The online overhaul of courtship
Technology is changing our love lives and has been for a while now – but is it really at the expense of the romance of courtship?
The notion of online dating being “the only game in town” is a common refrain. While a fair few of us will meet a partner at work or school – by chance, by shared circumstances – for those actively on the prowl, the meat market of the internet is the default hunting ground.
When it comes nearly all matters net, I don’t view it as having too many special properties when it comes to our behaviour.
In most cases it’s just helping us do the stuff we’ve always done – or at least, always wanted to do – faster, easier and quite often more cheaply. The internet has rarely created in us wholly new temptations or inclinations.
As humans, it’s instinctive for us to want to connect to others for purposes of love, sex, companionship. The creation of, and our use of, ever-improving dating websites and apps is the thoroughly predictable convergence of technology and human desires.
With it now being a decades-old norm to find a partner – for life or just for a few amorous hours – through the magic of an algorithm, electronic matchmakers have shaped dating and the conversation around intimacy in several interesting ways.
The same technology that has helped us wile away the hours flicking through digital pages of shoes or songs is the same technology helping us do this with people. We’re clicking and swiping and making decisions about a possible erotic entanglement based on scant breadcrumbs of data like a photo, a postcode, a smoking preference or a star sign.
Accusations are often made that this is shallow or superficial. That we’re allowing a split-second attraction determine our romantic destiny. But isn’t this what we’ve always done?
Attraction is integral to any connection. While in real life we might find ourselves unexpectedly turned on – or off – by more nebulous factors like a look or a laugh or a gait – the role of attraction has never been insignificant.
All the swiping and super-liking and swiping again might seem cavalier and perhaps closer to an online shopping experience than the serendipitous laundromat meet-cute often idealised, but it’s just an electronic version of what we’ve always done.
The ability to swipe and click and easily procure companionship does, however, impact on our courtship mores.
Online shopping has trained us on how to navigate infinite choice. We’ve learnt for example, the importance of narrowing our search by conjuring lists of specific wants. Seeking out companionship therefore, with a shopping list of yens is perfectly logical: – refining our search to weed out the cat fanciers, cricket-fanatics or vegans is a time saver.
Efficient, sure, but is it romantic?
How many times have we found ourselves attracted – maybe even a little head-over-heels – with a person who, on paper, is actually completely wrong for us?
The technology provides the introduction, but enigmatic factors like chemistry will dictate whether bodily fluids ever get exchanged.
The mantra of our market culture is that there are always better ways to meet our needs. So, awareness that we can go back to the very same technology that we used to find our partner to seek out a better one shapes how we think about concepts like perseverance, patience, relationships “needing work” and what constitutes a good match. The very technology that helps us easily get into relationships, also helps us effortlessly exit.
A factor flagged in many discussions of online dating is fear.
From Law and Order: Special Victims Unit to the news media, we have a decades-long breaking news story of online predators, romance scammers and matches that end in shallow graves. Apparently, there’s no more salacious story than one with a hook-up angle.
Strangers are strange. They’ve always been such.
But background checks aren’t conduced on suitors we meet in bars, churches or a short course in sausage making. Each encounter with anybody new – regardless of where the initial meeting transpires – is, at least in part, a game of unknowns.
But a default assumption that the person you’ve swiped right on is inherently dangerous, and that a Tinder/RSVP/eHarmony match is more likely to be a serial killer than someone you meet at the supermarket is grounded in techno- and cyberphobia, not reality.
Executing an appropriate and non-hyperbolic level of caution is necessary in every situation where your heart – and genitals – might be vulnerable.
Incarnations of online dating – from those early 1990s bulletin boards to today’s gamut of hook-ups apps – have existed for decades already. And yet we’re still talking and grappling with questions about how love and romance has been changed by “new” technology.
Perhaps the conversation is best expanded beyond dating to examine how technology has changed every aspect of our lives and interactions, not just those related to seeking love and sex.
Dr Lauren Rosewarne is an author of nine books and is featured on Picking Up STEAM - a new podcast produced by the Faculty of Arts which looks at the human consequences of the weird, the wonderful and the ugly advances in STEM, through the eyes of the arts, humanities and social sciences. Subscribe on iTunes or Whooshkaa.
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