Few things feel as fraught, in the modern age, as the long-distance relationship. The hazards of digital romance have been well chronicled, perhaps most prominently in the documentary and subsequent TV series “Catfish,” which exposed viewers to a new and expansive genre of horror. To “catfish” someone, in common parlance, is to meet a person online through dating apps, social-media sites, or chat rooms, and to seduce them using fake photos and fictional biographical details. On the reality-TV version of “Catfish,” lovesick victims confront those who deceived them, in grim, emotional scenes of revelation and heartbreak. Throw teens into the mix, and the narrative can turn even more ghastly. One thinks of the tabloid story of Michelle Carter and her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, two teen-agers whose relationship developed mostly over text and Facebook message. In 2017, Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging Roy to kill himself—even though the pair had met only a handful of times. Messages between the couple revealed the kind of twisted emotional dynamic that can emerge in the absence of physical proximity.
Despite these stories, digital-first (and digital-only) relationships continue to thrive. With online dating now a fact of life, a new bogeyman, virtual-reality dating, has taken its place, threatening to cut the final cord between romance and the real world. The platform VRLFP—Virtual Reality Looking For Partner—advertises itself as the perfect solution for daters who’d rather not deal with the hassles of Tinder flirting or late-night bar crawls. (“Grab a coffee, visit an amusement park, or go to the moon without leaving your home and without spending a dime,” the VRLFP site reads. “VR makes long-distance relationships work.”) This is to say nothing of the companies designing humanoid sex robots, or the scientists designing phone cases that feel like human flesh.
Perhaps the most innocuous entry in the digital-dating marketplace is a new product called Bond Touch, a set of electronic bracelets meant for long-distance daters. (Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello, one of the most P.D.A.-fluent couples of our time, were recently spotted wearing the bracelets.) Unlike the cold fantasias of VR courtship, Bond Touch bracelets are fundamentally wholesome, and they reduce long-distance relationships to a series of mundane concerns. How can you sustain a healthy amount of communication with a long-distance partner? How can you feel close to someone who’s physically distant? And how do you simulate the wordless gestures of affection that account for so much of personal connection? Created in Silicon Valley by a developer named Christoph Dressel—who is also the C.O.O. of an environmentally minded technology firm called Impossible—the bracelets are slim, chic devices that resemble Fitbits. By wearing one, a person can send a tap that generates a light vibration and a colored blink on the screen of a partner’s bracelet. The bracelets are also linked through an app that provides information about a partner’s weather and time zone, but their primary function is to embody presence. Like Facebook’s early “Poke” feature, they impart the same message as a shoulder squeeze or a gaze across the room at a party: “I’m here, and I’m thinking about you.”
In theory, the bracelets could service any form of long-distance relationship—military members and their families, partners separated by jobs or school, siblings living in different cities—but they seem to be most popular among teen-agers who’ve forged romantic relationships online. Bond Touch is a hot topic of discussion in certain corners of YouTube and Reddit, where users provide excessively detailed reviews of their bracelet-wearing experience. These users seem less concerned with simulating touch or affection than with communicating when they don’t have access to their phone, namely during class or at part-time jobs. They often develop Morse-code-like systems to lend layers of meaning to their taps. “When I really want his attention, I just send a very long one, and then he’s, like, ‘What do you want?’ . . . Three taps means ‘I love you,’ ” one YouTuber, HeyItsTay, explains, in a video that’s garnered over 1.8 million views. Safety is also a chief concern: almost all of the vloggers explain that Bond Touch is an effective way of letting someone know that you’re O.K., even if you’re not responding to text messages or Instagram DMs.
Something like a Bond Touch bracelet ostensibly solves a communication problem, but it also creates one—the problem of over-availability, in which no one can be unreachable and no sentiment goes unexpressed. (One can imagine the anxieties that might arise from a set of unanswered taps, and the bracelets have already inspired plenty of off-label uses. “Great way for cheating in class,” one user commented on HeyItsTay’s Bond Touch video.) Not all technology is corrosive, of course, but there is something disheartening about a relationship wherein digital bracelets are meant to replace the rhythms of conversation and the ebbs and flows of emotional connection. The problem has less to do with the bracelets themselves than with the trend that they advance. In lieu of facetime, we seem willing to accept even the most basic forms of emotional stimulus, no matter how paltry a substitute they present.
Reading about Bond Touch, an episode of the 2019 breakout comedy “PEN15” came to mind. The show is set in the era of the dial-up connection, and at one point its main characters, the awkward middle schoolers Anna and Maya, experiment with AOL Instant Messenger. Maya meets a guy named “Flymiamibro22” in a chat room, and their conversation quickly sparks an infatuation—and, eventually, something resembling love. “I love you more than I love my own DAD!” Maya tells Flymiamibro22 in a violent flurry of messages. Flymiamibro22 is a self-described “gym rat,” but in reality he’s one of Maya’s classmates and friends, Sam, posing online as an older guy. At the peak of her obsession, Maya begs her crush to meet her in person, and they arrange a date at a local bowling alley. FlyMiamiBro never materializes, but Sam reveals his true identity soon after, at a school dance. This admission produces a rush of fury and humiliation. But it also, finally, leads to catharsis, the growth and wisdom that flows from a confrontation with reality. That sort of confrontation seems increasingly avoidable today.
Carrie Battan began contributing to The New Yorker in 2015 and became a staff writer in 2018.