The end of dating: Tinder, porn & new forms of alienation, by Florence Gildea

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While on holiday in beautiful surroundings, I noticed that one of the guys I was with was staring down at his phone rather than absorbing the scenery. ‘It can’t even be that interesting’, I thought, ‘since he’s swiping continuously’. I peered over to see that he was on Tinder, giving each profile less than half a second’s glance before swiping yes or no. ‘It’s like a game’, he said when I asked him about the speed with which he was judging women, ‘it’s just something to do with my hands, something to pass the time’. 

What does it tell us about how we see dating and each other when we make such superficial, instantaneous judgments? What does it show about what we value?

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Sex robots may not yet be on the market, but machines are already mediating our sexuality in the form of dating apps. And, as with sex robots, when a technological solution is created to a fundamentally human problem- our need for love, intimacy and companionship- the result is that individual, irreplaceable humans are treated as objects, or fodder for algorithms.

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Take an app like Tinder or Grindr. When you swipe right or left to indicate your interest or lack thereof, the thing that responds to your touch is not the person depicted but the phone. The human is represented only by the two-dimensional image, blind to the user’s response if it is a negative one, while it is the phone that has a material presence and is treated as if sentient. The users communicate with each other digitally, and only later (if each person has presented themselves to the other’s liking, satisfying a number of mental criteria) do they interact as embodied persons. Like the Pygmalion myth, regularly used to analyse sex dolls and robots, the person in the picture only really ‘comes to life’ (from the other user’s perspective) at their potential partner’s willing. The song ‘Kiss Me Thru The Phone’ was not far off in capturing the role of gadgetry as the mediator of our romantic relationships.

 

“the lack of face-to-face interaction in dating apps seems to lend itself to treating others as objects”

The parallels with online shopping have struck many users of dating apps: one scrolls through a seemingly endless sea of pictures, judging each on their physical appearance or how well they market themselves in their written profile. Personal satisfaction is to the fore, with the result that messages received from those who do not meet our mental checklists do not even receive a response. I asked my friend why he was swiping no on women that I thought looked beautiful. ‘I didn’t like her haircut’, he said of one. ‘Too much eye make-up’, he said of another. It sounded like he was looking for the perfect product to buy, rather than trying to discern whether the woman in question shared similar values, interests and aspirations to him. In the end, he only swiped yes on women at least a decade younger than him, and I wondered if he thought those women would be applying similarly stringent aesthetic criteria to him. Clearly he thought different rules applied to him, indicating the centrality of the ego when we date from behind a screen.

By contrast, one of my female friends deleted the app from her phone multiple times within the first week of signing up: ‘I felt so self-conscious. I kept seeing myself through the eyes of the guys I was trying to attract. It was totally demoralising. But I kept coming back to it because I don’t know how else to meet someone’. The yearning for intimacy, then, drives us to use technologies that makes us feel even more alienated from others and ourselves.

 Indeed, a University of North Texas study found that Tinder use was found to be associated with body dissatisfaction, body shame, body monitoring and internalising societal expectations of beauty. Tinder’s Founder Sean Rad was far off, then, when he claimed, ‘We’ve eliminated the fear of rejection’. But, as with the beauty and dieting industries, other people profit from our insecurities and hunger for love. And the more we look to technology to meet our most fundamental human needs, the greater that profit. Tinder, for example, was valued at $3 billion in August 2017.

Physical attraction has always played a role in dating, but it is unlikely that we would not even speak to those who approached us at a bar, for example, just because they didn’t have the hairstyle, height or witty writing style that we had in mind. In that way, the lack of face-to-face interaction in dating apps seems to lend itself to treating others as objects – a feature of our relational culture that the Campaign against Sex Robots seeks to resist.

 

Florence Gildea is a contributing writer and has a BA in History and a Mphil in Sociology from the University of Cambridge.