Douglas Coupland: Everybody on Earth Is Feeling the Exact Same Thing as You

Notes on Love in the Digital Age

 

It’s very hard to imagine calling someone and saying, “Hey, come over to my house and we’ll sit next to each other on chairs and go online together!” Going online is such an intrinsically solitary act and yet, ironically, it allows for groups to be formed.

I think it’s very funny the way even the most nice-seeming people turn into trolls and monsters when they go online alone at night. Anonymity unmasks them.

Douglas Coupland, Digital Orca, 2010. Photo Pardeep Singh

Douglas Coupland, Digital Orca, 2010. Photo Pardeep Singh

Last year at a conference about cities I met this guy from Google who asked me what I knew about Fort McMurray, Alberta. I told him it’s an oil-extraction town in the middle of nowhere, and because of this, it has the most disproportionately male demographic of any city in North America. Its population is maybe 50,000. I asked him why he was asking and he said, “Because it has the highest per capita video streaming rate of anywhere in North America.”

Dutch researchers doing a survey of the effects of pornography on men had to cancel the study because they simply couldn’t find a man anywhere on earth who hadn’t, at some point, sought out porn. They were trying to find an “uncontaminated” statistical control pool and had to abandon their project.

I don’t know if women go online looking for porn. It’s hard to imagine them doing that. They must think men are pigs. But they must do something, even if it’s just a fantasy of making it with the tradesman who installed the new stove.

I think that because of the Internet, straight people are now having the same amount of sex as gay guys are always supposed to be having. There’s a weird hollowed-out look I can see on the face of people who are getting too much sex delivered to them via the Internet – or anywhere else, for that matter. They’ve gotten laid but there’s a whiff of failure to it all. Is this it? I find that younger people of all types are highly aware that too much sex will desensitize them to love. In the old days they never had that option. So that’s totally new.

On the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant asked Mary how many times a girl could be with a different man before she became “that kind of girl,” and Mary thought about it very carefully and said, “Six.” Some psychologists have come to the conclusion that most people have five or six “loves” and once they use them up, that’s it. Sixes get used up very quickly in the new information world.

People in the pornography industry have found that the magic price point for people subscribing to a porn site is $29.95. The moment you cross that line, potential customers balk and leave. This is called the “porn wall,” and it seems to be an impenetrable thing – a constant that’s built into us by nature, like the nesting instinct of birds or the molecular weight of zinc.

In the 1990s there was a thirty-year-old Latino guy who passed himself off as a hot teenage girl in a Florida high school and spent a year and a half there before they found out. I think he attended his PTA meetings as his own father. I think that in certain ways, we’ve all become Latino guys pretending to be hot cheerleaders – except maybe you’re not pretending to be a cheerleader, you’re pretending to be a studly cowboy or whoever it is you wish you could be to the person on the other end who has no way of disproving it.

Sometimes people really connect online, but, of course, they live far away from each other. So, ultimately, one of them buys a plane ticket and flies across the country to meet the other in person. If there’s no physical chemistry it leads to one very depressing drink and some desultory conversation before they both go home. People in the dating industry call these people “next-flight-homers.” Sometimes people really connect online and when they meet in person they physically click. People in the dating industry call them “room-getters.”

I sometimes wonder about people who wake up and spend almost the whole day online. When they go to bed at night, they’ll have almost no organic memories of their own. If they do this for a long time, you can begin to say that their intelligence is, in a true sense, artificial. Which I guess means sex lives have never been as artificial as they are now.

People seem to be pickier about bodies these days. New high-definition TV cameras have changed the way we look at bodies. Even a faint acne scar looks like the Grand Canyon on a high-def screen. TV casting agents have started to heavily favor actors with perfectly smooth skin. It’s like the dermatological equivalent of the introduction of sound into film in 1929.

It’s more pressure than ever for movie stars to look and be a certain way, and it’s hard growing old in the modern world. It’s hard to imagine Jack Nicholson with Alzheimer’s. David Bowie is going to be seventy soon. I don’t know how I feel about all of this. At least online you can fake youth – you can fake everything.

It’s only when you don’t have an Internet connection or lose your phone that you realize how alone you are in the world. I don’t know if I’d want to go back to being 1992 me, or 1982 me – all that time I spent being largely isolated and alienated.

I don’t think people being on their devices all the time is an indicator of social isolation. Maybe it’s the opposite. In Manhattan about one person in three on any given sidewalk is using a wireless device. Some people say that’s bad because they’re not “in the moment,” but I think it’s kind of nice because you have visible proof that people need and want to be with other people.

I watched Looking for Mr. Goodbar a few weeks ago. It was Richard Gere and Diane Keaton in 1970s New York and I was horrified by how low-tech it was back then. It’s like people lived in badly furnished caves connected by landlines. It was a real eye-opener.

Once you get used to a certain level of connection, there’s just no way to go back to where you were before. The thing about 2012 is that people are more connected than they’ve ever been before – except they’ve been tricked into thinking they’re more isolated than ever. How did that happen?

I find that whenever I stay with people, the first ninety minutes of the day are spent online collectively waking up the way we used to wake up with newspapers. Every morning when I open my e-mails, there’s a part of me that feels like I’m scratching a lottery ticket, except instead of just winning things, you can also lose things, too. Money. Friends. Status. Work. Love. It’s the best moment in the day for many people – that delicious three-second window when, after reading all your papers and blogs, you say, “Ahhhh … now I’m going to check my personal e-mail.” Because it’s all about you.

Republished from Solution 247–261: Love (ed. Ingo Niermann. Sternberg Press, 2013)

By DOUGLAS COUPLAND 

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