A love story in nine loosely-networked friends
At the party, you level up. It is while you are talking to a new acquaintance. At least, you thought they were an acquaintance. But you tell them about your childhood, about your difficult relationship with your parents. You mention the things you feel you have to conceal about your life from your father and there it is, suddenly, a winking of stars around your new friend’s head. A musical chime. The other guests politely put down their drinks and applaud your achievement. While you’d been speaking, your acquaintance had pressed a particular patch of skin to indicate to the network that you are now a friend. Your 5,000th friend. You are popular. Everyone knows it. After the brief pause to celebrate your new status, you go on talking about the trouble you have understanding your past.
In your psychotherapist’s office, it’s considered good form to turn off all social networks. No one can tell whether you’ve complied, of course, not even the therapist, your professional friend. With broadcasts directly to the visual centres of your brain, input devices under your skin, and a soundstream that taps directly into the aural nerve, turning it off and on is as easy as a thought. She’d never know. Keeping them on is like lying to your therapist, though. You’re not going to be much helped by the process, she tells you, if you bring other people into the room.
It is peaceful to turn them off for a while. Many people have turn-off hours, or even turn-off days. Not every thought has to be broadcast. People are fond of repeating this mantra. It is a critique of others – of those people in those places – and a reminder to self. The very fact that it has to be repeated, of course, is a sign of how little it is understood.
It feels pleasant to remember that you are solitary, sometimes. Your therapist listens to your dreams – those cannot, yet, be broadcast on the network – and to you talking about how much you hate yourself. No one else will ever hate you quite as much as you do.
And yet. When you reach for a simile, it is not there. You want to consult the network. It is only with the greatest struggle that you persuade yourself not to do so. Your vocabulary is poorer without it. Your knowledge is diminished. Even your memory of your own life is richer and fuller on the network than any non-networked human could achieve.
“Don’t you think,” you say, “that the network could be a therapeutic tool, actually?”
There is no answer.
When you turn around and look at your therapist, you think that you spot the momentary rapid-eye-movement signalling that she is checking in with her own network. She denies this, when you ask.
You hold the baby of your childhood friend. You and the mother have known each other for nearly twenty years. The baby seems to smile at you.
“He’s just got wind,” the mother says. Nonetheless, you smile back.
“When are you going to settle down?” she asks. You say nothing.
The baby’s name is already registered on the networks, reserving a place for him when he is grown.
Babies do not have friends. Before a certain point – perhaps 12 or 18 months – babies are not aware that there is any separation between themselves and the world at all. It is only when they understand that other people have private inner experiences, that it begins to become meaningful to talk of them having ‘friends’. As soon as we realise that we are alone in our own heads, we begin to seek companionship.
It is an effort, to maintain the barriers between us and the world outside. That is why falling in love feels so good. Lowering the boundary around our carefully maintained ‘self’ at last is ecstatic. It has been some time since you last fell in love.
You surreptitiously check on the status of your 5,000th friend on the network but are disappointed: all the signs are that they are in a serious relationship. But the network tells you that an old companion is still single. The two of you have had an arrangement in the past. When you initiate contact, it is well-received. You meet up at your home in the middle of the afternoon.
You try to express your concerns about friendship, about the nature of social relationships, about the need for solitude, but although your friend is vaguely interested, that’s not what you’re there for.
“We’ve become a new kind of human,” says your friend-with-benefits, reaching a hand toward your thigh. “Homo Connecticus. It’s just the next stage in our evolution. Why look back?”
You’ve heard this argument before. Your friend has nothing new to say. And after all, you didn’t want to talk.
The afternoon passes pleasantly enough. You feel alone even when your friend is lying in the bed next to you. It is only switching on the network, feeling the buzz of chatter swarm over your body, that makes your loneliness recede.
The next day, you talk to your brother in Buenos Aires. Or perhaps Istanbul. Or Yokohama. It’s getting hard to keep track of where he is these days. And it doesn’t really matter. Wherever he is, his image is projected onto your retina, hooked up to your nerves. There are no more absent friends these days
“You’ve got to give up on that friend with benefits thing,” he says, “it’s doing you no good. You need a real relationship.”
Your muscles tingle with the relief of an unburdening conversation. You grin. You feel known, and understood, and cared-for. You feel companioned. You are entirely alone in your apartment, smiling into empty space.
The relationship between the mind and the body is problematic. The 17th century philosopher Descartes thought that they were separate and distinct entities. The body is a machine, the mind is its driver. Other philosophers have accused him of imagining a homunculus – a tiny man – inside the skull, examining inputs from eyes and ears and other senses, pressing buttons in response to make the body move. This position is philosophically unsound.
