It always starts with something: that glance across party rooms, an awkward handshake, your mutual friend’s introduction, or, increasingly, some popup on a screen. Those smooth bits of digital code hold out a kind of promise when you’re in a new and unfamiliar place. It says you’ve been noticed, it says you’re all right enough to someone who is willing to take that most human of jumps and spend an evening of their life with you in hope of something greater still.
London: an internship and foundation grant, 10 weeks sharing a Docklands Light Rail car with seemingly half the population of the world and a cramped youth hostel with a group of New Labour professional types. I’d switched over the location on my long-unchecked OkCupid profile for the occasion, telling myself that I didn’t think much of it, but really holding out a weird kind of hope that everything might just work out this time. Surely, London had everyone, from every land of the dead empire, in its sprawl and, surely, one of them might take that jump with me.
I suppose that now is as good a time as any to mention that, being asexual, my exact form of that “jump” isn’t the same as most others. Much of my hesitance in meeting people in the traditional ways, and subsequent general lack of success in this realm, has come a kind of fear of misperception. Short of wearing a sandwich board reading “no sex, please,” the mystification of human interaction makes broaching the subject in bald terms quite a challenge. Online dating, flawed as it might be, at least allows for an accepted degree of upfront discretion about these aspects of preference that most of us would be too polite to bring up at the outset of a potential relationship. Even in a city of 12 million, the chance of randomly meeting another of the roughly 1% of the population that is asexual is quite a remote one, so, we entrust our fates to the mystery of match algorithms and to the kind of paradoxical honesty that keyboards and screen names allow.
Between work, museums and concerts, not to mention the unfortunate incident of losing my wallet in a foreign country, I’d managed to schedule a couple of dates for the first 5 weeks, but both had fallen through in that odd way that makes you believe you did something terribly wrong without knowing exactly what it was. Though I would idly click about a bit whilst waiting for the train and tube, I’d basically given up the serious possibility of finding someone and was in a half-resignation of mere fun evenings for the rest of my time in the Great Wen. It was, then, though, that one of those hopeful popups came to me.
Being a chronic self-doubter, I suppose I’ll always wonder what it was that stuck out for her, but, never also being one to argue with luck’s blessings, I was greatly enthused to meet up. It wasn’t the most auspicious of first encounters, involving a number of digital iterations of that London proverb “due to a train fault”, a rather bad in retrospect decision to run full-tilt to meet-up on a midsummer’s noon and culminating in a fainting spell (on my part) in the middle of the standing section of Shakespeare’s Globe. What I most remember, though, is, after that, her waiting with me in the heat stroke recovery room and the look of utterly genuine concern and empathy she wore. It was then I knew there was something to her, to London, to all of it, something that felt deeper, more real, than what had come before in my life.
From there, I don’t think I’d ever seen or wanted to see so much of someone over such a short period of time. It is in that whirlwind of days out in parks, of nights of meetings for tea, that it was possible to believe in those mythologies of what big cities do to young hearts. It wasn’t New York, or Paris, or Rome, but then again, maybe I wasn’t, maybe we weren’t those places.
And yet, just as quickly, it was over; there were conferences in York, Ph.D theses at King’s College, degrees and bills and lives to go back to for the autumn. On the last time we were together, I felt only one thing had lacked resolution: I thought about kissing her, then I thought better of it, more hesitant, I didn’t.
Maybe in a former age, I would have, not knowing if I’d ever have the chance again, but it is that same force of technological hope that assures us there can always be a next time. We can always message, instantly, and expect a reply within days at most. We can see the evolution of haircuts, event attendance, new victories and defeats at the press of a touch screen. In one sense, what might have been called “flings”, “summer loves”, now never have to end, the other person can always be there, with us, just a “hey, how are you?” away.
In another sense, though, all things end and there is little sense in trying to deny this. Indeed, it is in the afterlife of sudden things that thought starts to actually focus on their meaning. Being swept up in the dodgy shade of Haringey evenings, of the utter impossibility of meeting someone you feel strongly connected to in perhaps the world’s most anonymizing city, plays a funny trick of forever on the mind.
It’s easy to believe that “progress” holds our salvation, whether it be from climate change, car accidents or lonesome nights, but this ignores the fact that technology is crafted by human hands and, moreover, is used by them. New platforms promise us interaction that is more meaningful because it is more advanced, but what we share through them is ultimately the same as it ever was. We have pictures and timelines and video and audio, but, in the end, the loss caused by distance still stings; clutching parchment to one’s chest in the night is scarcely different than doing so with an iPhone.
It is often said that my generation has much of our love lives modulated by the ever-present hum of technology; too much, it is usually concluded. From the sudden ubiquity of Tinder’s rightward swipes as a symbolic representation of all that that it is to be dating and millennial, the outside observer might conclude that these loves are not so much of another person, but rather of glass and microchips. We are falling in love, lust or some ever-intermingled combination of the two not with the person before us but rather with what we perceive them to be in the self-editing funhouse mirror of the digital world. The sort of writing stemming from this hypothesis has a tone of nothing so much as the street corner apocalyptic, foretelling the end of human intimacy writ-large and the emergence of purely transactional relationship forms. Though this narrative is convenient, the facts on the ground, in the main, speak to something quite different.
More than anything, technology is a perilous and imperfect scaffold we use in an attempt to transcend those borders which have always made a mockery of deeper plans. As long as human beings have travelled between places without the intent of staying, we have found these affections that have been characterized by a kind of mutually-known impermanence. The best, or rather less neurotic, amongst us, are able to embrace that impermanence as part of the thrill, or at least that is what they say. I often find myself thinking that if all the lost lovers between the invention of the human heart and sufficiently widespread DSL access had the option of adding each other on Facebook, most of them would. The feeling of being forever apart, or at least dependent upon the courage of the local postal carrier to fan a flicker of connection, can drive one mad, or else into the arms of the convenient nearby for comfort. It could be said that knowing these things to have a potential of being but once might have intensified the feelings involved, whereas now we draw back slightly, not wanting to seem uncouth or uncool. This same hesitance, though, impairs our connections. We draw out feelings: a burst of activity, but then rationed over those exchanges of canned reactions and phrases of our favoured digital spaces.
I don’t know where, exactly, that leaves us in the wider sense. Perhaps we are doomed to exist in this between-space of lost and found as long as travel and technology hold out the hope of more permanent connection. Perhaps we can reconceive of love as something which requires less of a physical sense of “being there”. Perhaps, indeed, we can live again with the spirit of a life of interesting adventures and not hold too close to the glancing encounters. I particularly doubt the last of those, though.
As for myself, when I finally gathered the wherewithal to really continue from that summer: I wrote a letter with an invitation to vacation together, I boxed it up with some particularly tacky emblems of Canadian pride and I sent it by post; the brown paper covering crackled with immediacy.