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Is Digital Technology Choking Out Love?


In an age of satellite geolocation, how and where do we find love?

Even love isn’t safe from the transformations that beset our era. It can’t be safe. So much a part of human nature, the slightest variations in culture, history, the ways we relate, all of these things also affect the way we love, the ideas with which we think of love, and the practices through which it is exercised.

Love is being transformed, very specifically, by digital technology. If the act of loving is largely an act of communication, it’s logical to think that the revolution that’s taken place in the digital field has also brought about a change in contemporary love.

Today when all communications are instantaneous, simple and precise, and when we look for messages that won’t waste our time, but which will still entertain us, what place could love hold? How much of this current scenario is contrary to the very forms of love? To the things which so often need patience and perseverance to be germinated and consolidated? The cultivation of love, so far as we know, requires that subjects be willing to make mistakes, to take detours which seem initially unnecessary, and to know, to discover and even to invent a bit of their love object. But is this possible when we believe that all the information about any fact is ready at hand? Is it possible now when merely accepting a friend request on Facebook is sufficient to immediately knowing another person?

This reflection is particularly important because we’re possibly so close to the phenomenon that we don’t see its consequences. We know well, for all of our reasons, that today’s love exists, if not in a continual crisis, then at least at a singular moment in its history. As at no other time, ours is distinguished by the number of people living single. Cultural expressions like The New York Times successful “Modern Love” column, or similar columns in The Guardian, account for some of the discomfort that seems to hinder the possibility of loving relationships. “Liquid Love,” Zygmunt Bauman called it, referring to the characteristic of contemporary love which makes it fleeting, elusive and unstable as if not only has its time passed, but so has its capacity to endure or to remain.

In a text published in The Paris Review, Alfie Bown, a co-editor at The Hong Kong Review of Books and the author of a couple of books on love from the perspective of psychoanalysis, asks about the relationship between love and the political conditions that delineate it and, to some extent, make it possible. Bown reflects on the apparently differing applications: Tinder, Grindr, and Pokemon Go. The first two are designed to “connect” potential couples. The latter is a Nintendo videogame based on cartoon characters. All three, though, have at least one thing in common: they work based on satellite geolocation (GPS).

And it’s not just that. As Bown points out, the launch of Pokemon Go tested Google’s social organization technologies. Something very similar could be considered to have been the case with dating and meeting apps which follow similar principles. People act and interact within a virtual space, under specified rules, and oriented towards specific behaviors in reality. It’s a system set into motion by something as simple as it is complex: human desire.

If something is happening within contemporary digital communications – and, therefore, with love – it’s that desire seems to be very easily placed onto any object. Real or imaginary, they might be fantasy characters (like those in Pokemon Go) or any real person (even distanced as they may be by the virtuality of the screen). Falling in love has always been awarded a certain illusory status. It’s “fantastic,” so much so that when we fall in love, there’s a moment at which we invent the other, we see the beloved as we’d like them to be and not as they really are. But this quality of love (or of one of its stages, that is, in the frenzy of the first crush), seems to have lost its mystery. It seems as if it’s been packaged, polished and placed into that portable case that we all carry in our pockets now: the smartphone.

In reflecting, Bown retrieves one of the classic modern texts of love – Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. He reminds us that love has always been, and remains, political. This is not to say that it’s ideological, but rather that it’s material. Like other aspects of our culture, the conditions of love are only possible within a specific framework, and within which love can occur. The conditions include socialization, history, geography, social and economic mobility, etc.

The mechanisms of our time would like that people relate only through apps, social networks or instant messaging services, but is that what we want? Is this how we wish to love? Hurried and anxious? Or do we seek other conditions, and if so, which will they be? What part of reality allows us to love based on desire? And what will be necessary to change or to construct in order to achieve it? These are still some of love’s fundamental questions, today, or at any time.

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