It's been well over a month since I was persuaded to try online dating. All in all, it's been much more fun and interesting than I anticipated when I announced my intention to try it.
Returning to dating after many years, I am compelled to state the obvious: things have changed. Those changes shine a light on the key challenge of our increasingly virtual world, namely: as we relate more and more through computerized text and images, how do we capture, notice, integrate, allow, and enable the forms of information and interaction that can't be conveyed in bits and bytes?
When I shared a little of my experience with a friend recently, he told me to "Be careful." With my heart, I think he meant, but of course, the boatload of cautionary evidence now being launched against online interaction has more to do with other dangers. We are warned against revealing too much to strangers, against making ourselves vulnerable to predators. (And yes, my lovely friends who are reading this, I am indeed being careful; no need to worry.)
But as more and more of the human interaction we are used to experiencing in real, flesh-and-blood encounters is being moved online, it is the opposite truth that strikes me. I find myself touched by the extent to which men and women who have loved and lost are willing to open themselves anew to hope and opportunity, by how much vulnerability they are willing to risk by exposing their yearning for connection. Human vulnerability is timeless, of course, but if memory serves, I think there is even more exposure entailed in posting an online profile than in standing hopefully at the perimeter of a party, impersonating cheerful indifference to the fact that everyone else seems to be part of a couple.
I borrowed the title of this essay from a very nice man I met online. He works in the computer industry. When I asked him to describe his specialty, he answered with one word: "Virtuality," which refers to achieving the feeling of reality, distinct from actual physical reality. My iPhone gives me the experience of typing on a keyboard without actually having one, for instance.
In online dating, the time-honored steps are reversed. Back in the day, I would meet someone at a party, or on line at the bank, or at work. Whatever information was exchanged in first glances, handshakes, and tentative conversations would suffice to determine whether the encounter would be brief and forgotten, or a first step in the pursuit of possible intimacy. Certain mysteries were immediately revealed: scent, the exchange of pheromones, how someone moves, the quality of someone's gaze, the sound of someone's voice.
Online, none of that is available. You look at snapshots, read a few paragraphs of self-description, take in answers to questions about height, age, profession, religion, and so on. If your profiles interest each other, you email. If that goes well, you talk by phone (although video Skype is my new communication obsession, providing gesture, inflection, expression, and other useful information to supplement the human voice). If that seems promising, you meet, usually in some bounded setting—a coffee shop set up for quick getaways seems to be the favorite.
All those steps now precede the moment that used to tell us whether interest would be sparked. And of course—humans being such complex yet carnal creatures—often as not that first encounter lets the air out of whatever fantasies those who meet online may have piped into the vast space that snapshots and email open for speculation and projection.
It's the opposite of virtuality: a fully crafted experience that feels—that seems—quite unlike the real thing it replaces.
Extrapolate this to the internet-based political discourse that has substantially replaced face-to-face civic debate. In reality, many threads weave the social fabric that clothes the body politic. Other than online, it isn't that each of us can be reduced to a series of discrete political positions, a set of toggle switches: yes/no to this war, yes/no to that healthcare program, yes/no to financial reform, offshore drilling, immigration. In the fully dimensional world, all these considerations interact, and each one has economic, cultural, environmental, and other implications. Weighing them, we craft our compromises. The more they are grounded in the dialogue of diverse human beings coming to terms with how each initiative may affect their bodies, emotions, minds, and spirits, the better those compromises will be.
While it may be true that we developed our senses of smell, taste, touch, and hearing (not to mention intuition) out of the survival-based need for acuity in a world that contained saber-toothed tigers, we continue to risk our survival if we underestimate their importance today, privileging only what can be learned through sight. How do we take advantage of the increased capacities offered by the virtual world, yet somehow correct for the imbalances it creates? In particular, how do we keep from being culled into pockets of likemindedness, corralled into the limited menu of yes or no choices? How do we support and sustain interaction, even with those very different from ourselves, long enough to create relationship, including a strong social fabric and a civic spirit of give-and-take?
As with online dating, I am glad that internet activism exists. Both things increase our exposure to opportunity, widen our sense of the possible, and invite us to engage. I have been impressed by the ability of groups like MoveOn.org, ColorofChange.org and TrueMajority.org to mobilize great numbers to act in defense of democracy and equity.
