The Death of Distance, or How Facebook is Killing Romance / by Dan Mayer

A generation of humans are coming of age who have never experienced analogue love. This is sad.

At least it seems sad to me. I sound like one of those dudes nursing a pathological devotion to vinyl records when everything first started coming out on CD. That sort of fixation can be an indulgence. But we’ve sacrificed something meaningful on our way to having open access to everyone all the time across twenty different modes of digital interaction. In an era when we are all expected to be at least minimally available for our entire waking lives, intimacy has taken on a different flavor. Gone are those moments of desperation, real or imagined, where we had to stuff all of our ardent feeling into that plastic telephone mouthpiece.

There are adults among us who have never had to sneak downstairs to the living room of their parents’ house at two in the morning to call a verboten girlfriend. They have never had to wait for a sibling to get off the phone before trying to arrange a date. Even the dates themselves are now entangled in digital effluvia. You are never alone in a car with a love interest, even if you’re parked somewhere distant, looking at the city lights. You remain tethered to the broader context of your life by the phone in your pocket.

I can think of three occasions from my own personal history where I had to beg for forgiveness from a pay phone. Relationships were at stake, timing was bad. It was shitty, and inconvenient, and required me to pull over and get out of my car, but I was in love and there was something about that wired connection that was romantic. You only had so many quarters in your pocket, and that meant a finite number of minutes in which to state your case. It was precisely these limitations — the time constraints, the reliance on faulty payphones, the street noise — that made those moments powerful. It made the distance itself into something you could physically feel, like a weight dragging at your heart. Almost.

Now the reverse is true; distance is barely noticeable when you have constant access to someone, and intimacy is what happens when you turn your phone all the way off.

Even then, device screen strangely dark, you know that the texts, DMs, IMs, emails, and all the rest are still accumulating. You can feel the obligation to check your various inboxes like the perpetual intrusion it is, a stopwatch that never stops.  As we liberated ourselves from the wire sticking out of a wall in our parents’ kitchens, we have abandoned the meaning of inaccessibility. That means we have also abandoned the meaning of access, and the emotional payload of proximity.

We never have to wait to express a thought. It pops into your head, you catapult it into the ether immediately, knowing that it will arrive at the targeted inbox. We can talk to each other and see each other’s faces wherever we go. You (and your goddamned pets) are digitally embedded in the daily existence of everyone that you care about. Yes, we are brought closer by all of this. But it is an easy closeness. Does that make it less…intense? Less valuable? Less intimate?

Maybe our great-great-grandparents thought something similar when phones began showing up in every house and people forgot about writing letters. Perhaps they mourned the extraordinary potency of a thought carefully composed and made physical on a sheet of paper. I guess this is something that happens to some of us as we get older and the world refuses to remain bounded by the limits of our comfort and understanding.

Does every generation experience love and loss as fully as the last? They must. But maybe our great-great-grandparents were right, and maybe I am, too. We might be trading something away with every technological leap, something that we won’t even have the bandwidth to miss.