It would be most of our first choices to have relationships in the real world; but for many of us, it is a great deal more plausible to pursue them with, and via, our phones.
Phones provide exemplary compensation for the frustrations of living with actual people. Unlike them, they are always responsive to the touch and their malleability provides the perfect excuse for disengagement from the trickier aspects of true connections.
When a friend or partner launches into an account of their day or an analysis of one of our alleged faults, it becomes almost irresistible not to give these phones a quick check: a friend in another country may have just had a baby or someone we vaguely know might have a new opinion on a change in direction in the nation’s foreign policy.
Our phones promise us access to people who are so much less tricky than those in close physical proximity. Humans we have known for years get judged against angels we have yet to spend a real-life minute with.
At our most vulnerable moments, technology companies promise us that they will be able to locate that lode star of contemporary romance: ‘the right person’. The pictures they lay out before us are certainly beguiling.
The implicit thesis is that relationships have gone wrong for us so far not because they are inherently hard and we are properly tricky to live with, but because we haven’t yet found people with whom we are sufficiently compatible. There is not much room for the idea that compatibility may be an achievement of love and should not therefore fairly be expected to be its precondition.
Then, to compound the situation, our phones offer to show us a fascinating range of people without clothes.
Porn doesn’t judge and it doesn’t ask for anything back. Closeness to a real-life partner brings with it so many complications: unresolved resentments, a daily need to put up with a person’s less reasonable sides and an imperative to face up to our own huge failings.
But the porn site doesn’t mind that you slammed the cupboard door and it has no desire to take you up on your attitude to credit card debt. It doesn’t need intimacy and it doesn’t complain if you don’t say much.
Its implicit message is we don’t care about anything other than your pleasure; you can be as you are. With bliss and at a terrible hidden cost, it removes sex entirely from the emotional landscape.
Then there are the small hearts and ticks. It can feel desperately naive or narcissistic to admit it but, all of us deeply like being ‘liked’ and our phones know this so well.
We are genuinely moved by a message letting us know that Matteo from Wisconsin or Emile from Livorno wants to be our friend. These little words ‘like’ and ‘friend’ set off such deep and tender longings in our souls.
The momentary excitement they unleash reveals a secret pang of hope that our inner solitude will be pierced, that our troubles and joys will be truly understood by another; and that all the messages we wish to send to the world will be received and perfectly understood, at least by someone. It is poignant and, in its own quiet way, properly tragic.
We should not be frightened by our loneliness or by the difficulties of our real relationships. What we should try to avoid is the faith that our phones can offer us a genuine solution to the tensions of love.
We should, when we can manage it (and often we simply can’t), try to put these technological wonders to one side and try to do something properly futuristic for a while: attempt to love the bewilderingly complex, often maddening and sometimes very precious flesh and blood people presently dwelling in the vicinity.