But it points to a certain kind of truth. We understand that there is a real, astonishing person inside each of the often uninspiring meat bodies we walk around in. We battle against prejudice based on physical attributes: skin colour, gender, age, height, disability, body shape. When over the centuries we have imagined heaven, we have often imagined it as a place beyond the physical, where pure thought and spirit are the only reality.
Your brother’s body is unimportant: it is his mind, or his spirit, or his soul, that has given you a hug. Surely this is the dreamed-of heaven.
You sink into a light depression. Nothing too extreme. You have bodily-status updates enabled on the network, though. When various electrical indicators drop below a certain threshold, the system posts a mood line. The network tells all your friends you are “a bit sad” and offers them various ways to comfort you.
A shower of virtual flowers, hugs and cat pictures begins to stream into the online inbox behind your eyes. Some cost your friends actual money – not as much as a cappuccino, but more than you might drop in the street without bothering to pick it up. You feel a little better.
Some friends – mostly those in the group you’ve labelled ‘real friends’ on the network – actually call to check in with you. You talk it out. They tell you this can’t last forever, that everyone goes through difficult times. They mention your parents and remind you how far you’ve come already.
Moods are contagious though. They’re meant to be. Ethnomusicologist Joseph Jordania theorised that the human ability to become lost in collective identity – often through dance or chanting – is necessary so that we can sacrifice ourselves to preserve the species. The very survival of the human race has sometimes depended on our loss of self. It is only very recently that we placed such emphasis on the identity of the self anyway. Perhaps it’s more natural to be ‘us’ than ‘me’.
Increasingly, like you, network users have enabled sensory feedback on other people’s statuses. The messages and moods of your friends are converted to sensations in your body. There’s a particular tingling pinprick that you’ve come to associate with unread messages, and a rushing sensation when your friends have mostly positive mood states. We have become one organism, feeling our moods together. An empathy machine.
So it is inevitable that when your mood drops, you lose a few fair-weather friends. Only those who cannot afford to feel that way today. They may be back, or if not their place will be taken quickly. You already have 5,050 friends anyway. You will not miss the dozen or two who let you fall into the blue.
However, there are certain people whose mood falls so low that they are defriended by hundreds, thousands of people. There’s no recovering from that. Terminal velocity. They still go to work, perhaps, have families or hobbies, but a catastrophic loss like that on the network is like becoming homeless. You have to start from scratch. But most people won’t trust you enough to let you begin again. A 30-year-old with no friends on the network is a weird and unsettling creature.
A day or two after your low status update, your 5,000th friend calls you on a private network channel. That relationship you thought you detected on the network has ended; this is dropped in casually into the conversation. You notice the casual-ness. The conversation is guarded, each of you attempting to be funny, excessively delighted to find that the other is amused by your witticisms. At least, you think your new friend is attempting to be funny, you imagine excessive delight. You are uncertain whether what you think is happening is happening.
You’ve misread the signals before and have been astonished by the devastation of realising that you were the only one who thought that certain messages were being given and received. If we were all supposed to be comfortable with our internal solitude, why would we be distressed by a misunderstanding? We want to touch the homunculus in the other’s skull.
Interactive forms tend to speak in the second person: “where do you want to go today?” “what are you doing?” “how do you feel about your father?”
In the network, you are constantly being spoken to. It tells you who you are, and what you are doing. “You are following Adrian.” “You hung out with Andrea.” “David has poked you.” You gave up control of your self-definition so gradually that you barely noticed it at all. You feel alright about the network. Are you being told that, or is it the truth? Is there a difference?
You are tightly coiled, churning with questions about your 5000th friend. Your therapist is out of town, as she so often is when you need her. You use the network’s built-in counsellor.
“How do you feel?” says the mechanized human, the imaginary friend.
“Sad,” you say. “Worried. Afraid. Alone.” You do not say: lonely. But you are. Even with so many friends, you are lonely.
“And how do you feel about being sad, worried, afraid, alone?” asks the voice.
She can’t do much more than ask questions, but answering them gives you temporary relief.
At last, the acquaintance who became a friend at the party – your 5,000th friend – becomes a lover. You explore one another’s bodies and minds. Drunk on the intoxicating otherness, you let go of yourself like a child letting go of a balloon, peacefully watching your carefully maintained and delineated self float up into the sky and disappear.
You turn off for days at a time, lost in one another. You forget who you are. You say the same thing as your lover at the same moment. You listen, and feel that you are hearing your own inner narrative spooled out. You no longer need to say “me too, me too”, because it is understood.
At last, after many days, you change your relationship status on the network. A flood of congratulations follow. You feel loved, by your beloved and the network. You are together.
Is love a good thing, or a bad one? And myself, what about that?
This story was originally commissioned by, and broadcast on BBC Radio 4.