High-tech hookups? The horror!

David Brooks laments how young people these days are relying on cellphones for courtship

Published November 4, 2009 12:01AM (EST)

Oh, David Brooks. Once again, the cantankerous columnist has pulled out a relic from a bygone era -- back when women stayed at home and first ladies covered their biceps -- to show young people today how it used to be in the good old days. The au courant subjects of his scorn this week: Cellphones, text messages and (insert heavy air quotes) "hooking up." The trigger for this rant: New York magazine's recent analysis of 141 week-long sex diaries posted over the last couple years on its blog Daily Intel.

Of all the magazine's sordid findings about New Yorkers' sex lives -- or, more accurately, the sex lives of the self-selected group of people who volunteered to share their stories with the world -- the part Brooks finds "most interesting" is "the way cellphones have influenced courtship." One might wonder: Really, the role of cellphones is the most interesting thing about a series that's featured everyone from a "polyamorous paralegal" to a "trader who will fly for sex"? In fairness, though, technology does play a significant role in the magazine's exegesis, particularly because it makes communication much easier. Writer Wesley Yang explains that everyone has someone on their back burner and everyone's on someone else's back burner -- because no one wants to find themselves without romantic options. Except some are overwhelmed by having too many options and fear they'll make the wrong decision -- so they often don't and instead send out late-night mass texts in search of someone, anyone who will bite, so to speak. This all makes it easier to project an image of being cool, calm and totally uninvested.

This all rings true, but then Brooks gets at what bothers him about all these technological innovations. "If you have several options perpetually before you, and if technology makes it easier to jump from one option to another, you will naturally adopt the mentality of a comparison shopper," he writes. In other words: You will date around before settling down. Horrors. He says:

Once upon a time -- in what we might think of as the "Happy Days" era -- courtship was governed by a set of guardrails. Potential partners generally met within the context of larger social institutions: neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and families. There were certain accepted social scripts. The purpose of these scripts -- dating, going steady, delaying sex -- was to guide young people on the path from short-term desire to long-term commitment.

That rosy time was ruined by feminism, he says, and now technology has made it difficult to "come up with [more] appropriate scripts." That's because "etiquette is all about obstacles and restraint," while "technology, especially cellphone and texting technology, dissolves obstacles." Thus we have a "frictionless sphere separated from larger social institutions and commitments." Shorter Brooks: People can now freely engage in sexual relationships without a suffocating degree of societal pressure. As John Knefel writes on True/Slant, it's a "good thing, not a bad thing" that people are free to come and go from relationships as they please -- "it means that if somebody stays, they really want to."

It might be that young people today are experiencing more heartbreak and are taking special pains to keep their guard up with romantic interests -- but that's because young people today are also spending a whole lot more time trying out different suitors. Romance is bound to bring about insecurities, anxiety and heartbreak. Sure, you can respond by socially shackling two people together to make them feel more romantically secure, but it doesn't mean they're actually going to be happy -- and that should be the point, right? Brooks fails to mention that Yang ends his analysis of Sex Diaries with an entry from "an ordinary young man earnestly seeking a happy ending" (of the fairy tale sort, you pervs). For all their crazy antics, many of these text-messaging, bed-hopping New Yorkers are ultimately looking for the same thing Brooks wants for them: Long-term love.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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