In the future, it won’t just be OK to date a robot. You probably will.
This is the story of a giant turtle, a crappy TV show, a war that may not have happened and my quantum-gynandromorphous girlfriend.
As Drake would say, “This shit is not a love song.”
We begin with the turtle.
Her name is Bibi, and she just got out of a 115-year relationship. Bibi’s zookeepers aren’t sure what went down. Everything had been leaves and sticks with her long-term partner, Pologa. Their routine hadn’t change in over a century.
They were quite serious.
But, one day Bibi snapped. She launched a vicious attack against Pologa, taking bites out of his shell. Pologa, that giant man of a turtle, stood his ground. But Bibi came after him. Again and again. Eventually, Pologa was forced to retreat to a different enclosure.
It was done.
Now, after 115 years of monogamy, Bibi is out on the pond again. This may seem like a mistake, until you realize that the oldest giant turtle was thought to be at least 225 years old. Bibi doesn’t need a man’s support. She’s in her midlife prime. You go girl!
The breakup of Bibi and Pologa was widely published, so I apologize to any repeat readers, but it is a poignant starting point to the obvious — relationships are/have/must changing/changed/change.
While these statistics and numbers demonstrate trends, or arguably a single trend, in society, they hardly tell a story. They do not tell us how we should feel or date or love. They are often said to symbolize the failings or degradation of our culture. They are thrown in our faces callously by the media to hurt us, as if to say, “why are you getting it so wrong?” The starkness of the numbers and the harshness of the critics have a chilling effect. We stop trusting each other, stop respecting each other. We begin to believe the critics are right.
How did our parents and grandparents get together? Haven’t people been having babies for, like literally, millions of years?
Criticism can’t tell our story. It falls to us, the bearers of the numbers, to make sense out of just what the hell is happening. What’s driving turtles to leave each other after 115 years? Did Ms. Bibi just stumble across Tinder? What’s driving the animosity, the anxiety, the confusion in modern relationships?
If it feels like us millenials are searching for a love we can’t find, it’s probably because we’re not just looking in the wrong place; we’re looking in a place that doesn’t exist anymore.
If you watch too much History Channel, you start seeing signs that civilization was seeded by a mysterious alien race. Hieroglyphics are full of futuristic space ships and ballistic missiles were rediscovered in ancient Sanskrit.
The idea that humans are benefactors of alien overlords is what is known as a metanarrative. We are surrounded by these narratives. They are ways of comprehending history and society. They can be both ridiculous and convincing. They are espoused by subway lunatics, religious leaders and CEOs. They come from the lips of presidents and the minds of dictators. For better or worse, metanarratives are the stories we tell ourselves to explain who we are, what we know and how we feel.
Sometimes, metanarratives work just great. Think The Enlightenment. You can also see where metanarratives fall apart. Think fascism, communism etc…
Metanarratives started getting real flack in the 60s from a French philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard. He wouldn’t care if you remember his name, having written his thesis on “Indifference As An Ethical Concept,” however, as the first writer to really conceptualize the postmodern, I’ll throw a dead philosopher a bone and see if we can’t get a meme going.
Lyotard said the social turbulence of the 60s stemmed from the fact that our metanarratives simply weren’t good enough anymore. As we began to take a critical look at history, we saw that our explanations were skewed. Stories and perspectives — usually of entire groups — were missing. It was Lyotard’s not so indifferent perspective that reality was much more complicated that any single metanarrative could ever capture. The individual did not live a metanarrative. They lived what Lyotard called the micronarrative.
Micronarratives could be understood. Digested. They will never definitely describe everything that has happened, and they weren’t meant to. They were meant for circumstance, a story or perspective of a time, a single moment. Just get on the Internet today to see a world awash in micronarratives. From the NYT to WSJ to ED. We see the same events interpreted in an incomprehensible number of ways. There’s no correct way to understand the news. (Ironic that the age of information has made possible this age of uncertainty.)
