It’s not very often that you find profound philosophical insights in the field of dating applications and internet matching sites. However, the dating application Tinder offered us a rare case of unintentional depth when it launched its slogan ‘it’s like real life, but better’. The advantage of the application over ‘real-life encounters’ was further outlined by Tinder CEO Sean Rad. In his explanation, Rad specifically pointed out that in the virtual we are shielded from rejection, disappointment and humiliation because we are offered a level of control unknown in ‘real life’. By only letting you speak to people you in whom you have shown interest, and who have indicated that the interest is mutual, Tinder offers the pleasures of dating life without the malignant element of rejection.
“It’s like real life, but better”
In its apparent innocence, this sentiment beautifully exposes an important aspect, not only of dating platforms, but of advanced virtual systems today. After studying the use of virtual systems in various social spheres, I found that online dating apps like Tinder can give us an understanding of the way in which the virtual is deployed in our current society, as well as its effects.
The first observation to make here is the most obvious one. It concerns the way in which the slogan very directly stipulates how the development of the virtual is often motivated by the promise to be ‘like the real but better’. Generally speaking, virtual systems seem to be introduced as an opportunity to offer us practically any aspect of life stripped of its negative components. This goes hand in hand with another key term in virtual development: efficiency. The technology is presented as a means to improve existing methods for certain socially valued goals by optimizing efficiency. Not only does the virtual bring the promise of eradicating negative aspects present in all sorts of situations, it often claims to do so in the service of a preexisting social value or goal. In the case of Tinder, this second point manifests itself in the absence of any intention (its effect notwithstanding) to alter or renew our notions of romance, flirting, love and so on. Instead, it seems to present itself as a more efficient enhancement of our existing methods for pursuing our ‘conventional’ romantic goals.
The Pure Romance of Tinder
Counterintuitive as it may seem, the dating app, just like other matching sites, perfectly fits in to the ideas of traditional romanticism. And although Tinder has been widely criticized as anti-romantic, or as heralding the end of romance itself, we’ll see that upon examination, it seems that quite the contrary might be the case.
“Is the question that incessantly haunts the users of these systems not in fact a purely romantic one?”
Now, how can this ‘meat swipe machine’ be compatible with any romantic ideal we hold? When one examines the core belief of these matching websites and dating apps it becomes clear that, as philosopher Alain de Botton points out , these applications and websites are rooted in the strong romantic belief that as long as we’re connected with the right person, ‘true’ love will be the result. That is, classic romanticism dictates that in order to experience true love we are required to find the ‘one special person’ that is just perfect for us. Virtual systems have ‘helped’ us with this overwhelming task of finding ‘the one’ by vastly expanding our set of options and by building algorithms that assist us in the selection options. With the help of algorithms that carefully map
our preferences and calculate the personality traits we desire, science can now help us to improve, modernize and optimize the search for a perfect match.
This means that virtual dating systems are basically in the service of increasing our chances of fifinally finding the right person. And by perfecting our means to reach this truly romantic goal, applications like Tinder do not lack romantic intentions but, if anything, should be considered too romantic. This romanticism is even evident in the neurotic restlessness with which some frantic Tinder users move from date to date and from partner to partner (as can for example be seen in the Netflix documentary Love Me Tinder). What we see here is not a corruption of romance but simply the magnified version of romantic ideals aided by technological possibilities. Is the question that incessantly haunts the users of these systems – what if there is an even better match for me out there? – not in fact a purely romantic one?
Consequences of Technologically Intensified Romanticism
So romanticism is therefore implicit in digital dating practices. In what way does this reveal anything about virtual systems? First of all, it shows us how virtual systems promise us ‘real life without negative aspects’ and as such offer us a technological perfection of, in this case, the romantic ideal. This might in and of itself not be groundbreaking, but, when juxtaposed with its actual results, an interesting puzzle arises. As anyone familiar with these programs knows, ‘perfect romance’ isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when talking about e-dating. For many, dating apps like Tinder are more related to casual sex, adultery and superficiality than to life partners and meaningful relations. Even when we set aside the group that just seeks these sort of fleeting encounters, it seems like genuine romantic intentions are more often hindered than aided by the endless virtual possibilities. To rephrase this problem as a question: does the assertion that we are more satisfied with our relationship because we choose from a larger sample, really hold up?
