Intimacy as Text; Twitter as Toungue

A recent New York Times op-ed, “Tweet Less, Kiss More,” laments the frenetic pace of our lives, the multitasking that apparently so plagues digital culture. A glowing review of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story in the Village Voice calls the novel,

the finest piece of anti-iPhone propaganda ever written, a cautionary tale full of distracted drones unwilling to tear themselves away from their little glowing screens long enough to make eye contact, let alone an actual lasting connection, with another human being.

These statements in combination worried me, but not in the way they’re meant to worry the reader. Rather, I think both statements may be exemplary of overly simple and currently popular assumptions about the dangers of an age in which socialization takes place more and more through computers rather than in person.

I have not yet read Shteyngart’s novel, but the reviewer’s rhetoric echoes a familiar view of technology as a binary opposition, with human connection on one side and computers on the other. This dehumanizing-dangers-of-technology argument often figures in science fiction, which pits feeling bodies against menacing machines. Bodies are the heroes in the story; the breathing human body, permeable and vulnerable, imperfect and decaying, is more powerful in its ability to feel, to experience, and to be flawed than are the sleek machines, incapable of kissing one another. This is a beautiful and attractive sentiment, not in the least because it congratulates us for our bodies and emotions — which often embarrass us and with which we are often in conflict.

To my mind, the relocation of social life to the internet is less a signal of the domination of machines or the loss of human connection than the perfect argument against anyone who claims the internet is making us stupid. For all the internet’s much-noted permissiveness and available pornography, the increasing presence of computers in our private lives enables a new, overwhelming prudishness — something akin to a second age of letters.

Internet socialization is far closer to a 19th century mode of intimacy than to a dystopian future of tragically disconnected robot prostitutes. There’s a Jane Austen-ish quality to online social life. The written word gains unmatched power and inarguable primacy.

Personal relationships now, to a much greater degree than, say, 30 years ago, hinge on our ability to write — if not necessarily well in a formal, Strunk & White manner, then at least effectively. This change makes us not disconnected so much as it makes us archaic. Austen’s characters easily expressed extreme emotion in long letters and then in person sat twitchily near one another, paralyzed with manners.

Though our letters are not delivered by hand or horse-drawn carriage, our relationships once again live and die in the texts by which we barter with each other. The internet age unavoidably resembles the 19th century novel’s idea of human intimacy as so many of us pour our passionate confessions into emails, messages or chat boxes. Our physical reactions when together are often cover-ups for what we could so candidly admit in writing.

In another throwback to an older literary culture, confessional and diary forms have become hugely popular since we all went and hid behind our computer screens. Confession has a natural home in text, and the personal diary is once again among the most popular forms of published literature. Text implies distance. In old-fashioned epistolary culture letters bridged hundreds of miles, and long-distance communication was necessary since travel was so much more difficult. Physical interaction was truly not an option, so writing had to become the primary vehicle for emotion.

Today, the equation of distance necessitating writing is reversed, and we create distance by choosing to put our emotions into written forms. We speak over the internet to people a few miles, a few blocks, or sometimes even a few rooms away, but an epistolary culture still implies distance in its very form. The primacy of the internet in our social life creates fictional distance, and that distance is both a permission and a relief. At a distance it feels safer to share more and more intimately.

Connection, or at least vulnerability, may in fact be made easier by emotion’s relocation from body to text. It’s possible that we may long for a certain kind of disconnection. Perhaps our machine-centered, physically distant new culture is making us smarter, safer, and more efficient in an emotional, personal sense. The danger presented by internet sociality is not in what it supposedly deprives us of but in the way that potential loss is figured.

The headline “Tweet Less, Kiss More,” worries me not because it suggests kissing is dying out but rather because it says kissing is the answer. As our social culture relocates away from physical presence, we have begun to idealize physical interaction, and idealization is always dangerous. As objects or behaviors become obsolete, we recall them in our imagination more perfect and more easily navigable than they ever actually were. People use typewriters and wear corsets because they experience these objects’ very inconvenience as a kind of romance. But when it takes romanticized fantasies to bring an object back into present use, we are prone to lose sight of its complexities, its evasions. If kissing a stranger becomes as whimsical as wearing a useless monocle or riding a one-speed bike, more an evocation of cherished memories than a regular practice, we may begin to unduly idealize physical relationships, to ignore its real difficulties and paint sexual intimacy in a single, sunny hue.

But our vulnerabilities are real. Kissing isn’t always the triumphant final act; actually, sometimes kissing is kind of horrible. Real physical contact is awkward as often as it is thrilling, sad as often as it is euphoric, fraught as often as it abandoned. Certainly, life requires awkward, sad, fraught experiences. I don’t want to argue that we should eliminate those qualities through technological safety and gloss. But to figure physical touch as purely good leaves us unarmed, with a naive understanding of intimacy.

The ubiquitous arguments against online sociality, the unwillingness to examine the emotional utility of technological progress foster the real disconnect we should fear, between the real complexities of sexual love and facile fantasies about its purity. The real disconnect occurs not when we stop kissing but when we forget that kissing is fraught and dangerous, not a sweet, wrapped-up answer.

Technology shouldn’t be scapegoated in order to construct the illusion that physical contact will never be awkward, will always be the answer, always a beautiful, forgotten simplicity. Such fantasies strip us of the ability to live with our experiences, whether they are sad, fraught and awkward or thrilling, giddy, and abandoned. In actuality, it is probably better to tweet at than kiss nine out of every ten people you meet. Internet sociality provides us with a legitimate freedom—we can now choose whether or not our body will figure into any given social interaction. Simply kissing more is not a recipe for greater, more authentic humanity. Rather, what is crucial is to remember, in the moments where the internet has replaced or eliminated touch, that an awe of contact, the very fear of contact that causes us to choose text in place of body, makes us human too.