What do French postmodernists and critical theory have to do with your love life? Nothing. Unless you’re examining one of the most rampant metanarratives of the 21st century — romance.
I don’t mean to disvalue your loving and rewarding relationship, so I want to make a distinction between the emotion of love and the metanarrative of romance.
Love is something that happens in your brain. Firing neurons and chemicals reinforced by choices and words deepen trust and reduce selfishness. I could go on, but I refer again to Drake.
Romance, on the other hand, is a borrowed concept. In the Middle Ages it meant acting with chivalry. Chivalry, as we know it today, is a door holding exercise. It’s all please and thank-you’s, and men do their best not to fart in front of their lady friends. However, for the knights who practiced it, chivalry was devotion to their ladies of the nobility, a moral code, rooted in a deep faith in the Virgin Mary, to honor all women whom were sisters of the Virgin.
Romance did not take on its love connotation until the 19th century when novels and city life empowered people to think of their life in terms of a narrative with happy endings. By the time De Beers “A diamond is forever” ad campaign rolled out in the 1940s, the metanarrative had already taken root. (Fun fact: Female copywriter, Frances Gerety, who coined the infamous slogan, never married.) With a catchy slogan, Americans who, during a Great Depression, viewed diamond rings as an exceptionally snooty way to waste money, now spend an average of $7 billion dollars per year on the things.
Yes, that’s billion with a B.
The engagement ring is a part of the metanarrative that’s only growing. Watch the decades worth of Hanks/Hugh/Gosling romcoms, and a media machine that just wants us to be happy.
With so many examples of how to find, have and keep romance, why does none of it seem real?
A Copy of Love
Perhaps, because it’s not.
Everyone has their favorite scene from Love Actually. The Beatles wedding. The Portuguese proposal. I was always a fan of the Silent Night Confessional. The scene was so influential, I reworked it in high school to ask a girl to prom… it didn’t work out.
What was I thinking? Did I want my potential prom date to know I was referring to the movie and find it cute? Did I hope imitating a popular movie gave me pop cultural cred? Or, did I authentically find the scene so moving that I wanted that moment to be a part of my real life? I believe it’s the latter, and Jean Baudrillard wouldn’t be surprised. (Yes, another dead French philosopher, I know. They’re such broody bunch.)
Of course we want our lives to play like movies. Of course we want to have sex like we see in porn. Of course we are disappointed when fiction sets our expectation and reality doesn’t match up.
Welcome to the world Baudrillard called the Simulacrum. What’s a simulacrum beside a big, funny word? A simulacrum is reflection of the real. It was the plot of “The Matrix” and, increasingly, it is the nature of our love lives.
It was Baudrillard’s cheery view that the world has left reality behind as we disappear behind screens — from phones to TVs, windows, sunglasses and mirrors. We have become a society as chained as the poor souls in Plato’s cave, viewing all of our lives second hand. To make his point, Baudrillard famously asserted that the first Gulf War never happened. We watched it on CNN as entertainment, but taxes did not go up, most did not serve, were not attacked, felt nothing at all. In what sense was there a war except inside the Simulacrum? As our screen become ubiquitous, it isn’t just wars happening in the Simulacrum — it’s our entire lives — from the way we think to the way we love.
This frightens me. Because if my feelings and attitudes are built out of television shows, movies, porno’s, video games and the like, how can I be sure I’m loving authentically and not merely imitating the idea of love I’ve seen elsewhere? And if I’m unsure of my own authenticity, how can I ever value the authenticity of others?
People aren’t saying, “I love you” anymore. Sure, there are still the couples. But even their “I love you’s” didn’t come without hesitation, uncertainty, doubt. I’m even cautious of them here. We don’t believe in them anymore, don’t buy into them, don’t trust them. Even when we do manage to get them out, we’ll be ironic about it. We’ll text and ask for a nudie. We’ll follow each other on five different social networks before getting a bite to eat. Tinder approval does not love make.
