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The Internet has changed many things; for example, remember opening a letter from an old friend? I am afraid our children will never do that, and if you don’t have children, there is a good chance you are young enough to never have done it yourself. Personal communication has changed immensely, mostly by format and speed.
What we say has also changed. The speed by which we communicate has created an immediate anticipation of response. Classic letter writing, almost like blogging, was a stand alone piece of writing. The response was important, but a good letter, once it was finished, had the feeling of an essay. Today emails, sms messages, and text messages are generally meaningless out of context.
I friend of mine was recently given a collection of her deceased fathers letters written to his sister over a 30 year period. She spent over a month reading through the years, very intrigued, like reading a good novel. I am afraid it would be much less interesting reading thirty years of emails, text messages, and sms conversations between a brother and sister now because so much of what was said would resemble the banter of common conversation.
The Internet has also changed love and romance. People have always been able to “love from afar”, through letters and later phone calls. Meeting from afar was a more difficult venture. This is one of the biggest changes brought about by online dating. Of all the things that have changed, one of the most important is that of abundance. Twenty years ago, someone from a small or medium sized village or town, single, in their 30’s, didn’t have a big choice of eligible partners. How to meet them? How to know if they were interested in you? How to give each other the once over without it becoming to uncomfortable?
Just a few numbers to put things in perspective, world population, 6.7 billion, internet users 1.7 billion, number of registered users on major social networking sites, over 1 billion, which we can estimate to around 500 million unique people registered on social networking sites and about 50 million on strictly dating sites (harder to find accurate number for strictly dating sites).
The internet allows us to kick the tires before we engage someone. You can check out the profile, pictures, send a few emails, chat on a messenger to get a feel for the person and at any point you can go ‘dark’, and the story is over. And the abundance! So many people, and if one is a little adventurous and willing to open up the geographic boundaries, the numbers and varieties around the world make the choices almost limitless. And there, in its greatest virtue, lies its greatest danger. There are so many to choose from, why choose at all?
So much of what we see in technological progress is simply the ability to satisfy very strong instinctual desires that were meant to keep us and our genes going through very difficult and sparse times, but not so healthy for a modern person with an internet connection, a credit card and a Whole Foods nearby. Those desires were strong because scarcity was the rule, not the exception. Think about the three most common killers of people in the industrialized world: smoking, drinking and overeating. When someone had to grow their own tobacco there wasn’t too much lung cancer. Before industrialization, alcohol was probably available during very brief periods, surely there were orgies of wild drunkenness, but when the booze was gone, it was gone for a long time; there was no running off to the supermarket or your local for more.
Online dating has caused a similar problem. Think about fetishes, what could they possibly mean from an evolutionary perspective? Some bizarre short circuit of the brain? Not at all. Fetishes are simply ways we are able to arouse ourselves sexually and copulate with fertile, but not so attractive members of the opposite sex. Beauty may equate to fertility, and the less beautiful may be a tad less fertile, but fertile they are nonetheless. But when you can turn on your computer and spend hours enveloped in your particular fetish it’s like a dog alone in a butcher shop.
The thousands of eligible singles, or self proclaimed singles, on the internet has reached a point where it is something like the typical American with money to spend roaming through a supermarket filling the cart with tens of thousand of calories soon to be rolls of cellulite. Our sexual appetites were refined over thousands years of scarcity. When the attractive other was seen, all energy and thoughts were focused on it. But when we can press a button and see hundreds of pictures of eligible others, we become over driven.
Can people love on the Internet? Is physical contact necessary for love? Type webcam girl in your search browser and you will see a slew of modern prostitutes who never have to ask a man to wear a condom. With webcam and voice, they are able to ‘satisfy’ their johns. One might argue that this is simply another form of pornography, but it is not that simple. No one disputes that the sexual experience is very much in the mind. Who wouldn’t prefer kiss from someone you are madly in love with for a wild night of sex with a beautiful partner you could care less about? Technology is reaching the point where two people with sufficient imagination can satisfy at least some of their physical desire for each other.
There will never be a substitute for physical contact. Nonetheless, there is a group of people that may prefer, for various reasons, a virtual love affair, maybe even a virtual love affair that became ‘real’ a few times a year in exotic romantic places. Soon we will see films and novels exploring the phenomena of virtual love, with a very predictable Hollywood ending to satisfy mediocre producers but hopefully more imaginative twists from others.
On the more bizarre side of things, people can explore their dark sides hiding in the anonymity of the internet. A recent survey showed that almost 20% of people had switched genders at some point in online chat rooms or dating sites. There is no doubt that people are also much more aggressive when the other is far away and their identity is still vague. In a survey done on a popular social networking site, www.badoo.com, women said that over 50% of males that contacted them at some point requested a form of cybersex. This brings up legal issues also, is it illegal to chat in a sexual way with someone you suspect is a minor?
Our appetites are killing us and driving us a mad. When we step back and observe how people are driven to consume, and an earth that is very close to becoming terminally ill with the cancer of human ‘progress’, we need to step back and disengage from a lot of it. Thousands of years of evolution have definitely selected for the strongest appetites, and now marketers are feeding on them by barraging them with the elusive objects of their desires.
Our ability to feed on each other’s primal instincts should not be underestimated; it is often a cruel and ruthless exercise, like teasing a dog with a steak. As our society matures, which, in spite of everything, it is doing, we should begin to control this type of marketing. Our most primal instincts should be shielded from direct marketing for our own psychological good and the good of our society and planet.
But the technology is here and many future love affairs are beginning as two avatars in Second Life. How people begin to connect, even how our intuition works, will change. For the lonely, isolated, shy or otherwise uncomfortable in ‘live’ situations, the virtual worlds will open up many doors and enable people to connect when they might not have. Some worlds will be very romantic, others as dark as our imaginations, but we will connect more, we will communicate more, and as English becomes universal, these places will more and more bring down the barriers of nations.