This evening, at 5pm at UC Berkeley, I will be delivering a lecture entitled “Networked Boredom: On the Desire for Connection.” It’s the last chapter of my second book (still very much in progress), and is about Grindr and boredom and impersonality and relationality and sex and technology. It’ll be great good fun! The text (give or take) is below the fold.
Networked Boredom: On the Desire for Connection
Scott C. Richmond, Wayne State University
“Most encounters, anyway, sexual and otherwise, are forgettable and demand only minor attention; they rely on riding the efficiency of the norm.” —Lauren Berlant, Sex, or the Unbearable, 110.
About a month ago, in August, Vanity Fair discovered Tinder—and with a bang. The coverage was, perhaps predictably, breathless and just a little bit erudite. The headline, channeling one of the essay’s informants, called Tinder the “dating apocalypse.” Tinder found itself in a litany of horribles that included the melting polar ice caps and mass extinction. A sociologist from the Kinsey Institute is quoted, claiming that Tinder is the most important upheaval in human sexuality since the primeval hunter–gatherers settled down into agrarian communities. The coverage was histrionic enough that the essay itself became a news item, garnering coverage even on NPR’s usually mostly sober All Things Considered.
When I first heard about the story—actually only a few hours before I heard All Things Considered’s coverage—I was at dinner after a digital media studies reading group that I’m in. And my response was a shrug and some snark: straight people have discovered what its like to be a gay man in the age of Grindr (and Scruff and Jack’d and even Manhunt and Adam4Adam and Dudesnude and so on)! To be sure, the stakes are a bit different for gay men than for straight people. Vanity Fair covered Grindr, with a similar breathlessness, in 2011 as “the world’s biggest, scariest gay bar.” Of course, the Tinder coverage is saturated by regressive gender and sex norms—we’re worried about men taking advantage of women by sleeping with them without a whit of romantic intentions; the revenge women can get goes by the name “Tinder food stamps”: some women apparently go on Tinder dates in which men pay for expensive (or, I suppose, inexpensive) meals without any intent to date, or fuck, the men parting with their cash. (Not on Vanity Fair, but on the internet at large—in particular, in a totally delightful and snarky Tumblr called “Tinder in Brooklyn”—I’ve even heard tell of using the men of Tinder as a food delivery service.) When it comes to Grindr, though, Vanity Fair is worried instead about the “torsos” versus the “faces”: “the torsos”—the men who want just to hook up, putting up pictures of their headless, and presumably buffed and hairless, torsos, looking neither for romance nor even conversation; and the faces, who prissily care about things like conversations and the identities—the names and personalities—of the men whose cocks they’re going to suck. The essay closes with speculation as to whether Grindr’s attempt at a hetero hookup app, apparently titled Amicus, would succeed—and some skepticism that it would do so. Whoops, I guess.
What I want to address in this talk, however, isn’t quite the differences between Tinder and Grindr and how to think about them, for whatever reason and with whatever agenda—whether this be critical of heteronormativity, homonormativity, gender norms, identity politics, or various forms of sexual and other promiscuity. I’ll touch on these things, of course. But actually, the deeply related questions I want to ask today cut against the grain of our typical ways of talking about, thinking about, and feeling about hookup apps. Instead of asking what they do to our hookup practices or how they rearrange how we form couples, I want instead to describe, analyze, and theorize the uses of networked hookup apps and sites that are not plainly or straightforwardly about hooking up. What other kinds of relations, what other modes of relationality, might take place when people use these technologies?
And indeed, my way of pursuing that question will not take the form of a comparative study of Tinder and Grindr, but rather through a study of hookup sites and apps for men seeking sex with men. This is for several reasons. At one level, this is merely pragmatic. My method is primarily descriptive and phenomenological, so my inquiry is bound by my experience. As a gay man, I can’t ethically really use Tinder—I mean, I probably can’t really use it at all, in the sense of understanding what it is like to have one’s desire organized or modulated by the technology—and so I can’t make any claims to first-person knowledge of how it works. More to the point, as ever, research moves slowly, and when I first started pursuing this line of questioning about two years ago, I could talk with a straight face about “the relative failure of Tinder.” Tinder has not turned out to be a failure after all. I made the same mistake as Vanity Fair did back in 2011. Whoops!
But mostly, the reason we should want to attend to Grindr and Scruff and Manhunt and their cousins—there are an astonishing number of them, at least a dozen, more that are defunct, and so I should say that I’m mostly going to end up shorthanding all these apps simply under the term “Grindr,” kind of like “hoover” or “kleenex”—the reason we should want to attend to them lies in the kinds of relationality that they orchestrate and modulate technologically, and the nature of that orchestration and modulation. These relations that condense around impersonal sex between men are enormously productive for thinking with, especially when we consider the theorizations to which they have been subjected. Impersonal sex between men has been one of the most important, if not the single most important, site of investigation into impersonal forms of intimacy, their ethical elaboration, their affective force, and their political valuation. My real target is this impersonal intimacy, and the ways it has changed with the elaboration of technological platforms to facilitate this intimacy. These are not only digital and networked, but also now mobile and geolocated.
