"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places–But It’s Getting Easier To Find

In a world of high-pressure, time constraints, and multiple demands, it is not surprising that many younger people have turned to online dating to facilitate the process of finding a mate.  While older people have their qualms – love was never meant to be mediated but to happen – the age of big data has passed them by.  Online dating however, with its sophisticated algorithms and massive amount of data, does not prevent love from happening.  It simply facilitates it.

It is only vanity which suggests that each of us is a unique individual, motivated by particular and special talents, qualities, and ambitions.  It takes very little processing of the billions of bits of information to prove this idea as wrong as can be.  While we each may differ in bloodline, physical shape and size, looks, and intelligence, these are only superficial markings of identity.  Not only are we all hardwired in the same way – human nature for 100 million years has been aggressive, territorial, self-protective, and self-serving – but that we all want the very same things.  We all either believe in God or are still searching.  We want good jobs, a decent standard of living, a respectful, productive family, and good health.  The fact that we are attracted to blondes or brunettes, tall women or full-bodied, or have an instinct for art or a natural ability for logic and calculation, fundamentally we differ only slightly.  Scientists who have decoded the human genome have concluded no differently.  Nearly 99 percent of human DNA is the same regardless of race or ethnic origin. 

It doesn’t matter whether a dog is a Schnauzer or a Dachshund, they all bark, mark their perimeters, raise their hackles, and wag their tails; and we are no different.  Most of us settle for the most obvious and uninteresting partners.  How many spectacular marriages are there with genius, beauty, or art on both sides? And those couples have paid for the privilege of a good match.  Breeding, manners, education, intellectual versatility, and talent cost money.  The rest of us play with the same, tattered, and dog eared deck of cards.  Win or lose we end up with the same predictable results – a marriage which starts off with passion and interest, tails off into routine and indifference, and ends up in toleration and patience.  It wouldn’t take much to spice up the game just a little bit, to make mating just a little more intriguing.

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So making a good match involves only tweaking the social genome – what kind of a family exactly? How much ambition? Travel where? Anal or oral sex? It would be much harder if we really differed fundamentally; that some small but not insignificant percentage of human beings were equipped with extra-ordinary rods and cones, bat-like hearing, or with the pheromone-sensing acuity of the Amazonian Tiger Moth.  Or if individuals varied by sub-sub category, hardwired (in that >1 percent of DNA) for spatial geometry or number theory; artistic fluidity in the plastic arts vs dance or music.  Fortunately for electronic dating services, the pool is vast indeed, and only with some minor inputs from individual clients, programmers can make reasonable if not spot-on matches in a matter of seconds.

Who could argue with such a technological advance? Why not submit personal information to an impersonal process which will spit out very personal, intimate, and ‘unique’ possibilities.  And, for those still with reservations, a personal meeting can add whatever juices and intuition that the computer has missed.

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Peter Ludlow, writing in The Atlantic (1.7.13) disagrees and explains the economic theory of ‘frictionless markets’ in which transaction costs are marginal; and suggests that online dating falls into this category.  There is little cost involved in subscribing to a top-flight online dating service, and no penalty if for some reason the match is not a good one.  Within minutes of the “Sorry, I guess this isn’t going to work out” made over coffee, you can be online again:

Now I realize that the economic language of frictionless markets isn't very romantic, but the fact is that the dating game is a kind of market whether we want to admit it or not. Finding a partner used to be expensive, and the market was inefficient. If you lived in a large city, there were always people looking for partners, but the problem was how to find them. Pick-up bars were imperfect markets to say the very least. Now you go online, select a partner, and you are immediately dating someone who is at least interested in you. Of course online dating is still work, but the emotional labor and risk of failure has been significantly reduced.

The problem is that the unpredictability of potential relationships is gone; and it is that very unsuspected nature of intimacy that makes for potent, lasting matches:

1950s romantic comedies turned unlikely pairings into a formula—happenstance throws two unlikely people together and the sparks and romance begin. We all understand this kind of romance—it involves the strange chemistry of putting together two people who are, on the face of it, incompatible.

Much of what is valuable in this world is the product of mashing up ideas or music or personalities that are on the face of it incompatible. And the secret is that great chemistry (for example in music) isn't about putting together people who are on the same page—it is about putting together people who are different and making it work. The result is often unexpected and beautiful. So it is with relationships; compatibility is a terrible idea in selecting a partner. It leads to stasis, both for individuals and for relationships and (turning my music example into a metaphor) it leads to music that is predictable and unexciting.

The best and perhaps most well-known example of this is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee.  George and Martha at the beginning of the play appear to be hostile enemies in a life-or-death struggle to humiliate, degrade, and disassemble the other.  Martha is a vixen, a harridan, a harridan; and George is reptilian, cruelly manipulative and as resentful and mean as any man could be.  By the end of the play, they are kneeling together, alone, but realizing that they both need each other desperately and, with hope, can move on to a better life together.  They love each other.

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Albee, like Shakespeare, O’Neill, and Faulkner were no fans of family, love, or romance; but they all knew that the family with all its suspicion, jealousy, battles for power and dominance was the crucible within which people gained insight, maturity, and understanding.  Loose, come-and-go, easy relationships where the door was always open would never be ultimately satisfying, for people would cruise from one superficial and undemanding relationship to another without facing both angels and demons.

Returning to the economic model, Ludlow suggests that only in conditions of scarcity (i.e. having to look hard for a mate in the real world) are we willing to take the risks that will offer the possibility of that unexpected chemical brew that will give us the dynamic marriages of George and Martha or Petruchio and Kate (The Taming of the Shrew).  Kate is a frustrated woman in a male-dominated household.  She is a vitally independent and sexual woman who has no idea what she wants but to get out of the stranglehold of her father and her abusive sister.  Petruchio is the last man on earth she would even consider – a Lothario, a supremely confident and arrogant man who wants to control and dominate.  Yet despite her initial reticence and hostility and his facile and dismissive desire to ‘tame’ her for sport, they find each other.  Few marriages work in Shakespeare, but this one does because of its total implausibility.

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There was a time of course before there was any dating at all and arranged marriages were the way that couples were settled.  Arranged marriage in India is no simple matter as it was in Victorian England and America.  Indians are bored with the very obvious and simplistic stories like Washington Square where the algorithm is clear, uncomplicated and published – commensurate breeding, wealth, and family status.  Of course the father wishes to protect the family wealth and defy any man of suspect commercial interests. Love is irrelevant.  In traditional India if castes are compatible, all else will fall into place – a negotiated marriage agreement with particular attention paid to dowry and bride price.  Fair skin, foreign travel and education, and good looks are only add-ons.  Love is as illusory as anything else in life, Indians say, so why bother with the vanity that love exists at all?

We in the West owe our love fixation to Petrarch who, through his love sonnets to his beloved Laura created a chivalric, romantic paradigm; and we have not yet shaken it off.  We still believe that love actually exists, that there is indeed chemistry and magic and sparks can fly between two people.  Yet the millions of people who subscribe to online dating services give, without a second thought, lie to the assumption.  If the computer can set down in front of you the man of your dreams, then how can the idea of a heartthrob possibly exist?

Of course it all depends on what you’re looking for.  If you want an easy ride, a smooth elision from adolescence to adulthood, and efficient partnership with few chances of failure, let alone acrimony, guilt, shame, and pursuit, then electronically-mediated relationships are for you.  If you want a wrestling match, a Hollywood War of the Roses, a bloody, down-and-out, flailing to the marrow marriage like George and Martha, then you are right to take your chances, trust your gut, and live a little.  After all the fun is in the hunt.  Bullfights would be boring if the bull never gored a matador.

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Parents  have always consoled their homely daughters that the right man is out there and all they need to do is to find him.  Austin Sloper, the wealthy doctor in James’ Washington Square, is under no misconceptions.  His daughter Catherine is homely, shy, slow, and ungraceful.  She has no charm, no wit, no sparkle, and no allure.  He cares little if she is satisfied in love, only that she is protected from predators out to marry for money.  Marriage is a business, purely and simply, and has always been so.  Women were for centuries commodities to be traded.  Now since that particular yoke has been removed and women are free to find an ideal mate, they find that the choices are overwhelming.  With the exception of the Catherine Slopers in the marriage market, the choice of a mate among so many prospects can be tedious, boring, and downright senseless; which is why they turn to mediated dating.

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Netflix recently broke new ground when it used big data to create a television series.  They already collected reams of information on streaming service users – when they turned the sound up or down, what they replayed or fast-forwarded, what preferences they had in actors and directors, and much more.  It didn’t take a great leap of faith to produce television programming that had little creative input but was still fabulously successful.  Dating is no different.

In short, why search for love in all the wrong places when it is staring you right in the face. A few scrolls, a mouse click and some personal preferences and dislikes, and you are in business.  Petrarch, Freud, and a thousand other artists, philosophers, and poets are turning over in their graves because of this turn of events.  Rational mating is sure to slow the psychiatry business, reduce divorces, force down market value for Xanax and Valium, and close down singles bars for good.

Doesn’t sound like fun?  Perhaps not, but fewer and fewer people want to slug it out a la Eugene O’Neill or Edward Albee.  Marriage is the crucible of maturity, Albee famously remarked, but who said that we really want to grow up?

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