“A lack of desire to check one’s smartphone in another’s presence” is how the contemporary British philosopher Alain de Botton defined true love in modern society, cites writer Lauren Collins. Unfortunately, it does not take long for one to realize that many people fail to satisfy even this very simple modern definition of love. Couples who are meant to be in love are often absorbed into their phones when on a date instead of looking at each other. Almost anyone who acquires “the ability to sense that [his] screen has lit up, even under a pile of ten coats” would have to acknowledge that digital devices can hurt relationships.
In her article, The Love App, Collins, a staff writer at The New Yorker, writes about how her experiences with a digital dating app in South Korea opened her eyes to dating in the digital world. In Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, which can be seen as up to “high-tech wizardry as Milan is to fashion,” many couples use the digital app Between to share memories and exchange messages with one another. The messenger app Between distinguishes itself from other messenger apps in that it can only be accessed by two lovers instead of many members. The app also enables couples to store keepsakes like photos and notes using the Memory Box function.
Collins addresses the apparent irony in how apps like Between are “technologies intended to help people regain what they’re losing because of technology”. In other words, it is a paradox in which the very form of technology that has been blamed for hindering communication is being suggested as the means to make couples become more intimate. This inherent dilemma leads one to question: could it be that Between is somehow a different form of technology from the rest? Or are all forms of technology intrinsically contradictory, enabling and weakening relationships at the same time?
Collins seems to be arguing for the latter, as she highlights the various problems that arise as technological devices and digital platforms do not comprehend relationships the way humans do. For instance, some people may have had experienced the ironic situation when Facebook list our ex-lovers in the “Suggested Friends” list. To remedy such problems of the digital world, the Between app enables couples who have broken up with their partners to “disconnect” with one another by pressing one of the buttons under the app profile. Like Collins, people may find the power of apps like Between to at once connect and disconnect individuals “with the touch of a button” jarring. Some may even find it incredulous how the entire process of breaking up with a significant other can be translated into such a simple app function.
Collins quotes Sherry Turkle, the founder and director of the M.I.T Initiative on Technology, to introduce the view that the changes in the way we begin and end relationships comes from the inevitable gap between ourselves and our representations on the digital medium. Turkle suggests that the discrepancies come from “necessary simplifications” that occur “when interchanges are reformatted for the small screen”. Not only can personal interactions be translated into formats like emoticons and texts, but also fundamental values can be simplified into more quantifiable forms like the number of ‘likes,’ ‘friends,’ or ‘followers.’
"Nosedive," an episode of the TV series Black Mirror, depicts a world in which this sort simplification takes an extreme form. In the fictional universe, people are awarded scores on all aspects of their social lives by those they interact with. The social structure that revolves around accumulating numbers leads people like the protagonist, Lacie, to become obsessed with her score. Her relationships transform into various “number game[s]” as she aims to receive votes from “quality people,” those with high social scores. Lacie agrees to be a bridesmaid for her old friend Naomie, solely in hopes of boosting her score.
However, in a turn of events, she misses the flight to the wedding. Her social points are stripped for using profanity in frustration. As Lacie’s score drops dramatically, attitudes toward her shift. Naomie, who gladly invited Lacie, refuses to “have a [social score of] 2.6” at her wedding. In a world in which people’s values are reduced to numbers, Naomi's behavior is not peculiar. Lacie reacts to her friend’s betrayal by causing a commotion at the wedding and is sent to jail. The episode concludes by underlining the irony; Lacie only seems to have been liberated in jail, where she is no longer reduced to a score.
Though "Nosedive" amplifies the problems associated with digital forms of communication, writer Zadie Smith argues that the issues the episode highlights are legitimate in our current society. In her article Generation Why, Zadie describes the new generation marked by the use of Facebook as “People 2.0,” in contrast to people like herself who did not grow up using Facebook that are “stuck at Person 1.0”. Like Collins, who expresses a concern about the “necessary simplifications” the digital medium entails, Smith suggests that people are being “reduced” into “a set of data on a website” whenever they are using Facebook by compressing values like “individual character,” “friendships,” or “sensibility” into statuses and posts. Smith argues that humanity cannot be fully captured in the digital space, quoting the master programmer Jaron Lanier, who once said that there is “no perfect computer analogue for what we call a ‘person’”. Smith then bluntly questions life as formatted according to Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s design, posing a question to readers: “Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?”.
The very words we use in our daily lives are being reshaped by the internet. Internet terms have entered our mainstream language. ‘Googling,’ for instance, is almost unanimously understood by all. People around the world continue to add internet terms into their daily vocabulary at an almost alarming rate. In South Korea, there are so many new words and phrases created by young internet users that the new internet-based jargon is being referred to as a new dialect. The Saturday Night Live (SNL) Korea TV show acknowledges and examines this phenomenon in the form of a comic lecture series on how to speak in “school-meal style,” or in other words, how to speak like young internet users.