I am going to make an argument that Grindr (etc.) do something quite peculiar but very important: they disclose the extremely important continuity between, and the occasional identity of, normativity and protocol in contemporary life. At least sometimes, we can no longer tell the difference between them; at least sometimes, we no longer know what would allow us to distinguish between the two. In fact, Grindr operates the way it does, and has been so incredibly successful, in part because it functions to render totally indistinguishable any distinction we might draw between the two. I should say at the outset that, in talking about normativity and protocol, I am mounting an argument about the contemporary ordinary at the intersection of two deeply related aspects: (1) the nearly-total saturation of our contemporary ordinary by networked computing, and (2) the sense that sexuality and the affects that attach to it are shifting in ways that we have yet to account—and especially so in scenes where sex meets mobile computing and image-making technology. (Think Anthony Wiener, or Steubenville, OH, or the very recent case where a 17-year old in North Carolina was charged as an adult for possession of child pornography, to wit, pictures of his naked 17 year-old self on his phone—he hadn’t even published them. Or, you know, think about how Tinder is the biggest rearrangement of sexuality since we settled down into agrarian communities.) Which is all just to say, we have the sense that perhaps we haven’t yet caught up to our ordinary, neither in terms of technology nor in terms of sexuality, and especially not in the space of their overlap.
For my descriptive and analytical tools, I will be relying on media theory, queer theory, and affect theory. Because of this, it may sometimes feel like this will turn into a political argument. I will tell you at the outset that it will not, at least not yet. (I genuinely don’t know what to think about all of this; it seems to change each time I return to work on this thought. But I do know that we need a clear view of some facts before we can start making political judgements. My goal is to offer an initial description of those facts: the operation of certain contemporary regimes of power as they are embodied in certain technologies and the modes of relation those technologies modulate, as well as the affects that attend them—specifically, boredom. I am intentionally suspending political or ethical judgments or arguments about goals, strategies, tactics, or what would constitute the good in this scene.
Whew. That’s all well and good and frankly rather highfalutin’. Grindr, needless to say, is not exactly highfalutin’. So let me collect some data to start: Grindr is a location-aware mobile phone hookup app for men who have sex with men. In many ways, it has become a prototype for apps that facilitate impersonal sexual connections—or indeed more personal (romantic, sentimentalized)—connections between men, or the fantasies of those connections. There are other models, to be sure. Craigslist offers an interesting counterpoint indeed: sleazier, cheaper, lower-tech. But Grindr innovated what is now the normative format for these sorts of apps and sites: the endlessly scrolling grid of profile pictures and headlines, and the profiles which clearly emphasize the picture, attended then by qualitative and quantitative self-evaluations (height, weight, waist size, and so on). “No fats, no femmes” was already a common refrain; Grindr made it a veritable slogan. (And there are of course countermovements: this slide comes from a “Douchebags of Grindr” website. And then there are alternatives and counter-practices, jokes and subversions.) Unlike Craigslist, or even online dating sites like OKCupid, Grindr also integrates a messaging service modeled on chat, rather than on email. It is meant to be real-time, or close to it. It offers the fantasy of a pickup, now. One of the pioneers of online hookup sites for men, Manhunt.net, put it best in their old slogan: “Get On. Get Off.” Images of this slogan are apparently lost to posterity—or at least exceed my budgeted allowance for researching mildly amusing lecture slides. But, their new slogan is equally instructive: “Any guy. Any time. Anywhere.”
Now, one of the most important logics of Grindr, as we shall see, is this norm of real-time communication with the men behind these geo-located profiles. Grindr specifies exactly how far apart its users are. Grindr does something very strange indeed, in that: it encourages real time communication between men whose only real relation is one of distance. While Grindr may access your GPS coordinates, it abstracts those coordinates into a distance-from-here. On Grindr’s network—and, I should say, on many others besides, including Scruff and Dudesnude—location and even direction is discarded; men become scalars without vectors. And, we should add, those scalars can always be overcome by the network’s possibilities for instant or real-time messaging, for connecting any point on the network to any other in equally little time. That said, this scalar distance-from-here becomes the major organizing frame: profiles are sorted in reverse order of proximity. Unlike Tinder, which only allows contact between two people who have both swiped in the correct direction—I never remember whether it’s left or right, and I get my left and right confused anyway—and thus have both indicated they like each other, Grindr places some kind of value in connecting, or at least encouraging connection between, people who are close to one another. It used to be the case you couldn’t see men in other locations, beyond the 500th (or whatever) furthest man from you. Presumably this helps ensure actual physical contact will ensue from connection on the network. This might be pragmatic, but it may also be fantasmatic. People may or may not want sex to follow from connection. Although it will turn out that fantasmatic may not be the right word, after all.
