Swiping Right and Left
Is technology reshaping romance?
Posted November 19, 2019 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
I (Gillian) recently asked my class how their grandparents met. I received a variety of answers, including "in a camp for displaced persons." Most were less unusual, however, and included arranged marriages, through family, or within community networks.
I then asked them how their parents met. Here, I heard more “they met in a bar,” “at a party,” “in university,” or “at work.”
Just this very quick survey reveals the organic ways in which people used to meet and form long-term partnerships. The courtship process typically took place in person, in their communities, and was often mediated by friends and family. As a result, potential partners were often “pre-vetted” by and held accountable within these communities.
What we are seeing now, by contrast, is unprecedented, as a variety of apps and online platforms are now becoming de facto technological matchmakers. Surveys show that approximately 27 percent of millennials now meet romantic partners via these apps. A number of students told me that they met their current girlfriends or boyfriends online. I know a whole chorus will rise up to tell me that many marriages have come from these apps.
My question, however, is concerned with how these technologies are re-shaping our most intimate lives. In this blog, I won’t be focusing on the darker side of this style of dating—including fraud and the potential for violence. Of course, these are very important topics, but I want to look at the ways in which we are permitting technology to run these most intimate spheres of our life.
In a 2015 TVO interview, psychologist Susan Pinker talked about the ways in which the migration of life into the virtual realm is associated with increased isolation and loneliness. We know from the research done by writers like Putnam and Dunkelman that community integration has been lessening over the last forty years and that North Americans have smaller circles of intimate relationships than did previous generations. Activities that once took us out into a broader social world—such as shopping, dating, and entertainment—are increasingly taking place in our homes.
None of this would matter as much if this lifestyle, which is increasingly shaped by personal consumption and market forces, was actually making us more satisfied or offering a sense of meaning. But instead it may be, as George Monbriot theorizes, creating, “epidemics of self-harm, eating disorders, depression, loneliness, performance anxiety, and social phobia.” Recent evidence indicates that the architecture of our community matters—and in fact, an online form of community is qualitatively different than face-to-face interactions.
In his 2015 encyclical, Pope Francis noted the “technological paradigm that we are all increasingly living within has it own ironclad logic" (78-79). We have discussed already on this blog how increased time spent on social media is associated with increased expression of the "Dark Triad" traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Many experts suspect that these platforms impact our mental health and directly shape how we view ourselves in the world. A glossy world of perfect images may become a simulacra for a real, entangled, and more demanding reality.
Of course, this online cultural change is happening alongside a larger one of declining social and civic life in America, which has been documented in books like Bowling Alone (2000) by Robert D. Putnam and The Vanishing Neighbor (2014). Through discussions with my students, it became clear that many of the community based ways of meeting someone—parties, dances, dinner parties, and set-ups—have lessened dramatically.
Anyone who has met someone in this way knows it is very different from an online choice. While clearly, physical attraction is almost always a factor, personal charm and humour can often trump standard measures of attractiveness when we meet someone in person. The real presence of another human being can have us quickly altering our laundry list of demands regarding what we want in a partner.
For me personally, the most disturbing aspect of the swiping left and right is how it makes meeting people like shopping for a human. Much as we scroll through products on various websites, we scroll through pictures of other human beings, making a choice based on a headshot—thumbs up and thumbs down. This is a very different process than slowly getting to know someone who is part of a circle of friends or our larger community.
One student who was being very honest said that the ease with which he can access “hook-ups” via the internet may have made it more difficult for him to settle into a more sustained relationship. While fleeting relationships are nothing new, when people meet in pubs or bars, it still requires some kind of face-to-face interaction. It seems to me that we need to revive our communitarian bonds so that people can meet each other in more natural ways rooted in community.
Of course, all of these problems are interlocking. Creating opportunities for face-to-face contact is, as we know, linked to better physical and mental health. It turns out it may also be the best seedbed of friendship and romance.
George Monbriot, “Neoliberalism. The Ideology at the Root of All Our Problems,” The Guardian, Friday, April 15, 2016.
Marc J. Dunkelman (2014). The Vanishing Neighbor. The Transformation of American Community. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Pope Francis, “Laudato Si,” Encylical Letter, May 24, 2015 http://w2.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/encyclicals/documents/pa…
Susan Pinker, “The Village Effect.” TVO interview 2015 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCs7o5KUAW4
Robert D. Putnam (2000). Bowling Alone. The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.
“Five Facts About Online Dating”, Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/29/5-facts-about-online-d…