Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Love in the New Millennium 7: Love on Your Own Terms

The Old Spice guy. Image Source: Geeksugar.

There is a great line in Citizen Kane: "A toast, Jedediah, to love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows - his own." The movie was an early portrayal of malignant narcissism. Who could know that it would become the mantra of Internet dating in the new Millennium, 70 years later?

In an earlier post, I suggested that we increasingly associate real love with an idealized past; the love that is emerging now is obscured, even as we experience it. That is because the Tech Revolution transformed love, but none of us knows exactly what the result is (see my blog posts on the impact of technology on love here and here). There are some early signs: the Internet is acting like a giant mirror and reflecting our love back at us, turning romance into a solipsistic trap. The cult of the Self grew through the 20th century; cyberspace has exponentially accelerated its development, creating a virtual reality where any manner of human interactions can take place, including romance, as long as they are grounded in the subjective, not the objective. Even so, we are having trouble knowing what the Millennial 'Self' really is; hence, Millennial love pegged on that Self is equally mysterious.

This is the first time in world history that virtual romance has widely existed. There are no rules, no manners, no etiquette, no rituals, no retribution for bad behaviour. It is a haven for misinformation, or disinformation, or selective truth-telling. To make matters worse, the medium that enables this outlandish mode of communication also happens to be awash in pornography.

Beyond the lies, dangers and grottoes, Internet entanglements offer an embarrassment of riches. The Web is overloaded with possibilities; you can meet anyone, anywhere. There is a spatial disconnect, but the emotions expressed in virtual environments are real - up to a point - although most of them are self-referential. A lot of old conventions of romance can be reincarnated seemingly meaningfully in this unreality. Originally, these norms were based on face-to-face interactions. In a context where those interactions do not exist, what is the value of romance?

The fact that virtual romantic standards are predominantly subjective means different things for men and women. The common ground is that virtual romances become a kind of personal reality TV show between two people, although the sexes are likely tuning into different channels. Virtual connections can even become addictive states. Again, though, the substance of choice is different between men and women.  Virtual romance provides women with a taste of their ultimate fantasies. And it allows men to concoct those fantasies. Unfortunately, that role-playing involves little in the way of monogamous exclusivity, and is rarely consistent with reality.

One of my friends, K., has a thing or two to say about this subject.  She complains of the Internet's easy-come, easy-go relationships that disappear with a flick of a switch. She dislikes the mesmerizing period when men "enwrap" women with tantalizing details of their personal lives. In real life, a man would only share such details if he was seriously committing to a woman. In online transactions, these details are false indicators, used only to suck women into an intense mode of communication. But what is the aim of this communication if it has no connection to real life?

K. feels that men who go in for virtual romance "have little emotional intelligence but still manage to fulfill their needs," and they do so by compartmentalizing love, dividing it into segments, taking only certain things from virtual relationships and getting other aspects of love elsewhere. She claims that women enter into these entanglements in good faith, thinking that they will bear out in reality. In fact, reality is the litmus test that makes most of these liaisons dissolve. K. believes that men in virtual relationships know this will happen.  I hope my friend won't mind if I quote her:
"From a moral point of view this has no justification. And there is a serious issue of loyalty. They're ... like spoiled children. When they break their [online] toy they pick up a new one. And when they are married they run back to their mum when things go wrong."
My friend observes acerbically that men invented the Internet for a reason. What was that reason? Well, Facebook started as a site that ranked hot undergrad girls at Harvard.

Ouch. I am sure the disenchantment goes both ways, and men would have some choice words to say about female behaviour online. The main thing I took from her comments though, was that there is an unsolved cryptic here, where male and female motivations in online romances differ.

Yes, men invented the Internet. Presumably, beneath their hopes for communication, knowledge, wealth and power, they also had some displaced mating urges in there somewhere when they did it. Ironically, the Internet is a medium where real sex is usually not part of the equation. Another problem with Web romance is that men and women use communication for different reasons. Women communicate in an ongoing way to establish social bonds. Therefore, for women, just communicating by itself establishes a bond and a commitment, without having to meet the man in person at all. In other words, for women, any consistent communication, even in a virtual context, becomes increasingly real. On the other hand, conventional wisdom says that men do not forge emotional bonds without an encounter in reality, a real, visible and physical connection. And men communicate to achieve goals, outcomes, results. They do not just communicate endlessly for the sake of communicating. For a man, any consistent communication in a virtual context becomes increasingly unreal.

The nagging question persists. If men partly responded, consciously or not, to some profound mating impulse while inventing the Internet, then why did they invent it? The Internet removes (or displaces) real sex from the mating equation. It removes the ultimate catalyst of the male's most profound connections to other human beings. Moreover, the Internet forces men to communicate just for the sake of communicating. It forces them to act, constantly, like women.

Why, then, do men bother using the Internet to communicate for the purposes of romance? My friend thinks that Internet romance removes responsibility. It exists within a sphere that "detaches will from experience." This detachment means morality is also divorced from virtual reality. Men can say anything they want and then pull the plug. No one will hold them accountable for this kind of behaviour, because virtual relationships are not 'real.'

I find it hard to believe that men, generally speaking, engage in Internet romances simply because it removes almost all culpability from their actions. It is more charitable to focus on the fact that the Internet enables other realities. Web romance offers any guy a chance to have a Secret Life of Walter Mitty on steroids. Men can talk on the Internet no matter what they are wearing; whether they shaved that day; what car they drive; what their bank account balance is. As far as dealing with women goes, the Internet is a great, democratic equalizer. All the materialistic and superficial gauges of masculine success are removed, while competition and comparisons with other males are temporarily absent.

K. concurred. If there is no real sexual goal to online mating and dating, then virtual communication allows males to "escape from unpleasant realities in their environment." A woman's genuine romantic response, her belief in the fantasy, can validate that escape. But when it comes time for the romance to bear through into real interactions, the man has to live up to the fantasy he has concocted. If he perceives anything wanting in his own ego or life, any shortcoming or barrier that prevents the enactment of the fantasy (whether that deficit is actually there or not) then he will find it difficult to carry on.

Old Spice advertisement "Scent Vacation" (2011). Video Source: Youtube.

In my next post on Millennial romance (here), I will talk about women's motivations. At this point no one can just retreat back to 'real' reality. In business and pleasure, virtual worlds are here to stay. So we might as well get at the rhyme and reason of these new interactions. A toast, and some sympathy, for all of us forging ahead in these unknown realms: here's to your champagne reflection - and love on your own terms.

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