Romanticism is implicit in digital dating practices
Logically speaking, one would expect to see our relationship satisfaction and life satisfaction go up as these life improving applications continue to evolve. In real life, however, the consequences are far less unambiguously positive. In comparison to ‘offline’ encounters, the digital machinery in which more and more of our dating life is taking place has been associated with higher breakup rates, less partner choice satisfaction, and lower self-esteem. The overwhelming number of possibilities brings forward a sense of ‘disposability’, and what we see in response is a tendency toward minimal commitment and short-term investments, diminishing the likelihood that we will invest energy in working through difficulties. Although research is undecided about the cultural influence online matchmaking has and will have, there is at least one contradiction they should take into consideration: how the very means of romantic perfection often seem to bring about the exact opposite. The true concern then is not if we still value commitment and a sense of belonging, but the growing discrepancy between what we claim to value and what we actually achieve. We should question the way in which the meaning and in fact the very structure of our interpersonal relationships are being reshaped by virtualization.
The very means of romantic perfection often seem to bring about the exact opposite
What we have seen so far, after addressing the implicit romanticism and the adverse effects of dating applications like Tinder, is that the promise of a scientifically perfect match strangely seems to bring about a contradictory result. Of course we could say that this is the logical consequence of taking the romantic ideal (the idea of one special ‘somebody’ for everyone) to the extreme by means of a technologically driven system. A more interesting approach, however, is to locate this contradiction within the dynamics of the virtual itself.
Dating, Finance, and Drone Warfare
After studying several cases of social domains that are predominantly virtual, I claim that this contradiction should not surprise us. On the contrary, it is a pattern that is discernable in almost all of the cases I have studied so far. To discuss the most evident examples, I will briefly go over the domains of finance and drone warfare to locate the same dynamic, and point out some striking similarities in outcome as well as in guiding principles. In finance, a sector that is now arguably even more virtual than ICT, technology enabled banks to perform purely digital transactions with virtual products, automatically bought and sold by computers. The promise in this sector resembles the general virtual promise: virtual systems can bring wealth without material limitations. That is, the trade in virtual products doesn’t require the production of any ‘real’ tangible products. Banks could create not only money, but also purely digital financial products that had no basis in reality. This potential for strictly virtual value creation is why the financial sector was one of the first industries that fully embraced the computer development in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Their desire for advanced profit calculations and incredible trading speed, eventually even free from human shortcomings such as thinking errors, was a fully rational one when viewed from the sector’s urge for optimal efficiency in financial gains. The result however was far less rational, with an inflated system bolstered by purely virtual products such as derivatives. A system where a substantial part of the transactions was performed by autonomous systems in so called High Frequency Trading, computers that complete transactions in only milliseconds, each time making a little bit of profit. Instead of a perfected financial system, the ‘efficiency’ induced by virtualization led to such an instability in the world economy, that when US housing prices fell in the summer of 2007 the result was the second biggest financial crisis in the history of the economy. After the system of financial innovation, made global by information technology, fully imploded in 2008 two remarkable things stood out: the first being that no-one could be considered responsible. In fact, despite the trillions of dollars of losses, estimated at $120.000,- for every inhabitant of the US (man, woman or child) , and the staggering increase of unemployment and homelessness, only one banker was convicted . The second, even more remarkable, result was that the bankers themselves felt no responsibility. The sector had effectively traded personal involvement for efficiency, thereby minimalizing responsibility and promoting dissociation from moral emotions.