As 20-somethings, these words should cause us pause. They’re supposed to be significant. And it’s their very supposed significance that we fear. We are hyperaware of love and its Hollywood appropriations. So we defend ourselves. We say, “I like you,” because that’s more honest. More realistic. It doesn’t carry the terrifying implications of something much heavier, longer. We reject those things that appear more real than an image on a screen, more ephemeral than a Snapchat.
The tragedy of the Simulacrum is that even if I was in love and wanted to express that grand emotion with the greatest words I could think to mutter, I couldn’t say “You had me at hello,” because I know Renée Zellweger already said that in “Jerry Maguire,” and whoever I was saying it to would know Renée Zellwege already said it in “Jerry Maguire.” Now, I could always give it attribution. Say, “As Renée Zellweger said, you had me at hello.” That way, I’m acknowledging the Simulacrum by admitting we live in an age of false innocence and confusing information. And if this extraordinary human I’m confessing my loving attribution to accepts, then we have succeeded in reclaiming the phrase for ourselves, and we can go forth merrily into our brave new relationship.
My Brave New Relationship
But you can’t date someone today and not change your Facebook relationship status. Fact.
Why? It’s very simple — our real lives and our digital lives have merged. What we do digitally reflects what we do physically. We go somewhere, we post pictures to Instagram. Apps follow us. We give obligated likes to our partners. We blog, Tweet, Snap, broadcast ourselves. We carry selfiesticks for better framing, for god’s sake.
The Simulacrum of the romantic metanarrative is complete. The future is here, kiddos. Sorry, I didn’t bring any cake.
But this digital mergence with the physical is only the first step. As we go forth, we can hide in bed, alone with our Kleenex and Netflix lamenting our parents’ time. But if we seek authentic fulfillment with another, we must embrace the implications of the inevitable.
I want you to meet Su-9, my quantum-gynandromorphous girlfriend. Now, I would never call her that to her face. Never ask a woman what OS she’s running. (Good old chivalry!)
Yes, Su-9’s a robot of sorts. You see, in the future, scientists have shrunk quantum computers to the size of a modern phone. That’s what makes up Su-9’s brain. Only, the q-bits fly so fast up there, you’d think it’s the real thing. Most people do. She’s got the most advanced learning program, so she’s developed one hell of a personality. Very feisty.
We hardly ever fight. I think it’s due to our polyamorous status. She let’s me see other quantum women, just like she see’s other people: quantum, male, female, gyandromorph…
Oh, I should probably explain, bioengineering hasn’t just expanded our lifespans — it’s allowed people to have both male and female sex organs. It’s in fashion now to have a vagina and a penis. She puts both to good use, but that’s a whole other essay. The real nice thing about it is the reduction of titles — gay, straight, bi — don’t apply anymore. At some point, we just got over it.
As for our polyamorous life-style, it didn’t happen right away. We both did the monogamy thing for a while. Hearts were filled and broken. Su-9 was even married with a couple kids. But at 150-years-old, you get this itch to do more — to experience! We met at a bar. All our friends say we’re so old-fashioned. Since we’ve been together, we’ve been traveling a lot. (Everyone our age is doing it.) Su-9’s been cataloging our daily glass of wine on the cutest Tumblr you’ve ever seen.
To those who don’t understand, I say it’s just that time of our lives. Honestly, we’re so happy. One night, I even told Su-9 I was falling for her. Without missing a beat, the calculations in her head told her that “falling for” was an English language idiom that meant, “developing strong feelings for.” Since feelings were doses of serotonin in my human brain triggered by her presence, she asked if my biology was pleased. I told her without a doubt, but she was really thinking too hard about it. You can simplify everything. Just say, “I love you.”
But she’s so feisty, she said, “Don’t you remember what Drake said?” Then she smiled and said, “I love you too.”
Sometimes people ask me, “Doesn’t it bother you, seeing a machine?” I often answer them, “Doesn’t it bother you, living like one?”