Then again, perhaps the real reason to want to attend to Grindr is incipient in perhaps the most frequent, frustrated question that arose shortly after Grindr’s meteoric rise—or, perhaps more accurately, once it was quietly but firmly installed as part of the furniture of urban gay male sexuality: Why the hell is it a thing that gay bars are full of gay men with Grindr open on their goddamn phones? To be sure, some of them must be multiplying their chances at sex—not multitasking but rather multicruising—but most of them are obviously doing something else. Indeed, this is merely the most obvious site that what hookup apps largely do is something else: hooking up isn’t what people do with hookup apps. In his regrettably titled book, Meet Grindr, Jaime Woo reports that surveys of Grindr users come up with the following counterintuitive but actually really obvious result: the most common use of the gay hookup app is “killing time” (along with “making friends”) (19). In the ranking of relative importance of use cases for users, hooking up did show up as the most important one. Even then, killing time wasn’t far behind.
Now, to anybody who’s spent any time on Grindr—or any other gay hookup sites and apps—this really can’t be surprising. If you’ve got fire in the belly, looking to hook up, it can be damnably frustrating to get other guys on there to do anything other than half-heartedly chat misspelled, garbled nonsense, attention elsewhere. As my great-grandmother used to say, with their finger up their nose and their mind in Arkansas. But then, why get on Grindr at all? Believe you me, it is clearly the case that people like being bored with Grindr. I use the word with here because you don’t really use Grindr to alleviate boredom, since it doesn’t actually provide interest. Distraction might be a better word for its pleasures, but distraction of this kind seems to me name boredom-in-relation-to, boredom with a prop object (rather than the other kind of distraction, the kind that keeps you from focusing your attention). Now, you certainly might use Grindr for other reasons, too: you know, because you want to find somebody to hook up with. Or maybe there’s a particular person you’d like to chat with, perhaps a “friend” you’ve made. I’m not going to try to cover all, or even most of, the myriad ways folks use Grindr.
Here’s my real target today: killing time and boredom, and how and why sex apps and sites frequently come to be props for boredom for their users. Grindr (etc.) are as often as not marked by a strange temporality of durational and anticipatory, but not focused or teleological waiting: waiting for somebody to send a message; for somebody to reply to a message; for somebody’s profile to catch your eye. Somebody: that is, nobody in particular. Somebody who can serve as a generic enough object for something to happen. Without, to be sure, the expectation of anything resembling attentive or intensive connection. Without the mess of particularity or specificity, or just enough to ensure that the person on the other end is a human, and not a bot pushing porn sites or phishing for credit card numbers (or both). This is insured by more or less rigorously policed genres of connection, proceeding according to aesthetic, linguistic, sexual, and relational norms that are evident enough to spawn parody, play, and even bots. They’re that obvious, without actually ever ceasing to organize Grindr’s possibilities for connection.
Of course, when Grindr leads to an actual sexual encounter, as often as not (paraphrasing Berlant) we ride a norm and its efficiency, preferring forgettable encounter to interrupting event, that is, without being changed, or even the risk of being changed, by the other. These norms—that organize Grindr, that organize impersonal sex between men—are, of course, one manifestation of what has come to be known as homonormativity, that funhouse mirror of heteronormative masculinity that is at once ravenously appetitive and profoundly impassive.
The impersonality of relatively anonymous sexual encounters between men has been the object of substantial critical discussion; Grindr is, of course, just the newest installment in a long history of cruising. For Tim Dean or Leo Bersani or Samuel Delany, or even for Foucault, the impersonality of these encounters is, in fact, what makes them an opportunity for creativity or resistance or refusal, since they are a release from the stabilizing and stifling strictures of personality, particularity, psychology, desire, and even subjecthood. I don’t have to be myself when I’m cruising—in fact, it’s probably better if I’m not—since what interests my partner(s) is beside or below personality. Normativity here names a set of injunctions and constraints on, and modulations and amplifications of, the power of sexuality (or, better, bodies and pleasures). Norms refer this power of sexuality in the first instance to subjectivity rather than what shatters it. Good sex, then, is shattering sex, because it releases us, at least temporarily, from worrying about being a good subject—whether “good” might mean here: law abiding, self-identical, in control, not excessive. And so, Tom Roach has argued that Grindr increases or elaborates these possibilities for antinormativity that inhere in impersonal intimacy between men because it increases the impersonality of connections, and thus of encounters. It particular, it increases this impersonality by innovating the profile at once as a rigorously normative genre—even a protocological one—that does not necessarily index a person. (Meanwhile, Tim Dean doesn’t like Grindr because he sees it as deflating the impersonal ethics of contact that “real” cruising can offer, because it’s less messy, less likely to lead to things that aren’t already anticipated in norm or protocol.)
