“Falling in love is crazy. It’s like a socially acceptable form of crazy.”
Amy Adams tells her lonely, introverted friend Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) in the 2013 film Her. But as he divorces his childhood sweetheart, Theodore gradually awakens to an even crazier love…with his new AI-based operating system, Samantha.
It’s not just this movie. A constant stream of signals on the pop culture monitor (from movies like Newness to OTT series like Westworld and Black Mirror to dating app trends) tell us that love and longing have given a turn into the thickets of the unknown. The story of human intimacy lies at the intersection of chaotic desire, endemic loneliness, vicious identity politics, and coldly invasive technology.
A blind date with a stranger can be fascinating, as in Before Sunrise. It could also be gut-wrenching, sometimes literally, as Shraddha Walker was to discover after meeting Aftab Amin Poonawala through the dating app Bumble. Trapped in a broken family and a call center job, a lonely and desperate Shraddha had connected with Aftab online.
Let’s talk first about desire, which some currents of philosophy maintain is older and perhaps the metaphysical womb of creation itself. It has always existed, and it will exist. But as desire breaks free from the rigidly defined social structures of the past, it becomes increasingly difficult to draw thick, red lines around it.
Men and women no longer meet only within domestic walls or in carefully curated situations. They meet every minute, everywhere… in the anonymity of a crowded office or the privacy of direct messages on social media.
The “forbidden” only exists on gold and brittle paper. What’s stopping us from connecting with a married colleague, a friend’s fiancé, a same-sex stranger at a protest march, or an interesting food blogger on social media? Where there is the powerful pull of consent, how long can the frayed bonds of conventional morality hold? Not too long, of course.
But if there is so much multi-directional scope for romantic connection, why are people so lonely?
Why are they constantly playing with their cold gadgets instead of being in the warm company of those they love?
Why feed these lonely cute food photos on your Instagram instead of an immersive dinner with someone who leaves no time for anything else?
The Social Statistics Division of the National Statistics Office (NSO) recently released an interesting report on single people in India.
Among other things, there has been a sharp drop in the number of young people who want to get married. The percentage of young people (15-29) who have “never married” has increased from 20.8% in 2011 to 26.1% in 2019, an increase of 5.3%. The jump in the number of single young women has been even more dramatic: from 13.5% in 2011 to 19.9% in 2022. This is an increase of 6.4%.
The data also reflects large swaths of rural India. A survey of urban, upwardly mobile youth is thought to yield surprising numbers.
In Indian cities, divorces have increased by 50 to 60 percent, according to lawyers in the media.
The sudden explosion of options for mixing ironically seems to leave people insecure and often unsatisfied with what they choose. The modern man or woman with an abundance of choices either constantly feels like they could do better or finds that the most suitable person they’ve ever met isn’t in a position to have a conventional long-term relationship.
Finally, there are the new identity compartments, watertight and wild. Is the person showing interest in me an ‘awakened’, ‘liberandu’, ‘sickular’, ‘bhakt’ or ‘Sanghi’? Is he or she or she or they? Are they cis, trans, non-binary, heteronormative, birthright, pansexual, or someone else on some corner of the ever-expanding gender map?
Is this person a dog lover or vegan?
Is he, she or they sensitive to mental health, the environment, minorities, subaltern identities, black, brown, yellow?
Because apparently we can no longer be a species that tolerates, let alone enjoys, the company of those who live outside of our own tiny, paranoid bubble.
Identity can also be a very practical camouflage for approaching or maintaining a relationship. Aftab used to regularly post his solidarity with LGBT+ rights, feminist activism and environmental causes before buying a large fridge to store 35 parts of his girlfriend’s chopped-up body. His political correctness was rewarded with a steady stream of women swiping for him on Bumble.
But the most immense and insidious enabler of this madness has been technology. Social media has ensured that what used to take months of waiting and awkward meetings is now achieved with an effervescent Memoji or a bold swipe.
So many millions of packets of information daily can be bewildering to even the best human mind. All-day exposure to fleeting reels of romantic advertising perfection slowly accustoms us to the charms of imperfection. Gigabytes of pornography make us forget love and instead aspire to some acrobatic and distant ideal.
Overexposure to digital porn has begun to affect lives in such a real way that it sparked a non-religious and somewhat clumsy backlash called the NoFap Movement. Advocates, mostly young people, claimed that relentless masturbation has left their lives empty, their relationships empty and their mental health poorer.
An episode of Black Mirror, ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, depicts a futuristic world where loneliness, gaming, technology, longing and pornography melt into a deeply painful mix.
Online dating using AI-powered apps can bring the search for a relationship to the level of the game. It’s exciting. You push the limits by seeking to increase this illusion. Continue to shorten your patience for any discomfort, stillness, or stagnation.
And terms like “catfish” come out, or someone who projects a certain image, but when you meet them in person, they can look very different, and even be of a completely different gender, age, or profession. Tinder, many complain, is full of catfish these days.
Or take ‘winter cover’. Dating app Inner Circle said 52% of 1,150 UK singles said they were recently approached by an ex who wanted to try again, with 71% saying it didn’t work out. The “fist season”, for example, is short-term relationships for the winter months. Spring, instead of regenerating, seems to wither these bonds.
A particular favorite of narcissists is apparently “doppelbanging,” or sleeping with someone who looks alike. It sounds far-fetched, but there’s no denying that there are many more magical creatures in the digital zoo.
The future of relationships is difficult to predict. Modern humans are discovering that love may not be the “happily ever after” we were promised. The lack of opportunity that once existed between monogamists and polyamorous people is fast disappearing.
But it can be extremely painful to come to terms with the fact that magnificent short bursts of romance cannot be poured into clean old containers of the past. Structures such as marriages or even lifelong cohabitations are in existential crisis.
It’s a terrible dilemma. If love is infinite, why can’t relationships be eternal? Why should they be meant to be short-term only?
Perhaps traditional contracts like marriage, with their agricultural and industrial preconditions, will give way to newer, more flexible arrangements that rekindle long and satisfying relationships. Maybe humans will see through the cunning of technology that uses us instead of us being used.
Whichever direction it takes, the journey of human intimacy in the next four or five decades may decide the course of human history for centuries to come.
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