Laptops and Loneliness

Published in: January-February 2006 issue.


IT’S HARD to pinpoint exactly the way in which the computer has changed gay life. The gay community as we knew it in the 1970’s and 80’s would have vanished anyway (though it’s hard to admit): AIDS, assimilation, generational shifts would have accomplished that. And, of course, the computer has been famously liberating: the teen in Nowhere, Kansas, no longer has to feel alone, the traveler going to Katmandu can find a gay sherpa, the chat rooms allow people with precise desires (diapers, amputees) to find one another with heretofore impossible efficiency. Before computers, the repression of gay life meant that gay people, like bees, literally had to swarm in certain places. Now you can have it delivered. This past spring The New York Times ran an article about crystal meth that quoted Manhattan club owners complaining that attendance was down because people were hooking up on the Internet. For years I resented having to get a computer—because it meant giving up my typewriter—and was conscious when I went out that there were now gay men hidden away that one could reach only with a machine. That feeling, now that I have one, has only intensified.

A friend in Los Angeles, however, says all that computers have done to gay life is allow bisexual suburbanites to cruise without leaving the closet, and people with very special tastes (see above) to find their fellow fetishists. So has it done anything to the gay community we associated with cities? It has made hook-ups possible, I suppose, and porn available to people who don’t want to go out. In fact, what I’ve come to associate the computer with is solitude, e-mail, and pictures of body parts.

Funny, isn’t it, that this late-20th-century invention, this summit of technological civilization, has ended up being used so massively for something one can find painted on walls in the brothels of Pompeii? “Think about it,” a friend in San Francisco recently e-mailed. “The computer has tightened the bonds of every other minority group—from Al Qaeda to the KKK—but gay men have only used it to look for dick.” Well, I e-mailed back, that’s because the only thing we have in common is a desire to get laid; there is no gay community. The computer came along at a time when gay politics were exhausted anyway, and the newest generation wants nothing more than to blend in, leaving old clones and desperate romantics to jerk off at home, alone.

One of these is a friend in Washington who recently explained why he had stayed up till dawn masturbating with someone on a Webcam in Barcelona. “Images on a computer pull you in,” he said. “At a sex club the man in a room is separated from you by all the things in real life we use to pick partners, but in cyberspace there’s no barrier!” My friend still goes out—to church, theatre, bars, group therapy—looking for the partner he so desperately wants, but always ends up back on-line in the wee hours of the morning. Maybe he should invite that boy in Paris to come live with him. Maybe it’s the man in Barcelona. Though his therapist told him to lay off the Internet, when I visit him I know that the moment I leave he’ll return to his computer, and that, on some level, he’s waiting for me to go—as I often am these days when people come to visit.

Years ago Andy Warhol wrote that he longed for a friend in high school, but then he got a TV and he didn’t need a friend any longer. This applies to cyberspace. We’re not even bowling alone anymore. We’re spending hours at a keyboard. Does one spend hours on the computer because one is lonely, or is one lonely because one spends hours on the computer? The more I use the computer to go on-line the more I feel it plays into a kind of masturbatory solitude. Colleges are now building dormitories that will force students to leave the laptops in their rooms and interact with one another socially in a common area. Gay people are cruising the chat rooms to hook up one-on-one.

Of course this has to do with age, assimilation, anomie. I’ve noticed that the people who use the Internet successfully to get sex are the same ones who were successful before the Internet; the computer merely reflects the person using it. My friend in San Francisco says the computer has given his sex life the erotic equivalent of hair extensions—allowed him to cruise when he feels he’d be ignored in bars. For the young, he says, the Internet is just one tool among many. So perhaps this doomed attempt to claim that computers have altered the gay community is nothing more than a piece about loneliness, or the gay men who are addicted to these things, since computer use surely varies with a person’s age, temperament, and circumstances. The trouble is that the way the Web is addictive seems to me to play into a peculiar gay psychology. It not only replicates cruising itself, but also cruising’s central fantasy: that Love is somewhere else. Even after someone has sworn off hook-ups—those carnivals of mendacity, those agreed-upon exercises in exaggeration—the computer retains the power to convince you that you’re not alone. (But ya are, Blanche, but ya are!)

There we sit, like monks in our cells, musicians at our harpsichords, turning the pages of our obscene breviaries. The faces and foreskins of “amateurs,” in rooms whose details (the unfinished pizza, Kleenex, the shag carpet) are more erotic than whatever sex they’re having, become our family. It’s not hard to tally up the things computers have destroyed: newspapers, handwritten letters, bookstores, bars, and baths. But let us add to that what the writer Michael Grumley called homosociability. If gathering together was, essentially, the basis of the gay community, now that’s unnecessary. Now, after assembling—from the inexhaustible library in cyberspace—one’s little pantheon of favorites, one can always end the evening at the keyboard, uninhibited by any of the things that limit, and make anxious, sex in Real Life.

This of course is the rub. Theoretically, one uses the computer to get to Real Life. The danger is when it replaces it. Is the computer better than nothing, like TV in a nursing home, or what keeps you from something real? To answer that question, I suppose one has to monitor oneself, like Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story diagnosing her own TB. You must ask yourself questions like: Have you ever licked the screen? Do you use the zoom feature to “go down” on someone’s picture? At what point did you begin to suspect that you prefer reading people’s e-mails to spending time with them? When did you become impatient with encounters in real life, and find it jarring, unreal, a crude interruption? Are you now primarily a human portal? When you awake each day do you feel like an electrical receptor, waiting to be connected, not fully human until you are on-line? And is there anything wrong with this? In the 1970’s, when I got VD, I considered it a break from cruising, a forced vacation I could use to finally relax. When my computer crashes and it’s off being fixed, I spend the week like someone whose spouse is in intensive care. And so I inquire.

Computers are brilliant, miraculous, liberating, astonishing, but at times my laptop makes me feel like a prostitute who hates her pimp. I’d like to take a break, but can’t imagine life without it. Of course we can’t go back. Yet like ocean liners, handmade lace, and serenades, many things whose loss I lament are obsolete because of them. No letters, many fewer phone calls, no bars or boat ramp. There’s e-mail! The computer becomes an extension of the personality; the ego itself—an imperial sort of ego. This Scheherazade, this Aladdin’s Lamp: so ready to do one’s bidding! Gay life, too fleshless already, becomes even more disembodied. We separate from one another while Will & Grace becomes our cultural representation to the larger world. We sit there late at night, composing our own Goldberg Variations on the keyboard—so much easier than going out. Of course we’re in touch, but only electronically.

Assimilation destroyed black neighborhoods in many ways, and perhaps that’s all that’s happened to the gay community. One would have to do some sort of survey among all age groups to find out. But one wonders. Years ago a friend in Alaska christened his laptop “The Golem”: the Yiddish term for an artificial man, a robot. When I wonder about the hours I spend on my own laptop, I think of a recent photo of American soldiers in Iraq at individual laptops, seated at long tables in a tent, dressed in full camouflage gear. It looked as if they could defeat the Baathists by clicking on the mouse. No, no, I thought when I saw this, you have to go outside and actually face the bastards! Or I think of that scene in Being There when Peter Sellers, while being mugged on the street, points a channel changer at his tormentors and clicks.


Andrew Holleran’s latest work of fiction is In September, the Light Changes.