I should say that I really like this argument about the antinormative potentialities of sex between men; I have long loved Foucault and his series of interviews where he lays it out. However, while such encountering—Delany calls it “contact”—really can be an occasion for such release, resistance, or refusal, in my experience, it is nevertheless most often a site for the repetition of a genre of encounter which is shot through with normativity. Repetition so that it doesn’t become an interrupting event, but rather an ambivalently familiar scene. And, normativity because these norms are a kind of insurance policy that the other won’t show up too much, and therefore require me to show up myself as a sexual, aesthetic, emotional, or ethical subject. (When that other does show up, it often feels excessive: “what the hell are you doing, having feelings during my sex?”)
I want to pause here to insist that my attitude toward Grindr and its cousins, to impersonal sex between men, and to normativity, is something like critical ambivalence. It may well be easy to hear my claims about boredom or normativity as cranky value judgments about the goodness or badness of Grindr. I don’t think Grindr is bad. I don’t think that boredom is bad. I also don’t think that uneventful sex is bad. Nor even that shattering sex is good. Rather, I’m setting myself up to point out two particular continuities (but not identities). First, the continuity between bored time-killing on Grindr and some genres of sexual encounter that may ensue—that is, the continuity between the technically mediated and physically fleshly moments of these encounters; and second, the continuity between the rigorous normativity of these encounters, both online and in-person, and what Alexander Galloway teaches us to call protocol—that is, the continuity between interpersonal relation and technical relation.
Protocols are previously agreed-upon, formal rules for establishing the possibility of connection between agents in a technical system. They specify the rules for, and possibilities within, that connection, including initiation and termination. A protocol is explicit and rigid: connection of this kind either works or it does not. Protocols don’t cover all eventualities: you can adhere to a protocol and tactically resist the ostensible purpose behind the connection, and protocols also always come with exploits. That said, protocols can also be rigorously indifferent to what does not concern them: TCP/IP does not care what it transfers, since it transfers the whole of the internet, but to get an IP address and establish a connection, certain, highly explicit, extremely rigorous conditions must be met. Protocols are indifferent to content; they specify only form.
Norms, on the other hand, are diffuse, inexplicit, flexible, probabilistic, and fuzzy. They do govern behavior, relation, and interaction, but do so in ways that aren’t the binary pass/fail of protocol, but rather effect a distribution around a median. They also cut across the form and content divide, since success in the execution of a norm is a matter of style as much as of correctness. You can do a norm really well or just well enough; with protocols, you either pass or fail. Because of this, norms have a tendency to magnetize desire in an affirmative, if nevertheless toxic, sense that Berlant has elsewhere called cruel optimism.
To be clear, I’m not claiming that all normativity is protocological, or even that all of the norms in play on Grindr are in any straightforward way protocological. Rather, Grindr is a space (or better, a platform) in which norms take on their protocological aspect, and protocols appear normative. Partly, this is just an effect of the technical remediation of the normative forms of impersonal sex between men. But the mediation is more thoroughgoing than mere computational modeling of this form of relation, and the confusion between normativity and protocol weirder than that. Grindr founder Joel Simkhai makes this explicit: Grindr uses computation, mobility, geo-location, and numerical accumulation to mitigate the ravages of rejection and personality:
With Grindr, you go on and there’s hundreds of other people within walking distance, right? So I hope that liberates, liberates you from the obsession, the obsessiveness of [thoughts like (interpolation in original)] ‘what’s wrong with me?’ or ‘why didn’t that go well?’ or ‘I need to be perfect.’ (14–15)
To the extent that the sheer numerical accumulation of headless torsos and duck-faced selfies takes the sting out of rejection, and offers respite from the painful overpresence of self that marks obsession and depression, it functions as a release from the encumbrances of a psyche and a personality. To the extent that it offers such respite or release in the context of a radically constrained protocol of profiles expressed in pics and stats, with connection expressed in favorites, blocks, and chat windows (or, in other apps and sites, pokes, woofs, winks, and messages), Grindr (and Manhunt and Scruff…) allows its users a sort of becoming-normative, or better yet, becoming-protocological. You become a picture, a blurb of text, a distance-from-here. It converts Delany’s contact into mere connection. It models relation metonymically on the technical infrastructure that plays host to the app.
Impersonal sex between men is nothing new, nor is the rendering of persons in numerical terms (height, weight, waist size, cock size)—there used to be such a thing as a personal ad. But this slide from contact into connection has some really interesting effects, particularly in the geographical abstraction of the network. Grindr isn’t the best example here, since it insists on geographical proximity. But most others allow for distal as well as proximal searching. Dudesnude, for example, will tell you just how far away you are from the person putatively behind its smutty pictures and videos. And yet, much of the activity on that site is actually geographically indifferent. You chat as though you’re going to meet, with men who are thousands of miles away. You say vague halfhearted fantasy things about maybe visiting sometime, but with obscene specificity when it comes to the sex that won’t happen. But then, you have the exact same chat and the exact same vague halfheartedness with men who are six miles or six blocks away—at least sometimes. In the abstract geography of the network, they’re no different, really—and you can always find somebody somewhere. Maybe you masturbate, maybe you don’t. Bored time-killing, indeed.
