THEIR ONLY pURPOSE IS SOMEHOW TO FIND A MATE IN THE DARKNESS
Personal essay published in Fruitlands Issue 3 alongside work by Jeremy Deller and Juliet Jacques.
One night I am sitting on my bed with my laptop alone when a bulb suddenly bursts on the other side of the room. Glass spits out, fade to black.
This has never happened before. My gaze briefly flickers across, then returns to my screen, itself currently a peachy glow thanks to an app designed to 'warm' computer displays for night owls. 'Why do bulbs burst'?, I type. 'Unstable connections and unsteady flows’.
What was the last light your eyes saw before you closed them last night? It might have been the glow of an iPhone screen (blink green for Whatsapp, blue for Facebook). Or perhaps it was those peculiar phosphenes that stick to one's eyelids when they shut, pulsating softly as you drift off. It seems odd now that we used to turn off our computers at night. Now, they just temporarily sleep, like us, ready to wake up with a strange noise.
I depend, you depend, we all depend on glowing screens. Like the once omnipresent television in the living room, the glow of a smartphone screen is now Western culture’s most ubiquitous artificial light.
‘The electric light is pure information’. As cartoonishly illustrated on the cover of the first edition of his Understanding Media (1964), for Marshall McLuhan, the light of an electric bulb was a medium without a message. This is because artificial light communicates no information about itself, but rather facilitates a range of behavioural possibilities. “Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference,” he wrote. “It could be argued that these activities are in some way the ‘content’ of the electric light, since they could not exist without the electric light. This fact merely underlines the point that ‘the medium is the message’ because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.”
Human association. Swiping through Tinder, wide awake at night. And action. Left, right, left.
In an age of iPhone saturation, the smartphone – or more particularly, its ever-multiplying apps – shape and control our dating habits. This includes those dedicated ‘dating apps,’ like Tinder, Happn, and Bumble, as well as messenger apps embedded within more everyday platforms (far murkier territory). To message someone privately on Instagram or Twitter has become known as sliding into his or her DMs; it’s no coincidence that the exchanges that take place there afford individuals a certain slipperiness that bears no resemblance to the friction of real-life brushes.
This past year, I found myself single for the first time since before such apps were in existence. Initially, then, the thrill of a dating landscape blown wide open; untethered from the institutions within whose bounds we would normally encounter the other. The freedom of anonymity: of presenting oneself exactly as one wishes, unburdened by the pressures of prior knowledge. The novelty of deciphering emojis, supplementary forms of expression skilfully deployed by those seeking sex and intimacy. The awkwardness of meeting at a designated pub; the sinking feeling when he expresses admiration for Patrick Bateman beyond the stylistic level. The heartbreak of meeting and maybe falling in love with a stranger in New York, only for the fantasy to very shortly give way to the realities of a relationship conducted over screens only.
Someone sent me a meme recently – a gross fish in the inky-black sea, from some kind of Attenborough documentary, subtitled, in yellow, “THEIR ONLY PURPOSE IS SOMEHOW TO FIND A MATE IN THE DARKNESS.”
The meme had a familiarity, as all successful memes do – the ugly fish corresponding with the unpleasant sensation of groping and grappling in the darkness that is how modern dating feels. But in fact, we try and find a mate in the light, however artificial: the bright screens and flatteringly-lit photos of our devices. Online, we lay it all out as though things were clear-cut and simple, as though we were mere types, all in the attempt to circumvent the ambiguity of dating in the real world: 4-5 pictures (carefully-curated), job, age, sexual preference, Spotify ‘anthem’. The artificial glare these apps transmit correspond to our wish to know, to be certain; to inject the not-knowing of the search for love with the utility of 'knowing' that characterizes these apps generally.
“Bodies dreaming in the dark,” goes a song by the pop singer How to Dress Well, one of few artists who directly addresses the anxiety of affection sought across the internet. “Why am I addicted to such attention? / Had a nightmare about my Twitter mentions.”
Electric light transformed culture at large; smartphones and laptop screens are just the latest in a cultural history already illuminated with light’s obsession and pursuit. But what this move towards our phones fails to comprehend is that even when technology helps us to navigate so much space and time, the course of finding love has to be about feeling your way through the dark – about not knowing, absolutely, perhaps ever. As contemporary agony aunt Heather Havrilesky responds to a 25-year-old plagued by self-doubt in her Ask Polly column: "Let there be darkness. Get down on your knees, and crawl to the dark. Crawl and say to yourself, 'Holy GOD it's dark, but just look at me crawl! I can crawl like a motherfucker.’
But if I am to refuse artificial lights, romantically speaking, what should replace them? The phenomenon of ‘artificial darkness’, which we might take to be artificial light’s opposite, has a suitably obscure cultural history. Generally overlooked in theoretical terms, it was however zoomed in on by art historian Noah Elcott just last year, who brought together pitch-black theatre auditoriums and avant-garde dance in his study of the phenomenon: think Oscar Schlemmer's black body 'invisibility suits' and the films of Georges Melies (cue irritating Carrie Bradshaw monologue: ‘When it comes to dating in the city, do we need modern-day invisibility suits?’)
Recently, our dependence on our screens has led to a newer phenomenon of controlled usage: so-called ‘productivity apps’, like Headspace, designed to help you meditate on the bus, or ‘Flux’, so-designed so that the sun sets on your laptop screen just as it does in the sky. Rather than throwing our phones aside, I wonder if the processes of technological dating might take a similar turn towards a kind of controlled darkness. What this obfuscation might mean is hard to imagine. It could gesture towards a re-insertion of human ambiguity into these interactions: an acceptance of the randomness, uncertainty and downright unfunctionality of falling in love. A kind of artificial darkness, when it comes to dating, might simply mean managing one’s expectations.
I haven’t investigated the burst bulb on the other side of the room yet, opting instead to light more candles as night descends. It’s hard to read, but I’m learning to love the darkness.
You can buy Fruitlands Issue 3 here.