The State Of Our Disconnect

Commentary on contemporary dating and personal anecdotes from member of the Tawkify community, Orkut Buyukkokten, creator of social networks Club Nexus, Orkut and Hello. Orkut has devoted his life to creating tech that not only initiates connections, but is meant to take them offline. A true reflection of our own modus operandi at Tawkify. 

“We live in an era where most of the tried and true ways to meet people in the real world have been replaced by looks-driven dating apps.” 

I miss how we used to date. When I was growing up in Germany, people would meet other people through friends or at a bar or even just passing by on the street; eyes would lock, or one person would flash a smile; you would start a conversation and then maybe you would make plans to go out: a drink, something to eat, maybe a dance. If you enjoyed each other’s company, you would consider the date a success. You might even end the night with a kiss, a sign that you were both interested in each other, and that you wanted to see each other again. You would date one person at a time, seeing each relationship to completion. You would keep hanging out until you decided that you wanted to become friends or never see each other again or become something more. It wasn’t uncommon to meet people who would want to wait until marriage before they had sex for the first time. There was a time when that wasn’t such a crazy idea!

Technology has allowed us to bypass many of these courtship rituals. Dating apps match us with people in geographic proximity and allow us to blankly look at photos and swipe left or right unthinkingly. In my opinion, apps like Tinder are the worst thing that have happened to romance.

“They essentially render our relationships disposable.”

On these apps, you are not a person; you are a picture. The experience of using dating apps can desensitize us and dumb us down; it can reduce us to our bodies, and the negative impact of the mutual objectification we experience on dating apps filters into the analog world.

Dating apps today give us too much power and control; they allow for too much premeditation and planning for something that cannot be predetermined. The surfeit of choice on dating apps also created several negative consequences. For one, it primes within us an almost animalistic instinct to select a potential match based on superficial attraction rather than thoughtful engagement. It also allows us to maintain the illusion that there is always someone better out there just around the corner. I know people who schedule multiple dates on the same day so they can be more efficient with their lives. 


“Performance-oriented dating has become an actual practice.”

God forbid, we spend too much time with someone who is not a good match. It must be some externality of the freedom-prison of individualism western society has created: only here, in a society that has afforded us an extraordinary degree of freedom – a freedom to do with our lives as we please to which we can attribute many virtues and for which we have much to recommend…

only here that it is even possible that we could sustain the devastating contradiction of being alone in a world of hyper-connection.”

It’s never been easier for us to connect with other people, we’ve never had more choices of people to love, and perhaps it’s that very possibility and choice that makes our feelings of loneliness more acute, more present and real.

In her strange and cool little novel, The Answers, Catherine Lacey offers a dystopian vision of love in the 21st century. Mary, an in-debt and ill thirty-year-old woman living in New York, takes a new job as a participant in a pseudoscientific experiment about love in order to pay for her treatments. In the experiment, Mary plays the Emotional Girlfriend for a big-time Hollywood actor; other women play the Intellectual Girlfriend, Angry Girlfriend and Maternal Girlfriend and enter in and out of the scenes at different points in time. All of the participants in the study are hooked up with sensors so that they can return real-time feedback about their emotions; the research group behind the study, in turn, has the ability to manipulate chemicals in their brains to produce certain emotional responses.

All this in service of a research study meant to understand whether it is possible to achieve a prolonged state of limerence—the physiological and psychological state of a body as it falls in love. It might not come as a surprise that the study is doomed; the novel ultimately doesn’t offer any answers but rather reveals, as the story unfolds, all of the ways in which we project desire onto others, how we act out certain roles of the people who we think will be desirable to other people, how we have sloughed off our emotional lives for our material and technological ones—and the physical and psychological costs of doing so. What we’re left with, and it’s not exactly uplifting, is a disturbing picture of our modern isolation and a more precise understanding of how technology, rather than bringing us closer together, instead reveals the vast distances between us. 

It is an unsettling book but it also served as a sort of tonic to my current frustration with dating apps. It made me wonder if there might be another way forward, if there might be another way of seeing the question.

A few weeks ago, I went out to a bar with friends. It was a gay bar in the Castro; rainbow-flags and posters of intimidating shirtless sweaty men plastered all over the walls. Maybe it’s just my imagination but,

at night, gay bars always seem to me to take on a reddish hue, like light filtered through rust or blood. Even when you enter from the street, it feels like you are entering into a secret club, or into a stranger’s dark fantasy.

It was into this underground-but-not-underground bar that I, weary and eager at the same time, threw myself. Another night floating on someone else’s dream, another journey propelled forward on the hope of love and buoyed by the optimism that if I made it through safely, this time, I might never have to come here again.

That may sound cynical but I don’t mean it that way. Gay bars serve a fundamental purpose as spaces for us to gather and form community but, simply put, that night, I wasn’t looking for a sense of community with my peer group—I have gay friends, after all; I was looking for love; I wanted the thing that would lift the loneliness from the depths of me.

Love, that lighthouse that would lead me back home through the storm.

And then I saw him. Well, at first just his eyes. My eyes locked with his in a moment of world-shattering, time-stopping intensity, like I had just been confronted with a lost film, condensed to a few strips of all of my childhood memories, now forgotten, in overwhelming color, rushing past my pupils. It was a gaze with a force to set fire to granite. It was so knowing, the gaze, at once mysterious and hypnotic and familiar all the same, with a flicker of danger. I had to meet him. But I didn’t dare aver my eyes, let alone move toward him; I was frozen in the frame of attraction.

The 19th century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about love as a touching of souls (an idea later immortalized by Joni Mitchell), and in that moment, unmediated by a screen, expecting nothing and everything, present to my desires and aware for the first time (or at least for the first time in a long time) that there could only possibly be one container for it, one object of it, that person standing seven feet from me, cradling a gin and tonic in a dingy bar on Market Street, that I thought if love is touching souls then desire is seeing them for the first time.

A face can tell you more about a person than anything that person will say to you about their past or future. You can see in a face a biography of loneliness, a geography of longing. To really look at someone, to really see someone, you have to be willing yourself to be seen, not as the person who you want the world to see but the person inside, the you that is unplanned, unpolished, the you that is laid bare. It’s why that moment in the bar has stayed with me so clearly after all these months. 

I didn’t end up with him; I still don’t have the answers, but that night invigorated me. To see someone else’s soul exposed like that, even if for just a fleeting moment,

you realize that love is not a matter of probability; it’s not a problem to be engineered or solved, but a willingness in the face of someone else to be changed, a submission to the sculptor’s hands.

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