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May 28, 2017

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Is all of this technology killing human intimacy?

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LeeAnn Elias and Shutterstock.com

Romance is in the air, where the wireless signal travels on the 2.4-gigahertz UHF radio band, where OKCupid algorithmically hunts, where virtual sex sort of happens, where love is both as clunky and apparitional in the post-reality era as truth. The cynics among us once rolled our eyes at the commercialization of love in the Valentine’s Day aisle of Walgreens. Today, the expression reaches beyond scheduled chocolates and roses and bounces through satisfying/not satisfying interweb encounters that leave us wondering what is real. Alexa, what is romance? Tinder, is this love? Facebook, should I change my relationship status?

I’m pondering love and watching a VICE video of a couple of strangers trying out virtual reality sex. It’s a man and woman in their 20s, and they don’t know each other, and they’re in different rooms. Ollie is equipped with a VR headset and a small rectangular box, into which he inserts himself. Chloe sits, fully clothed, looking both courageous and bored, holding a sleek white dildo. As he watches a porn scene, her strokes of the toy send impulses to the box. An intimate act made awkward and distant.

He says it’s pretty good, and really strange. She says, “We haven’t even shaken hands yet.”

• • •

British sociologist Anthony Giddens wrote in “The Transformation of Intimacy” that the emergence of the Western idea of romantic love coincided with the rise of the novel, because romance is a narrative, a story. In this understanding of love, we have predictable chapters: Hollywood’s “meet-cute” scene, flirtation, courtship, sex, perhaps a decision to be monogamous, overcoming relationship challenges, sharing day-to-day life, maybe marrying, starting a family, creating an epic multigenerational saga.

That’s still a possibility. But there are new ways to tell the story, fewer rules and maybe a bias toward disruption of old linear narratives: His abs look hot on Tinder; he’s within 100 feet of you; a hook-up could lead to a relationship. Or a friendship. Or whatever. Maybe you’ll fund a startup together.

So does technology change our basic human need for intimate, emotional relationships? Nope. Not according to several recent psychology and communications studies. Scholars found that in many cases, people are more likely to disclose personal feelings in text or email than face-to-face, and that this “hyperpersonal communication” carries over to in-person meetings. Still, everyone has to be on guard for the fake profile, while also on guard for fake news and “Westworld” androids and Manchurian candidates — real is an increasingly tricky concept.

“It’s OK to make someone earn your trust,” says UNLV communication studies professor Jennifer Guthrie. “Some folks shine (online) and find it easier to communicate there. The point really is just to be an ethical communicator; be clear about your intentions. People still want connection to other people. The need to belong makes us healthier and happier. Just be a transparent communicator.”

• • •

I may text my love: Happy V-Day. ILY. With three emojis.

I’m a longtime adult; should I feel ridiculous sending heart emojis to my significant other and representing my head as a happyface with kissy lips? Surely she wouldn’t prefer a surprise bouquet of actual flowers or a tangible candlelit dinner when we can disrupt the old-school rigmarole and just transparently exchange various hyperpersonal food and hand and flower and rocket emojis to initiate sex?

What’s not to love?

There can be weight in a tiny bouquet of text flowers, just as there is in the handwritten flourish of Xs and Os. C. S. Lewis wrote: “To love at all is to be vulnerable.” It’s unavoidable. To bond, to develop a close relationship, you have to bare yourself or your soul or your willingness to send kissy emojis. Sex and love can be separated, and I’ll go out on a limb and say that love is much more than sex. The desire for that profound acceptance is part of the human condition.

James Baldwin wrote, “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” One can argue that technology strips us of our masks, or that it adds more layers. One can lament or like that the romantic narrative is now sometimes told in bits with Snapchat and Grindr and teledildonics. But maybe the point isn’t how the world is changing the way we love or make love. The point is experiencing the changes in the world with someone else.

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