Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
Cold off the press: the preamble to this Rutgers lecture:
I have learned the hard way that historians should never try to predict the future. In an essay I wrote in 2005 for the Modern History of Sexuality I argued that the association of sex and the city — then a cliche of academic discourse and popular culture — was being disrupted by new information technologies. Too clever for its own good, my analysis set the parks and streets of 20th-century London against websites and chatrooms like www.cruisingforsex.com. New virtual spaces, I argued, challenged ‘the city’s integrity as the paradigmatic site’ of sexual possibilities and perils. They enabled sexual encounters and the formation of identities and communities that transcended any notion of a bounded material urban place. In this sense, the internet ‘undermine[d] the city’s centrality to the formation of queer communities’ — such a feature of high modernity. While my analysis recognized how debates over internet sexualities were overdetermined by narratives generated around the modern city, I nonetheless concluded that: ‘at precisely the moment at which the relationship between sex and the city has become most visible, sexual geographies are changing fundamentally.’
It turns out that I was wrong. It is true that websites like Gaydar have been hugely important in the past decade. Yet what I did not anticipate in 2005 were new information technologies that have reinvigorated the relationship between sex and the city I saw as an anachronism: social networking, wireless internet, GPS mapping and the smartphone. These developments have given us mobile social and sexual networking apps like Grindr, Crusher and Blendr which (in certain socio-economic contexts) allow those seeking same- and opposite-sex partners to locate possibilities in their immediate vicinity. Search results are displayed either as a profile list ordered by distance or on an AZ style map. Underpinned by a productive interrelationship between technology and the urban, such apps only become commercial viable (and individually satisfying) with a critical mass of proximate users.
I start with Grindr, in part, as a cautionary and embarrassing tale of a younger historian’s hubris. Taking Grindr seriously, however, also points towards one way of elaborating the process of rethinking queer histories, sexuality studies, interwar society and culture and London’s urban modernity in which I have engaged over the past year…