“What do you think of this one?” Sam asks, passing me his iPhone.
A young bare-chested man smiles up at me from the phone, the image glowing against the dimness of the bar. Young, thin, hairless—he’s not my type, but that isn’t the point. This isn’t about me.
“He’s 400 feet away,” Sam says, yanking back the phone and tapping the screen to check out the next guy.
Grindr was the first app Sam downloaded to his iPhone. It’s become part of the ritual now, never out of sight.
I haven’t yet jumped on the smartphone bandwagon. I’ve always been in the second, sometimes third, wave of tech innovation. I didn’t get online at all until 1998 (I can still hear the irksome sound of my dial-up AOL account, followed by the oddly exciting Stephen Hawking-like “You’ve got mail”), and I resisted getting a cell phone until nearly 10 years after that. Now I find myself questioning the value of holding my phone up to the sky to identify constellations—or having it tell me just how close Mr. Right might be.
“You’re so twentieth-century,” Sam says—the ultimate put-down in the modern era. “You probably still read books,” he adds with a knowing smile.
As a matter of fact, I do read books. Real ones—the kind made of cardboard, paper, and ink. I write books, too—which is perhaps more to the point. I’m all for expanding my readership, but let me tell you, the royalties on an actual book (puny as they may be in this semi-literate age) are huge by comparison to a Kindle.
Sam used to meet most of his sex partners—and even the occasional boyfriend—in chat rooms, but Grindr seems to have eclipsed all that. It’s much more efficient, he says. It eliminates negotiation about who’s going to travel to whose house. You just limit the range to the immediate vicinity, and there’s no excuse for not getting together. It reminds me of the old-fashioned way of cruising: face to face. You know, the reason gay bars were created in the first place.
“You know what the next step is,” I tell him. “Holograms. It’s inevitable. You can just beam your electronic selves to some virtual spot and let them fuck each other. No conversation, no travel, no cleaning up afterwards. It’s win-win.”
“Sure,” he says. “You can afford to be cynical. You have a boyfriend.”
“Are you kidding?” I tell him. “That’s why I’m cynical.”
He just laughs and slides his finger across the screen. We haven’t made eye contact since we got here.
“Wow,” he says suddenly. “What about this one?” He flashes the screen at me again. The new guy looks just like the old guy. One thing I can say about Sam: he’s consistent.
At the bottom of the screen, below the photo, a little bubble reads, 20 feet away.
“Twenty feet,” I say. “He’s in the bar.”
“Cool.” And finally Sam looks up to engage with the real world—wood, air, cocktails, human beings. He scopes the place out.
I admit, I’m curious. I want to know if Mr. 20-Feet looks anything like his picture. So I scan the crowd, too. It’s a relatively quiet night, easy to see individual bodies rather than the mass of toned flesh you’d confront on a Saturday.
Except that I can’t see any faces. They’re all hunched over, staring at their own smartphones—playing games to kill time, texting, reading email, gazing at photos on Grindr.
In a virtual age, maybe it’s reality that’s unnecessary.
Thanks to E for encouraging me to write this, and to M for the research.