In some very recent, as-yet unpublished work, Kris Cohen has argued that search engines, of all things, organize desire in importantly very new ways. Discussing Thompson & Craighead’s 2005 net.art piece Beacon, which in this instance shows us an unknown other’s search query every 2 seconds, Cohen, argues that contemporary big-data technologies liquidate the liberal subject—self-identical, self-possessed, endowed with singularity and personality—in a very particular, and peculiar way. By virtue of the accumulation of data at a population level and algorithmic innovations that allow for sorting and parsing this data, these structures—singularity, identity, personality—begin to accrue to use as members of a population instead of members of a public. Google gives us individual and personal search results—that is, Google knows how to give us what we want—not because it knows our deep desires or whatever, but because it is able to isolate us as a member of a statistically aggregated population. For Cohen, search engines are about desire in a general sense that we type something into Google’s search box precisely with a desired outcome in mind. But search engines are about desire in the narrower and more obviously sexual sense in that a great deal of it is about porn. Beacon puts us in the prurient position of seeing the unending stream of search queries from the meta-search engine, Dogpile. It turns out not to be voyeuristic, quite, since we see only the smallest shard emanating from somebody’s desire evanesce before in that animated swiping fade out. But Beacon is frequently, amusingly, and sometimes disturbingly, pornographic. (Has it been? I suspect that it’s now late enough on the east coast for lots of porn searches to pop up.)
To draw this point out here in my own context: while Grindr now allows users to specify “tribes”—specifying gay subcultural and sexual categories like bears and otters and so on—and while Grindr’s competitors like Scruff are often specifically marketed in ways about subcultural identity, the most important, and intelligent, thing that Simkhai says about his company’s product is about how Grindr mitigates the stakes of rejection by sheer numerical accumulation. It does not yet accomplish it, and it is not alone in this tendency, but Grindr can show us the specifically technological process of disaggregating those things we still often think about in terms of identity and representation, and rendering them instead aspects of populations and members of those populations. To be sure, I am speaking a language that draws heavily on Foucault’s notion of biopolitics, and specifically his argument in the last part of the first volume of The History of Sexuality. I don’t have time to make this argument at length, and I don’t yet know what its fullest elaboration would look like, but Grindr operates in a very peculiar way at a very important fulcrum in biopolitics. Foucault locates sexuality as the hinge or pivot between the two axes of power, mediating between the individual and the population. Sexuality is still that pivot, or at least an important one, between these two axes. But in place of norms, distributions around them, and the ways we live through normativity at an affective and phenomenal level as individual subjects, Grindr (etc.)—no less than Match.com and OKCupid and eHarmony, with their algorithmic parsing of the couple form—shows how this pivot between individual and population has already transformed, functioning now less through norm than through protocol. These things may still feel like they belong to us as subjects, but increasingly, they attach to us as members of populations. (This is a way, maybe, of restating Deleuze’s famous claim that we are now in a society of control, where we are no longer individuals but dividuals, although what is included in dividuality is becoming ever greater, ever more manipulable, ever more important to our sense of ourselves.) The upshot of this, for me, is that the texture, weight, and force of our experience now attaches less to our existence as individuals with depth and psychology and more to our existence of members of populations, amenable to statistical aggregation and biopolitical control by big data.
In part, I am trying to describe, here and at length in other work from my second book, some of the ways in which—and I don’t think I can take account of all of them, not by a long shot—some of the ways in which shifts in the technological and biopolitical regimes that saturate and organize our ordinary lives have led to shifts both in the affective meteorology of that ordinary, as well as in our capacities for relations with others. Perhaps now is a good point to step back and and to ask about the relationship between the technological facts of Grindr—numerical accumulation, the growing indistinction between norms and protocols—and the affective fact I am emphasizing: boredom.
Before generalizing about boredom, let me specify a little further how and why Grindr is, or can be, boring. Imagine you are at home, sitting on your couch in sweatpants, feeling vaguely horny, you’ve exhausted all your streaming media accounts, but you’re not ready to log into whatever porn you’re into. Or imagine you are at a gay bar and you don’t have friends with you—or your friends are terrible and irritating—and you need to mitigate the vulnerability and overpresence that you feel exposed to the direct cruising of the bar. Or perhaps you’re sitting public transit, waiting to get wherever you’re going, and the train is moving slowly due to construction. You pull out your phone and you see an only slightly differentiated set of torsos and faces, themselves plainly organized by a few genres of normative attractiveness, taken and cropped according Grindr (and Apple’s) rules about not showing cocks or asses or too much bush. You fire up a few conversations with a few different guys. You’re not about to leave your house, nor are you about to leave your “friends” at the bar, nor are you going to divert your trip on public transit for a hookup. But chatting with somebody else on there becomes a prop for a certain kind of diffuse fantasy: that you could hookup with somebody if you really wanted to. The kinds of impersonal sex that gay men, and men who have sex with men, have become accustomed have tended to elaborate impersonal forms of connection: it’s only just somebody to hook up with, hooking-up-as-such. With an attractive-enough guy that you don’t feel like you’re slumming it. With somebody who’s not so attractive that they become an object of obsession or real interest. But even if this is going to happen, at the moment, it’s the possibility of sex—the connection as such—that organizes the scrolling, browsing, chatting.
