More students than ever are in long-distance relationships. A study
published last year in the journal Communications Research claims as many as
half of college students are in LDRs, and at least 75 percent will be in one
“at some point.” Over the past several decades, LDRs have been on the
rise. The number seems higher than my anecdotal experience, but it’s no less
clear that LDRs are hardly uncommon.
As technology continues to break
down the virtual distance between people, it’s also pretty clear that
technology plays a big role in facilitating these relationships. And from this
premise, it follows that technology is not a tool, or something of an
electronic third wheel. It’s worth considering how, exactly, technology
actively shapes LDRs.
It was once the case that LDRs
were marked by the difficulty of communicating immediate changes. Where local
relationships bring two people together often enough for them to be
“up-to-date” on each other’s lives, LDRs once required frequent phone
calls to accomplish this. The problem became that you felt isolated in an
allegedly serious relationship.
With Facebook and Twitter, two
vehicles to constantly update your immediate state, frequent calls aren’t
called for. Provided your partner uses social media, it’s possible to be in a
relationship with someone far away and still be aware of their day-to-day activities
without being too prying with phone calls every other hour. Advantage:
technology. It seems here that technology makes it easier to stay in touch.
But wait a second. Virtually
nobody (get it?) in a long-term relationship stops with the optimistic check on
the goings-on of his or her better half. More often, the boyfriend or
girlfriend evolves into the Facebook creeper, and suspiciously eyes or agonizes
over every wall post, comment, retweet, tagged photo and — God forbid —
“like” by every friend he or she hasn’t personally met. Everything on
the other’s wall becomes its own stalkerish petal of “She likes me/She
likes me not.” Technology might make it easier to stay in touch, but it
makes it doubly easier to pry.
The now cautiously optimistic
student in an LDR would claim that it’s easier to maintain a relationship
because he or she can just sit down after a long day of school and Skype their
partner for hours on end. With the wonders of webcams and graphics cards, it’s
as if they never left Davis.
But here, too, there is a dark
In the summer 2010 issue of The
New Atlantis journal, Oxford professor Roger Scruton analyzes the screen
(literally) as the arbiter of a virtual relationship. Windows compete against
each other for your attention. Between a chatting program, Microsoft Word, your
web browser (itself with tabs open for Facebook, e-mail, Smartsite, Hulu, a
news site, etc.), possibly a game and iTunes. Generally speaking, you can only
focus on one of the windows at once. Computers are such that you cannot
simultaneously update your Facebook status and your term paper with the same
keyboard. If you think having multiple screens open is equivalent to
multi-tasking, it’s more likely you’re darting from one window to another,
shifting your focus each time.
Enter the significant other.
Scruton argues that physical encounters have a built-in risk. When someone says
something to you, right in front of you, you cannot completely ignore it
without irking him or her. Furthermore, conversations in physical reality are
more or less spontaneous. You don’t often talk to someone who takes a couple
minutes to respond (and even then, body language can act as a first response).
Technology removes this risk, and throws the significant other into the arena.
It’s not as off-putting to ignore your partner’s wall post or chat (I mean, you
were away from your computer, right?). It’s not as awkward to wait a couple
seconds to craft a witty, calculated reply to everything in a chat box. Scruton
concludes the other loses his or her humanity to become another object of our
attention on the screen.
Your significant other: just
The takeaway is that technology
can be used to make the
long-distance shorter, but without some self-awareness, technology can become the medium through which you now frame your
relationship. The problem is not that technology necessarily dooms
relationships, but that virtual technology passively undermines a bond that at
some point was very physical.
NARAYAN is distinctly unqualified to give relationship advice, but he’ll do so
anyways if you e-mail him at email@example.com.