In the series, a lecturer makes fun of profoundly emotional scenes of well-known dramas by “translating” actors’ lines into internet slang. In one episode, a suspenseful scene in which a doctor asks for permission to treat a dying patient is turned humorous as actors exchange simple internet-style dialogues like “Admit?” “Oh, admit,” instead of having a lengthy emotionally charged conversation. As SNL Korea’s parody illustrates, internet slang can distort the meaning of the original context. Thus, it is not surprising that the newly coined internet buzzwords are often criticized for ruining the Korean language.
While that may be a harsh accusation, the seemingly robotic and unfeeling language of internet slang to some degree echoes the language used in novels like George Orwell's 1984. The startling ways in which the Korean language is contracted may remind some of the novel readers of how the authoritarian government that attempted to revise the English language by simplifying and reducing previously existing words. In 1984, “words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’” are all translated into words like “‘Plusgood’ or ‘doubleplusgood’,” just like how many of the expressive Korean dialogues have been reduced to short internet buzzwords. One of the characters in the novel suggests that the lack of words would make it impossible for people to not only rebel against but even to think against the government, “because there will be no words in which to express” rebellious ideas.
This startling portrayal of what the elimination of words can result in shows how much value each word in a language can convey. It reminds us that there is something more to words like ‘excellent’ or ‘splendid’ that cannot simply be captured by different versions of ‘good.’ However, despite claims that internet buzzwords may be distorting our language, the new vocabulary may not be limiting our ability to express a range of ideas, instead it may be bringing new values to name new values. The continuous evolution of the language as a result of the young generation’s transition to the internet should not be viewed as a form of degradation.
Collins also comes to develop a more nuanced view on the use of digital platforms for human connection in the later part The Love App. Her experience of meeting the users of the Between app in Seoul made her realize that people were not merely exchanging simple digital signals but that individuals can have much complex and meaningful interactions online. One of the examples she gives is the use of emojis, claiming that rather than being reduced forms of emotions, they help create “hundreds of micro-sentiments expressing delicate gradations of emotional weather” that were previously incommunicable. For instance, there has been no perfect substitute for expressing a “bashful face with pinkening cheeks that obliquely suggest I’m both embarrassed and pleased” in our language.
Now, we can express such emotional subtleties with just one or two emoticons. In this case, what the internet has brought is not just simplification or degradation; it is also a form of creation. Just like how the expressive vocabularies like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ carry certain values that cannot be fully translated into ‘Plusgood’ or ‘doubleplusgood’, the digital language may be said to have its own significance. It can be the carrier of cultures and values that are unique to its own generation.
What kind of changes would the digital language entail? Like many other innovations, we cannot know until time passes. Some may take an optimistic stance, mentioning how many revolutionary creations in history have been initially underestimated or viewed with skepticism at the time they were first created. The same thing may be happening with the developments on the internet. Turkle, who warned her readers of the “darkest moment[s]” digital technology can bring, in her book, Alone Together, equally states that we may be on the “learning curve” when it comes to internet technology. The unknown aspects of the future ahead of this curve can be as bleak as the dystopian future depicted in the TV episode of Nosedive, but it can also be as promising as what the development of digital apps like Between may seem to suggest.
What we know for sure is that change is already happening. Collins writes in her article that she may have agreed with the view that smartphones are simply “modern delivery systems for a static set of feelings” several years ago. However, her experience with internet technology in recent years has change her mind. She had to admit that the digital devices helped broaden her repertoire of communication as she could text or send funny videos to her husband even when they were far apart in different countries.
On the other hand, Smith expresses that she feels more and more “distant from Zuckerberg and all the kids at Harvard” as she “increasingly opt[s] out” on many of what the new generation is embracing. Others are concerned that we may not be able to “resist our temptation to “check [our] smartphone[s] in another’s presence,” failing to fulfill even the very impoverished notion of true love Alain de Botton suggested.
We do not have to reject all the benefits of technology in order to acknowledge the point made by de Botton. Through seemingly reductive forms of digital communication, we are also creating a variety of ways to talk about our experience in the digital age. The newly coined vocabularies, styles, and emoticons of the digital medium are already amounting to a different kind of language. The famous blogger, Simon Stawski, went so far as to refer to the way couples communicate online as the “new language of love”. In this new language of love, we shall hope to find ways in which old ideas of true love can prevail and perhaps thrive, even among the new native tongues of the internet.
Collins, Lauren. “The Love App”. The New Yorker, 25 Nov. 2013,
“Nosedive.” Black Mirror. season 3, episode 1. Channel 4, Netflix, 21 Oct. 2016.
Smith, Zadie, “Generation Why?”. The New York Review of Books, 25 Nov. 2010,
“Nosedive.” Black Mirror. season 3, episode 1. Channel 4, Netflix, 21 Oct. 2016. Television.
“설혁수의 급식체 특강.” SNL Korea. season 9, episode 28. tvN, Seoul, 15 Oct. 2017.
Orwell, George. 1984. Kwun Tong, Enrich Culture Group Limited, 2016. Google Books.