The implicit promise of drone warfare is a ‘war without casualties’
Just as with Tinder, we see how in the world of finance the very same system that optimizes efficiency profoundly influences the reasoning and responsibility of the individual that interacts with it. As a result, despite the numerous differences between dating app systems and financial systems, it is not difficult to see how not only their initial promise, but also their guiding principles seem to correspond, short investments and little commitment. Precisely these principles seem leading in advanced warfare too. Modern warfare is no longer symmetrical, where two more or less equally powerful nations fight each other with professional armies either to oppose a rival, or to expand the nation-state by conquering and possessing enemy territory. Modern warfare is amorphous, highly imbalanced when it comes to power (e.g. US versus Iraq), and mainly consists of a series of short interventions to eliminate a risk. Drone warfare is the most recent and most revealing example in this regard. Introduced as the latest development in technologically advanced warfare that further perfects the military quest for precision weaponry, the implicit promise of drone warfare is a ‘war without casualties’. These Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, operated from airbases thousands of miles away from the area of deployment, are a key asset in the US ‘peace missions’ in the Middle East, and enable the American military to perform precision strikes that, due to the perfected accuracy of the strikes, not only limit the number of casualties on the US side, but also limit the number of civilian casualties. At this point it is not difficult to see how the promise of ‘war without casualties’ resembles the promises that fueled virtualization in the previous sectors. Here too, a sense of commitment or responsibility seems to be eliminated in working with these systems. As drone pilot and former senior airman with the US air force, Michael Haas describes in relation to his pilot work: ‘You had to kill off part of your conscience’.  And, as one might expect, in the case of drone warfare the results are no less contradictory than those in the previous two cases. In the attempt to eliminate 41 listed targets, the ‘precision strikes’ of the US killed 1,147 people. As a joint study of Stanford and New York Law Schools reported, ‘The number of ‘high-level’ targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low—estimated at just 2%’. The report adds that ‘evidence suggests that American strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks’. Drone strikes, as virtual perfection of counterterrorism measures, seem to create more terrorists than they kill.
The Base Logic of Virtuality
Where does this leave us? The cases presented strongly suggest that there is a pattern to be discerned in various domains that are predominantly virtual. I have described this pattern most in depth for the dating app Tinder, which beautifully demonstrates this dynamic. In all fairness, there is still a lot left for me to research about the exact dynamic of virtuality and its actual effects as there is also a lot more to be said about the cases and the line of argumentation I have presented so far. Nevertheless, I believe that what we have seen in these cases can be described as a sort of ‘base logic of virtuality’. In its most elementary form the logic comes down to this: the implicit undermining by technological systems of the very principle these systems aim to perfect.
This pattern is far from limited to the cases described here. Take for example social media, another social sphere that qualifies as predominantly virtual, where the same dynamic can be seen. In fact, an American study on social media almost literally described this base logic of virtuality when it concluded that ‘on the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it’. In healthcare, where we are now introducing ‘e-consults’, we see signs that seem to point toward the same pattern, with patients now claiming that the ‘lack of personal contact’ is the main reason for avoiding these systems.
To conclude, what I have claimed here is that there is a logic common to many, if not all, social domains that are predominantly virtual. This logic is one in which virtual developments are justified as an improvement in efficiency and often presented as offering us ‘a thing without its negative aspects’. However, despite the aim to perfect in all of the described areas, the use of virtual systems backfires. This raises a lot of questions. What is it in our interaction with these systems that subverts the optimizing potential of these systems? What sort of subjectivities are produced by these new forms of technology? Or more broadly, can this virtual logic be traced back to certain power relationships, and in what way does it confirm or alter these existing power structures? These are just some of the many questions I hope to write more about in the future. I am aware of the fact that the cases discussed here might not cover all fields that are becoming rapidly more virtual. But I believe that at the very least they show that we should always critically examine the development of virtual systems, often presented as a self-evident step in the pursuit of progress. After all, it seems that the promise to be ‘like real life, but better’ disfigures reality instead of perfecting it.
Editor: Deirdre Meursing
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