Last week I walked around the corner from my office to a neighborhood coffee shop where Iāve been going for years... As soon as I walked in, I had the feeling that something had changed. āItās so quiet in here,ā I thought. Why was that? There was sound from the music system, as usual. But as I looked around the room I realized that not a soul in the place was talking to anyone else. Everyone was sitting alone in front of a laptop, absorbed in what was happening on the screen. Once this was a place to meet and socialize. Now more and more, itās as quiet as a library.
In a recent article in the London Times Andrew Sullivan describes the people he saw on a recent visit to Manhattan. āThere were little white wires hanging down from their ears, or tucked into pockets, purses or jackets.Ā The eyes were a little vacant.Ā Each was in his or her own musical world, walking to their soundtrack, stars in their own music video, almost oblivious to the world around them.Ā These are the iPod peopleā¦They walk down the street in their own MP3 cocoon, bumping into others, deaf to small social cues, shutting out anyone not in the bubbleā¦When others say āExcuse meā thereās no responseā¦Get on a subway and youāre surrounded by a bunch of Stepford commuters staring into mid-space as if anesthetized by technology. Donāt ask, donāt tell, donāt overhear, donāt observe.Ā Just tune in and tune out.ā
There is a sad irony in the realization that the technology that makes it easier than ever to reach out and touch someone seems to be isolating us from one another more and more. I remember, twenty years ago, having conversations with other gay psychotherapists about the pros and cons of gay bars as places to connect. I wondered whether the loud music, the alcohol, the dim lights, and the emphasis on cruising were helping to create community or inhibiting it from developing. Today that debate seems quaint and obsolete. Everywhere gay bars are struggling to stay in business because gay men use them less and less, and I wonder what we can do to get the boys back into the bars.
Today we sit in front of our computers, cruise online, and order ātake-out sexā without ever having to go out of the house. Instead of talking to guys and cruising them face to face, we read profiles, trade pics, and i.m. each other. Weāve added a whole new layer of separation and alienation. We do it, though, because it far more efficiently delivers hook-ups than going to bars.
In the anonymous environment of the Internet, we donāt have to work on our conversation skills or social manners. We donāt even have to worry about telling the truth, or showing ordinary human respect to anyone else. Abusive speech that would get you kicked out of a bar or embroil you in a fight on the street has no consequences in the virtual environment of a chat room. Humans have never lived like this before, and we donāt yet know the consequences for our culture. Are we sure that theyāre all beneficial?
I believe that this atomized environment must surely be related to the epidemic of drug abuse among gay men. A steady diet of online āhookupsā begins to become enervating and monotonous unless we do something to make them livelier. The easy solution is to introduce stimulant drugs into the mix ā ecstasy, for instance, and especially crystal meth. In the absence of real intimacy, these drugs provide intense sensation and the illusion of connection. One man talked to me about his āecstasy loversā and his ātina lovers,ā men he met for regular hookups with whom he had no other connection except drugs and sex. Heād experimented, briefly, with staying sober with these ālovers,ā but said that without drugs the experiences felt flat and boring.
The downside of all of this is by now well known. Crystal meth is addictive and destructive, highly correlated with unsafe sex, and may well be fueling the ongoing HIV epidemic among gay men. But the social isolation of the cyber world cuts us off from the very peer pressureāand peer supportāthat might protect more of us from falling into the trap of addiction.
I donāt exactly know what to do about all of this, since iPods and computers are certainly here to stay and have transformed all of our lives. But it might be helpful for each of us individually to be mindful of the fact that there are dangers in too much reliance on the virtual world to provide for our social and sexual needs. We are social animals, hard-wired to connect with other three-dimensional humans in the actual space-time continuum, and weāre always going to need to have spaces to connect with one another socially.
Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco.