Article @ New Humanist, published 16 November 2017
“I am tired of the constant swiping,” a friend tells me. But I’ve heard it before and I know that in a few weeks’ time he will be back on Tinder or Bumble or some other app looking for someone to have sex with – and maybe even for a semblance of emotional intimacy. This is unquestionably a millennial’s malaise. And the more our so-called romantic lives are mediated by online dating apps, the more ethical questions arise over the effect they are having on our social behaviour.
Is making sex so available – and the people with whom to do it so easily replaceable – dehumanising the experience? Is my friend tired of swiping because of decision fatigue or does it suggest that there’s a gulf between the kind of relationships offered by online dating and what we find truly satisfying?
“Tinder is a symptom of a very specific type of capitalist cyberspace,” says the technology writer Roisin Kibern. “Where instead of us having the room to prove ourselves as human, we are all just cogs within machines and we are given rankings.” Kibern has used Tinder but now prefers to stay away from it, because dating apps give her “that horrible feeling that you get towards the end of the night in a club and feel like you’re suddenly part of a meat market. Half of you wants to just go headlong into it and be like, ‘Yeah I could go home with anyone tonight’, but the other half of you is, ‘Jesus, this is horrible, I am so alone, I never felt like such an alien wearing a human suit in my life.’” We both laugh at this comment, perhaps because we both know it all too well.
Kibern calls the apps a system of “pure convenience”, and it’s not hard to see why people would set aside uneasiness about outsourcing their love lives to technology. In a world of permanent competition, being a mere cog in the machine can come across as a very simple and thus appealing option.
The need for physical and emotional contact is universal. But when our interactions are mediated online by services that are also trying to make profit from us, dating can become alienating, or even enslaving.
Kibern sees this sense of alienation as the epitome of “capitalist realism”: a concept proposed by the late theorist Mark Fisher, which describes the cultural and emotional effects of living within a system to which it seems there is no possible alternative. Marcus Gilroy-Ware also drew on the concept in his recent book Filling the Void: Emotion, Capitalism & Social Media (Repeater). As Gilroy-Ware says an online interview with New Humanist, “One of the things that really inspired me to write the book was Fisher’s idea of ‘depressive hedonia’. While normally depression involves anhedonia – the inability to feel pleasure – the depressive states brought about by capitalist realism can result in, as Fisher argues, ‘an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure,’ particularly in the young, who have known nothing except this capitalist realism.”
In this context, the addictiveness of social media – including dating apps – takes on a new light. “It struck me that things like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were excellent examples of depressive hedonia in a digital form,” says Gilroy-Ware. “The fact that as you use them and incorporate them into your life ever more, your desire for digital depressive hedonia is also exploited for commercially valuable data only makes the picture more sinister.”
So, instead of demystifying sex and relationships, and helping us understand them as acts of empathy between humans, the new dating apps make it all about you, and your pleasure alone. “You never see yourself in a litany of women waiting to be swiped,” Kibern tells me. “It’s this profound solipsism. We never see ourselves as just a speck on someone else’s timeline. We are the centre of our online worlds.”
Can users of dating apps find a way around this? “I feel like you decide to suspend your disbelief somewhat, or at least I did anyway,” says 33-year-old George. “Any feeling that the other person was also playing the field would only come after I’d met them, as things would slowly fizzle out and one of us would drift off into the ether.”
He adds: “For me the most depressing time was when I was most active on the apps. In short, the overriding sense was just one of pure hollowness and real lack of genuine intimacy or empathy with the people I was dating, which is ironic considering the nature of what dating apps are supposed to be facilitating.” George’s worst point came, he says, when he met five different women in five days. “While I felt like the apps gave me the ability to meet people and put myself in situations I would never have found myself in before, the whole experience made me feel positively schizophrenic and quite depressed about my ability to give and receive intimacy and empathy. The apps basically act as a facilitator to meet people, but they don’t provide a template of what to do when you get there.”
Nikol, 38, used dating websites and apps for a decade. She expresses a similar sentiment to George, telling me that she had “a real moment when I was swiping no on dudes and being brutal about it and realised dudes were doing the same. It made me question everything about myself and my profile.”
But with online dating quickly becoming the primary way in which people meet and get together, solutions to the problem might have to be more nuanced than to simply boycott the apps. After all, abstinence has never worked for any of the other problems it was meant to solve. If, as the dating website eHarmony claims, two in three relationships are to start online by 2040, wouldn’t it be better if we knew what to do to combat the isolating nature of Tinder & Co? And is this possible, short of storming Bumble HQ?
Paul Mason, author of Post-Capitalism: A Guide to Our Future (Allen Lane), thinks there’s another way. “If technological change has essentially dehumanised us and turned sex into a transaction for people, what we need to do is to equip them with the ability to place that experience in a bigger story about themselves.” Mason thinks that while our societies have become ever more technologically advanced, we have stopped explaining how our development relates to our existence, and what the things popping up on our screens mean.
“We don’t have narratives that are curing us. Our narratives are not cathartic, they are not allowing us to go through our own experiences and think them through and put them in a place,” says Mason.
Kibern partly agrees. “We’ll have to develop psychologically and learn to draw a line.” But she insists we go offline, meet, and “try and keep the bulk of the emotional connection off the internet”.
We live in an age of paradoxes. On the one hand, society still pressures adults to find long-term mates, in order to reproduce socially – to create family units in which children are raised – as well as biologically. On the other it produces channels through which we find partners that encourage us to see one another as upgradeable, or even disposable. One thing is clear: until we can use technology in a way that is more truthful to our human emotional complexities, that allows us to express and understand each other as more than mere profiles to be swiped away, this malaise is far from over.