The connection here is sexualized and fantasized, but it is not teleological in the sense that it will end in sex. Rather, what organizes whatever waiting happens is a response from a rather quite indistinct other on the network. What you’re looking for, moreover, is not stimulating or witty conversation. Language that suggests rather too much personality or individuality is likely to be punished by people who are primarily interested in forms of impersonality. (In Vanity Fair’s terms, best to keep your purple prose and grammatical sentences to yourself if you’re chatting with a torso.) The fact of connection, rather than the others to whom you find yourself connected, is what matters. And what matters about it is not an intensive connection with a particular other, but rather multiple connections at once, in the present, without the postulation of actualized sex in the future, whose forms of affect are attenuated, and whose affects detach from any others at the other ends of those connections and instead diffuses into and invests the bare fact of connectedness. This is what I mean by “networked boredom.” It is what Grindr offers in its typical case—if neither in its normative or fantasmatic ones.
Let me further specify that the kind of boredom I mean is not boredom we typically talk about in the humanities. I want to stress that this kind of boredom falls instead under the category of “vulgar boredom.” Vulgar boredom is different from the profound boredom that we usually talk about in the humanities. Profound boredom is a philosophically idealized or aesthetically extraordinary radical boredom we might find in, say, Heidegger or Kracauer or Warhol. This boredom leads to redemption by means of an intellectual or critical operation. Vulgar boredom, and in particular the kind of vulgar boredom-with that I’m talking about here, is extensive, rather than intensive, relation with another (or sometimes an object, or sometimes an other mediated by a technical object). If we take our lessons from object-relations theorists like Adam Phillips or Thomas Ogden, boredom establishes a diffuse, slackened, inattentive, and uneventful time of being-with where you are in a thickly durational relation with an other without risk or threat of that other becoming overpresent, demanding attention, condensing desire, or soliciting responsiveness. In my previous work, my examples of objects which offer vulgar boredom are Christopher Nolan’s Inception and King’s blockbuster casual game, Candy Crush Saga.
If vulgar boredom is relatively indifferent to its object, it is a form of being-with-yourself, in which, again, you experience yourself in a lateral, diffuse, and drawn out way. The present thickens. Bored, you are actually aware of the time that you’re killing, in a form of the depressive position’s sense of being the subject and author of your own experiences. But not too much, not even much at all: bored, the object you’re in a room with isn’t enjoining you to acts of desire, interpretation, deliberation, interest, attention, feeling, emotion, or affect. Vulgar boredom is not subject to redemption by means of criticism or intellect. To be sure, however, just because vulgar boredom doesn’t particular care about its object does not make it non-relation. (Although philosophical formulations of boredom, as in Heidegger and Kracauer, often suggest that radical boredom really is non-relation.) Rather, it’s an extensive and extenuated relation, in which both parties have more or less agreed not to show up too much.
Now, the way Candy Crush has agreed not to show up too much—not to be too engrossing a game, not to demand extended forms of attentiveness—is determined by its design, the way it functions as a technical object, and the genres of casual gaming to which it adheres. But the sort of bored interactions we may have over Grindr necessarily involve others (even if those others are bots). In this case, instead of the rules of a technical object, you’re depending on some admixture of social norm and technical protocol to protect you—not only from the ravages of rejection but also to ensure that the relation you find yourself in won’t become intensive or saturating. Instead, Grindr’s bored relations are extensive relations, not only in the sense that extensive is the clear opposite to intensive, but also in the sense that these relations are extended into the network, into its abstract geography of varying proximities. However extended these relations become, however far away the guy on the other side of that chat is, and however many of these conversations that do not require one’s full attention you may find yourself in, one very important aspect of all of them is that they are in something like “real time.” If, in this scene, the network releases us from a particular here, slackens the bonds of geographical presence, it continues to insist on this particular now, a now in which I find myself, to be sure, but in which I also find others. To use a term often associated with anxieties around mobile computing, networked boredom of this vulgar kind is absent presence together.