Online dating has a trajectory that moves toward a face-to-face encounter (or the decision to forego one), at which point all the elements that create any real—as opposed to virtual—experience come into play. Online activism, despite the addition of meet-ups and demonstrations, has not yet found a way to focus toward the face-to-face dialogue, the real, embodied interaction, that create a vibrant political discourse leading to sustained, meaningful action.
When there is a single focal point—a particular candidate or piece of legislation, a campaign against Glenn Beck or anything else where action consists of clicking to sign a petition or send an email—internet activism works best. When nuance, interpretation, and questioning of assumptions are needed, however, like online dating, online activism becomes the opposite of virtuality, because it can never grant us the type of civic experience possible when two flesh-and-blood people remain in dialogue, face-to-face, until they have reached understanding (even if it is only the agreement to disagree).
I've learned something about both men and my own toggle switches from a few weeks of online dating. I surmise that certain factors must be very attractive to a great many women (or else why would they appear so frequently?)—although, sadly, they do not appeal to me. I would estimate that a quarter of the men in my demographic post pictures of their vehicles: motorcycles, sports cars, boats, and occasionally bicycles—just the boat or car, often, without the man anywhere in the frame. Most of the men in the boat subset provide pinups of huge fish they have caught. Easily another quarter are costumed in elaborate golfing, hunting, or skiing regalia. Almost invariably, the first sentence of text accompanying these photos contains the word "still," as in "I am still very active." That "still" gives me a sinking feeling: in between the letters, I can hear the articulate silence of another shoe waiting to drop.
I don't reply to men who post nearly nude photos of themselves or make mention of particular sexual tastes, nor to the polyamorous ones who provide reassurance of their spouses' understanding. Nor to the men who are seeking women far younger than themselves, and not only because I surpass the age limit. I'm guessing there must be forty-something women out there who want to practice tantra with sixty-something men, or why would the men keep advertising their availability to that particular cohort? But I can't imagine who those women are.
I've discovered that I'm a literacy snob. When someone misspells every multisyllabic word, I skip to the next email or profile. I recognize that some men may be dyslexic or may simply have become over-reliant on a spellcheck utility that dating sites lack, but somehow, that doesn't matter. I just click and go.
In my own profile, my aim was to be forthright and true to myself. When someone contacts me (or vice versa), I usually send a link to my Website, encouraging my correspondent to click around for a minute before replying. I've gotten enough replies that say, "You're kind of political (or brainy, or passionate about things) aren't you?" to know that is a good strategy for culling out people who wouldn't like me anyway (or vice versa). But I am also reminded that in pre-internet dating, that kind of indicator would have been evident before a few sentences had been exchanged.
By definition, virtuality—seeming rather than being—is superficial. It is hard to pin down precisely what is lost by taking the search for companionship and political activism online, but two words come to mind: depth and complexity. In online activism, we miss the same embodied qualities as in online dating, the things that can lead us to pursue engagement in a face-to-face encounter even if the other person hasn't hit all the right keywords: what we learn from looking someone in the eye while we disagree; the enlarging experience of holding difference in a way that honors the other; the ah-ha moment when a mysterious connection is made with someone who would have been culled out by an algorithm prioritizing likemindedness.
What is gained is immediately evident: opportunity. I am glad to be doing this. In a short time, I've had many interesting conversations with men who would never have crossed my path any other way. I've enjoyed being pursued. I've been offered a glimpse of contemporary manners and mores, of world-views different from my own. Every man has his grief and disappointment—the women too, no doubt—but so far, only a few seem overwhelmed or embittered by it, and often, that seems a symptom of moving forward too quickly after a loss. I don't know if this will be the path to true love, but as a friend of mine said, it is a good way to signal my entry into launch mode, to achieve escape velocity.
While I find out, I paddle around in the virtual lagoon of longing, so many people expressing their desire in the currency of favorite songs, movies, foods, and vacation spots. It's not so different from spending time on any of the progressive political sites, where the desire for justice and equity carries a wistful heat not unlike the longing for love, and where exiting the virtual world for the real is a prerequisite for satisfaction.
I've been listening to a lot of Jeff Buckley this week. The classic tragedy of his story—his father, Tim Buckley, died at 28 from an overdose, and Jeff, the son, drowned at 31—adds poignancy, to be sure. But the music has a power separate from the artist's fate. This song, an artifact of pure yearning, definitely achieves virtuality.