nothing.

Love is voracious now: we're connected to everyone around the world, we want lots of crushes and we're happy to choose them on the most superficial level of flattering selfies and warm filters. Today if you fancy someone you can study their selfies, poke them, or sext them all from the comfort of your own bedroom; although, as this summer's Jennifer Lawrence naked pictures scandal has shown us, sexting, or even just having sext-y pictures on your phone is very risky. In the past people lived their private lives in private so far as possible, though of course there were always gossips and whispers. And while there was always a fascination with the lives of the powerful, rich and famous, in the old days they were far better able to control the printing houses and scurrilous rumourmongers than they are today. In Britain it was the 60s, specifically the Profumo Affair of 1961, which really started our ever-spiralling culture of scandal. It began with a brief affair between John Profumo, a married man as well as Secretary of State for War in the Conservative government, and Christine Keeler, a 19-year-old would-be model and exotic dancer in Soho, and quickly escalated into an intoxicating thriller involving sinister society osteopaths and Russian spies, knife fights in nightclubs and a Caribbean drug dealer firing shots at a Marylebone mews house. Once the story eventually broke it sold millions of papers and contributed to the downfall of the Conservatives in the 1964 general election.

"56% of young adults in the UK now break up with each other through texts or online messages and often explain that technology makes the process "less awkward".

Since then our idea of privacy has slowly wilted away; we want to disgrace our politicians, and they in turn want to run sprawling surveillance operations on the whole world. More than that though, celebrity sex scandals and fashion faux-pas have become our favourite form of entertainment, which are themselves signs that no-one cares two hoots about privacy and nothing much is sacred.

Nowadays we live in public like never before, in these times of narcissism, obscenity and cowardice, writing our own intimate diaries online for all to see. Everyone's constantly promoting themselves and flirting with each other, because the internet is tailor-made for self-love, desire and fantasy.

Consider the Pirates of the Ibiza Modelising Circuit, on Cipriani's Shores. Justin Bieber and Miranda Kerr's entanglement appears to have begun at the 2012 Victoria's Secret catwalk show, when they - her in a hardly-there bejewelled green corset, and him in a camp and unflattering space-gilet from the future - flirted together for the cameras. At the time the fashion world was awash with rumours that they'd got it on, but really who knows? Then this summer, in a fight over her honour, a vengeful Orlando Bloom allegedly "vaulted" a high-end sofa and attempted to wallop the Canadian pop-star. Afterwards the ever-unapologetic Bieber took to Instagram in an uncool and un-gentlemanly manner, uploading first a photo of a bikini-clad Kerr - quickly deleted - and secondly a picture of Bloom crying, captioned with a cheeky crown emoji.

The point though is that there's an etiquette to social media and Justin Bieber has disregarded it. Firstly: never brag after a break-up, because bad things will happen to you. Secondly: don't masquerade around like a peacock.

All those internet relics of broken relationships become an extension of yourself, and hanging onto them is a way of hanging onto the past and prolonging your pain, and yet somehow these bad feelings are so important.

The internet is also dramatically changing the way we find a lover. According to dating site eHarmony's romantic soothsayers, by 2031 around 50% of all new relationships in the UK will have started online: 38% through an online dating or matchmaking service, and a further 12% through other sites (such as Instagram or Facebook). The worry is whether we will even have the social skills to meet people in the real world in the future, or whether we will have to rely on technology entirely? Already a lot of young men in London are awful at approaching young women - too shy, too terrified of rejection - and staying in and trying out apps certainly won't sharpen their real world seduction skills. Of course it might raise their confidence, but I wonder if boys who turn to apps are looking for love in all the wrong places?

It can actually be very lonely for a young man on Tinder. You like all the girls and none of them ever like you back; and yet, when you look at girls' phones they have hundreds of matches and hot messages from all of them. One hoax account that three bored college students forged in Orem, Utah - for an imaginary froyo-loving 21-year-old called Sammy, who they conjured up through photos of Miss Teen USA - recently convinced 70 men to turn up at the same branch of Yoghurtland at 9pm.

What if though, rather than using our computers to find other lovers, we actually turned our computers into lovers? That's the premise of Spike Jonze's sci-fi rom-com Her, set in the not-too-distant future, in which a lonely gentleman starts dating his operating system. The story was inspired by "this very limited interaction with a programme, an instant messaging chat," Spike explained in an interview with the Telegraph. "Then Siri came out as I was writing this. It seemed like a good sign." The more our phones talk to us, the more opportunities there are to flirt with them; and with the rise of affordable virtual technology for our houses, such as the Oculus Rift headset, imaginary girlfriends and boyfriends are likely to become more and more compelling.

Most young adults in the UK now break up with each other through texts or online messages (around 56%) and often explain that technology makes the process "less awkward". It certainly allows you to stay cold and detached, but really it can make everything so much more awkward. Most likely we've all experienced those sleepless twilights - having bad dreams, breaking into tears while listening to Rihanna and so on - but sometimes it's way, way worse. Social networks can become like a big black cloud of lost lovers, that follows you around everywhere and reminds you of what you've lost.

Studies have shown that if you're always lurking on your ex-girlfriend's or boyfriend's page after a break-up you'll have a harder time moving on.

It's no surprise that social networks have a hold over our emotions, our cognitive processes and even our imaginations. This July a report entitled Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks revealed that, for one week in 2012, Facebook performed a grand study on 689,003 of its users without telling them, in order to test whether controlling what appeared on their news feeds could control their emotions. Of course it could. The report concludes:

"These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks… We also observed a withdrawal effect: people who were exposed to fewer emotional posts in their news feeds were less expressive overall on the following days."

After all, if you're always staring into your phone, how will you know if the love of your life walks by?

So it makes us : ) and it makes us :'(. Social media captures all of reality like butterflies in a jar, both the good and the bad, and why not? Society is not all happiness, nor is life, not at all. Most of the best songs ever written are devastatingly sad, as are a lot of the best films and books. Today we place ourselves and our friends at the heart of our daily entertainment, we turn our lives into ridiculous soap-opera storylines, and why shouldn't it make us miserable?

Having your crushes, exes and unrequited loves all over your social networks certainly isn't good for your paranoia, but it's far better to stay connected than to drift away forever. "What is love?" howls Haddaway. "Baby don't hurt me, don't hurt me, no more!" But perhaps this hurt is love. Actually, isn't that what he was singing about all along? All those internet relics of broken relationships become an extension of yourself, and hanging onto them is a way of hanging onto the past and prolonging your pain, and yet somehow these bad feelings are so important. Consider the comic Louis CK's thoughts on love, as expressed (to him) by a doctor in his sitcom:

"You know, I'm not entirely sure what your name is, but you are a classic idiot. You think spending time with her, kissing her, having fun with her, you think that's what it was all about?... This is love. Missing her, because she's gone. Wanting to die. You're so lucky. You're like a walking poem. Would you rather be some kind of a fantasy? Some kind of a Disney ride? Is that what you want? Don't you see? This is the good part. This is what you've been digging for all this time. Now you finally have it in your hand, this sweet nugget of love, sweet, sad love, and you want to throw it away. You've got it all wrong."

So there. Actually, our sudden proximity to everyone from our past and our future is the most important thing about love in the computer age. We live in a great age of opportunity, and love is always only just around the corner, and all your social networks are full to the brim of fascinating strangers, if you care about that sort of thing. And if you don't, why not stop wasting all your time on the internet of infinite sadness and just go out in the world and make hay while the sun shines. After all, if you're always staring into your phone, how will you know if the love of your life walks by?



Text Dean Kissick

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Dean Kissick