Finally, I have argued that boredom is often the affective correlate or index of what media theory figures as the withdrawal of technology from our perceptual and cognitive grasp. It’s an extremely common figure—we find versions of it in the work of Mark Hansen, Alex Galloway, Wendy Chun, Bernard Stiegler, and many others besides. Boredom with media is, of course, older than computational media, as Andy Warhol teaches us so very well. But it acquires a newfound importance when the operation of our computational media recede from our cognitive and even affective horizon: as our media withdraw from our grasp, one reaction is to slacken the intensity of our relations with it, diffusing it out into the environment, making it ubiquitous. We no longer encounter computing only at the computer, but all around us. (And this ubiquity is really, really uncanny: I myself was left totally bewildered brought up to discover not only that refrigerators are connected to the internet, but are susceptible of malware, which can then turn them into spambots.) Whatever relation we have to computing has diffused out into our total environment, in ways that fade into the background, becoming the texture of our ordinary. The boredom of Grindr is, then, one example of our proliferating extensive, rather than intensive, forms of mediation, and mediated relation. Grindr and its cousins are one small part of a much, much larger field of networked boredom that appears in Facebook-lurking, the endless scroll of Tumblr, compulsive procrastinatory email-checking, sites of internet edification such as Longform.org or TheBrowser.com, and waiting your turn on turn-based multiplayer online games, or, really, just marking time with mass cultural forms that neither demand nor reward sustained attention. The larger argument is that boredom becomes newly important in the age of ubiquitous computing for two interleaved reasons because it is an affective withdrawal on our part, corresponding to computation’s withdrawal from our awareness. Grindr, in this case, is instructive for two reasons: (1) the networked boredom is can engender is an extensive and extenuated affect, matching our newly extensive and extenuated relations with computational media, diffused as they are into our environments and our ordinary; and (2) Grindr’s networked boredom also arises as the affective correlate of scenes or moments when relation has come to be modeled metonymically on technical infrastructure, specifically the always-on, always-available, always-elsewhere, and always-now network—along with its organizing logics of connection.
I’m going to conclude, weirdly enough, by way of a brief discussion of film theory. The big question I’m chipping away at here and elsewhere, is how technical media, and the recent and ongoing technical revolutions, have transformed our capacities for relation. Now, in the literature on media, vulgar boredom’s absent presence, and the sort of hackneyed anxiety around it, is often posed as a psychological problem—for example, in the work of Sherry Turkle or Kenneth Gurgen—but in closing, I would like to pose the problem explicitly philosophically. We have often, in the history of our media, find the figure of, and anxiety about, “absent presence” wherever we look at a screen so that we can be somewhere other than where we are.
Screens are almost always scenes of ambivalent elsewheres. To understand this as a philosophical problem, we might turn to Stanley Cavell’s writing on film. For him (as perhaps for Simkhai), subjectivity is a burden. For Cavell, the cinema takes its aesthetic and philosophical importance from the fact that we find ourselves present to a world unfolding before us onscreen, from which we are absent. Philosophically speaking, since Descartes, and more intensely since Kant (I am so sorry to have just said that), our connection to the world has been torn asunder by a caustically skeptical experience of our subjectivity; that is, we feel like we miss the world as it is in itself because we are interested, pathological, flawed, finite: human. Colloquially: wherever you go, there you are. (Recent speculative realist philosophy at least poses as a specifically philosophical solution to this problem; it is really just a denial.) For Cavell, this skepticism arises at least in part from a desire to be relieved of a correlate burden of acting in the world. By removing us from its world, the cinema actually relieves us of this dual burden of subjectivity. In the dark of the cinema, we are not ethical—or, for that matter, political, emotional, sexual—agents in the world that is unfolding before us. We are not responsible for anything that happens onscreen. At the same time, the presence of that world is insured by the photographic technology of the cinema. Note that this absent presence is a matter of the cinema’s technological arrangement and technical form.
Now, we use cell phone screens, and computer screens, at least sometimes, exactly as we use (or used to use) cinema screens: to block out the world, and to be relieved of the burdens of subjectivity. (There are, of course, other ways we use them, which increase our burdens.) What is continuous across these screens, while so much is obviously different, lies in the technical release from those burdens. This, I think, is why anxiety over how technology is isolating us—oh noes!—strikes me as a simplified recapitulation of ideology critique: screens relieve us from ourselves, and therefore we have to look askance at them because they must be somehow compensatory, ameliorative, exploitive, or otherwise suspect.
Meanwhile, what is different is from the cinema on mobile screens are the technological and formal conditions of that release, and in particular, the ways in which the technology ensures contact with the world. Where the cinema’s photochemical procedures underwrote the indexical and iconic presence of the visible world, networked technology assures not the visible presence of the world, but rather its availability for connection, but in an abstract sort of way: there’s a human at the other end of the chat, some human, no matter when you’re logging on (and getting off, recalling Manhunt’s tagline). But if what’s in the offing with Grindr or Manhunt is connection, then how on earth am I supposed to be relived of a burden, ethical or otherwise? The answer, at least provisionally, lies in the constellation of norm and protocol that Grindr engenders.
