by Aaron Grierson
Sexual activity has always been a constant for humanity. Not only as our method of reproduction, but as a form of entertainment as well. For a history nerd, the oldest stereotypical medium of sexual media that I’m personally familiar with would be French lithograms from the 17th and 18th centuries. I say stereotypes because, while true, it’s unlikely that the French were the only ones producing such things. And while modesty was generally pushed to the forefront of European history, I get distinctly bemused by the likelihood that there were cave drawings tens of thousands of years ago that depicted such material.
Now, as far as socially-acceptable mass-media goes, there are seemingly endless shelves of romance and erotica novels to keep the “reading public” entertained, that is to say, if they are not occupied through other mediums. Such themes permeate pages well beyond old-fashioned publications, stretching into fanfiction posted (mostly) on the internet, or personal fantasies that are kept entirely private. However, not all works of fiction are carnal. Some, it would seem, no matter how many centuries old, were intended to be satirical or inflammatory. The physical intimacy, while important, is seldom the sole element involved. Regardless of their original purpose, these stories can be easily skewed by modern readers as an ideal to be sought out, not as a work of fiction wherein some ideal fantasy is being brought to life. Like our depictions, we have developed different ways of being close to one another, not just in an emotional or an “I can text this person whenever I want” way, but also in a deliberately physical way that might make someone like Plato laugh at us. This is especially true when the fantasies of our fiction are impossible to consider as being able to cross over into reality.
Yet it is undeniable that their experience too stretches beyond the realm of fiction. We may not take it seriously but humanity has entered into a realm where creating countless new relationships is more the rule than the exception. So much so that I ponder when the idea of the “high school sweetheart” morphed into the “chatroom sweetheart” or the “Facebook sweetheart”, or more generally just “the sweetheart I’ve only ever Skype’d with”.
For a long time philosophers, ethicists and science fiction authors have contended with the question of where exactly humanity begins, especially in view of rapidly evolving digital technology. To a cynic, falling in love with someone on the internet might sound like a preposterous premise. Yet with e-dating websites this is obviously not only accepted but encouraged and facilitated, having evolved into a social service that often comes with a monthly subscription fee.
So where, then, might the optimist’s opinion on such matters lie? Is humanity the true medium of the message, and the technology merely the apparatus which facilitates our communion with other people? Or is humanity perhaps just something so innate that it cannot help but be active no matter which way we present ourselves? I certainly don’t have an answer to these musings, so I hope that you, dear readers, were not expecting me to deliver one. This youthful techno-romance seems to be growing in popularity and meaning, which simultaneously manages to blur the lines of traditional relationships, especially the unwritten laws concerning physicality and emotional connection. Such expansion comes paired with items or methods of communication that become all but infamous in the wider world.
The present obsession, without comparison, is cellphones and tablets. Generation Z and beyond are becoming obsessed with them en masse. Constantly texting, it’s a wonder these children maintain normal sleeping patterns, less because of late hours, and more because they probably sleep within ten feet of their cellphones and other gadgets, if not falling asleep mid-textersation.
But the plague of cellphones, or smartphones, as we’ve convinced ourselves to call them, goes well beyond text messaging. In the last couple of years, internet access on one’s phone has become the norm. And while it is a premium service with its own often hefty charge, it is nevertheless an expectation for people to have access to it anytime, anywhere, anywant.
This constant fervor (for some people, at least) has to do with social connections. Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, perhaps even e-dating profiles. We live in a world where a person can be in their bed but access almost anything in the world, and feel totally alone while doing it. This, I feel, is exactly why there are so many people who can’t help but set up all of their social media on their phone, and then check their feeds compulsively. Perhaps it is this very energy that forms intimate connections without the personal contact. The heart is bared not on one’s sleeve, but at the tips of one’s fingers. And so often, perhaps without the intent of doing so, our souls devour such contact, assimilating interaction with one or more digital individuals as an expected normality of daily life, sometimes to the point of causing stress or discomfort should any given day be an unexpectedly quiet one. This feeling, certainly for the inexperienced, is similar, at least subjectively, to the pang of missing a loved one or a close friend we’re used to interacting with regularly. As much as I imagine children undergoing such emotions in this example, the same could easily be said of an adult, no matter the age or romantic experience(s). It might not be a matter of text messages, it might be the lack of a phone call, or the unanswered Skype conference.
Such devotion, such hope, in my eyes can only be described as one of the pinnacles of faith, not of organized religion though perhaps something equally important and deep. It’s that sort of clichéd story you hear in a rom-com, or at the altar of a friend’s wedding, regardless of their religious beliefs, although digital trust, no matter how deep, is never quite as profound or tear-jerking. But as is the case with most real relationships — whether with a deity or another person — devotion may diminish as attention wavers to other aspects of life, leading to a serious, or perhaps series of deficiencies amongst the various other facets that constitute everyday life, which may be giving up or taking all the power in a relationship, making all the demands or none (as the case may be). Perhaps there is some mediation involved, but nevertheless an individual eventually finds themselves without a social life in the old fashioned “going out with people” sense of the phrase. A purely digital relationship can become a festishization of the idea of a person thrown atop a pedestal which one then hangs off of, like a monkey staring at the world’s largest banana. While this may lead to contentment for some people, so much time-consuming attention really ought to be left to the world of fantasy; stories that can be picked up or put down at a moment’s notice, instead of becoming a harmful force in one’s life, enforced by loneliness or shyness or an inability to socialize in the sort of large gatherings where one meets people.
Yet this recent phenomenon is totally acceptable, until there’s an intervention. It’s important to bear in mind that I don’t just refer to the vanilla “oh we’re totally not dirty people” (even if that may be true) sort of intimate relationships. I mean straight from the hardly touching one another to the “we probably need to sign a waiver for this stuff’’ sort of interplay. And I warn you, dear reader, this exists. I think some part of us accepts that a lot of people have some pretty strange kinks in their sex lives. But some take it to the extreme: there are people out there that want to be violated, albeit in a controlled environment. To elaborate, rape fantasies are a desire some people have, and be it through textual roleplay or through deliberate planning, some seek to physically facilitate it.
Regardless of the scenarios people find themselves in though, there is an undeniable emotional bond growing between increasing numbers of people across our ever expanding digital networks. It’s not all about love, or even about friendship. Largely it is an individual’s desire to be accepted for who they are, and who they can be. The plastic screens simply appear to make such exposition an easier task for many people, as though a weight has been lifted from their conscience, freeing them of worries that may otherwise cause them to crawl inside their internal shells.
As much as many of us might want to think that distancing our social interactions through technology is a step backwards as far as social and personal development goes, I would have to argue that it cannot be a step backwards so much as to the side, at the very least. It’s not total freedom, and can do just as much harm as it can good, but the benefits are, for most, completely undeniable. If technology allows people to be more honest about themselves, I would say that’s the most emotionally liberating thing a person, especially perhaps, a younger person who feels heavier chains, can experience in this age. Bear this with the proverbial grain of salt. I’ve never been one to prescribe a single solution and this is certainly one of those cases. I would even go so far to say that, however useful it may be for some individuals, I hope that it never becomes the only way; I fear if it did we would lose touch with part of our humanity.
Aaron Grierson is Senior Articles Editor for the magazine.