Artist Ajit Johnson gained plenty of attention last April for his art campaign called “#ThisGeneration.” Ironically, his critiques of technology-obsessed millennials went viral on social media platforms like Tumblr. Perhaps the hashtag helped. Criticisms of millennials — my generation — usually don’t bother me, but one image among the score of minimalist posters struck me.
A figure sits on his bed, staring into his laptop’s screen. Johnson labels this exchange as a date, but it’s obvious that he doesn’t regard it as such.
“You look so cute today baby,” the figure reads. “Cyber smoooch.”
I’ve found myself in the same position countless times over the last two years. Evan and I have been together since high school, and while the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is only an hour away on the LIRR, the school’s regimented style and mandatory internships in the maritime industry have tested us, just like any other long-distance relationship.
Since first-year students at his school have limited access to their cell phones, our primary form of communication is Skype. When he’s on his mandatory internships on a maritime vessel, I only hear from him when his ship docks in U.S. ports or when he uses an ancient relic of a computer in the ship’s engine control room.
For almost two years, our relationship has existed primarily online. but that doesn’t make it any less significant. Technology allowed us to support one another in ways that are otherwise impossible when your loved one is hopelessly far away. In high school, Evan and I would spend almost every waking minute together. We would go to swim practice together, meet during passing periods, spend lunch together with our friends and get tacos after school. Then, in the course of a week, we went from seeing each other face-to-face for hours each day to nothing. On Tuesday, we graduated; on Saturday, he boarded a plane to New York for basic training.
It was hardest in the beginning. During those first few weeks, all he had was a five-minute phone call each Sunday — and that was for his parents. Evan wrote as often as he could, but I was abroad for a month and didn’t get them until I got home. At one point, I just broke down. I remember sobbing while sitting on an airport terminal floor, calling his cell phone just to hear his voicemail message. Fortunately, he borrowed a friend’s phone and called me. I was so happy to finally hear from him, yet so broken from not being able to hear or see my best friend. He asked me why I was crying, and I couldn’t find a way to give him an honest answer.
After we started using Skype, it got better. We still experienced hardships, from petty ones where the NYU wifi would crap out, to the more serious ones where we’d rather slam our laptops shut than talk things out. Yet, it was better than not having the option to speak at all. Usually, we’re on Skype for hours on end — sometimes we just do our homework in silence, occasionally interjecting to share a funny video or bitch about our assignments. It’s a new normal.
My perceived preoccupation with my phone or laptop doesn’t make me a mindless millennial in a new age of modern love. It makes me human, with human desires to connect with the person I love, even if he might be on a ship in Pakistan or at school in Kings Point, Long Island. Technology isn’t the enemy of intimacy, it’s just a new way of facilitating it. Maybe my dates on Skype aren’t the same as getting tacos after school. But despite the distance, the love that keeps us going is still the same.