And part of that constellation is availability: by virtue of being on the network, other Grindr users are necessarily available for connection. This complex is evident in the oft-lamented use of Grindr in gay bars: it’s common indeed to find men with their phones out, drink in one hand, with the other hand thumb-scrolling through a grid of men in descending order of proximity. Until recently, when Grindr banished anonymous accounts, you wouldn’t even have to have your own profile up. Weirdly, I’ve heard this referred to as “seeing who’s around,” although if you really wanted to see who’s around, you’d, you know, look around you in the bar. What you’re looking for instead is who’s available, for connection. To be sure, this connection need not be, and often is not, actualized in sex, impersonal or otherwise. Often, this Grindr lurking in actual gay bars is during lulls in conversation: it is just another form of time-killing. Makers of cell phone games call this use case “microboredom,” as we now pull out our phones to kill time waiting in line at the bank, stopped at stoplights, or failing to make eye contact with a cute enough boy at the bar. It seems to me that replacing contact with connection entails not only the mitigation of the risk of contact and the ethical burden of the other through technology, but also, crucially, through a form of protocological “availability” that is both closely constrained and relentlessly abstract.
I will end, finally, on an intentionally dissatisfying note: the politics I will not give you, along with some sweeping generalizations. The conversation I am trying to stage, the object or scene I’m trying to bring into being, is the common object of what, in false monoliths, I will call “media theory” (Benjamin, McLuhan, Stiegler, Hansen) and “queer theory” (Bersani, Sedgwick, Berlant). One possible name for the object these bodies of thought share is the nonsovereignty of the subject. Both queer theory and media theory not only describe, but affirm, those ways in which we are not fully in possession of ourselves. At once, we exceed ourselves, and we are determined from without. We are not in possession of ourselves, and we cannot fully know it, remediate it, repair it, or master it as an existential fact. Boredom, finally, is a relief from this fact while also an ambivalent acknowledgment of it: I require something outside myself to hold my interest, to organize my desire, to be in a room with. I also require something outside myself even to stage the form of self-encounter I can have in vulgar, networked boredom. New media technologies have intervened in our capacities for relationality, and our forms of relation inflect our technology; I’m trying to trace the space where sexuality and technology intersect as an invisible infrastructure of subjectivity, below, beyond, or to the side of that subjectivity, as the site of aesthetics, ethics, and politics.
And indeed, after all that, it’d be great to offer a political prescription: let’s imagine a different, better Grindr! (And no, I don’t mean Scruff.) A mobile gay hookup app that allows us better access to what Foucault described as the “slantwise” position of homosexuality with respect to the social, to hetero– and homonormativity! But, of course, I admit I don’t have any idea what that would look like, because the usual media-theoretical political prescriptions—We need an open source alternative! Democratize access to technology! Make avant-garde art! Mount a distributed denial-of-service attack!—are so laughably wrong. In the face of this inadequacy, and relying on many of the same thinkers I have drawn on here, Patrick Jagoda has recently called for a posture of ambivalence in dealing with networks: “Ambivalence is not a variety of opting out. If anything, it suggests a process of opting in completely. Going all in, however, need not be reduced to naïve complicity or the hyperbolic extremism of strategies such as accelerationism. The problem of network totality can be approached through ambivalence without yielding to apathy, cynicism, disengagement, or hopelessness. Rather, it takes the form of a deliberate intensity, patience, and willingness to forgo quick resolution or any finality at all. Ambivalence, then, is a process of slowing down and learning to inhabit a compromised environment with the discomfort, contradiction, and misalignment it entails” (114).
And so, what I want to leave you with are questions. What needs grasping, and what I have only gestured to here, is the way in which the profound metonymic relation of normativity and protocol—along with their organizing metaphor of “connection”—is merely one of the most obvious expressions of how changes in our media necessarily entail changes in our capacities for relation. That gay hookup apps appear as an obvious expression, given the way that the norms that organize impersonal sex between men already bore a formal resemblance to protocol (the cute example here is the hanky code). (This is where I invoked the failure of Tinder; let’s instead call it the gap between Grindr’s ascendancy and the apocalypse that is Tinder.) Finally, this is to say a few things. First, and perhaps most importantly: the forms and genres of impersonality are shifting beneath our feet. Second: connection, rather than contact, has come to organize the dominant forms of sexual and relational impersonality.
Third, and a bit more broadly: what’s in the offing here is a way of getting at a metonymic relation between sexuality and technics, grasped in affects such as boredom. This is not to say that sexuality now proceeds according to technical rationality (although it may do that in some scenes), or that we have replaced our formerly rich relations with others with desiccated technical substitutes (although teledildonics really is a thing), but rather that we have yet to grasp what Grindr and Manhunt and Scruff and so on, and the desultory boredom they foster, index. What, that is, they may be a symptom of. The very texture, substance, force of relationality is shifting—and that is as much a problem of sex as it is of technics.