An increasing number of Americans are looking to social media and online dating sites like Tinder or OKCupid to meet potential romantic partners. In a Friday column, David Brooks reviews the data presented by the book Dataclysm, written by the creator of OKCupid:
People who date online are not shallower or vainer than those who don’t. Research suggests they are broadly representative. It’s just that they’re in a specific mental state. They’re shopping for human beings, commodifying people. They have access to very little information that can help them judge if they will fall in love with this person. They pay ridiculous amounts of attention to things like looks, which have little bearing on whether a relationship will work…
When online daters actually meet, an entirely different mind-set has to kick in. If they’re going to be open to a real relationship, they have to stop asking where this person rates in comparison to others and start asking, can we lower the boundaries between self and self. They have to stop thinking in individual terms and start feeling in rapport terms.
Mr. Brooks calls this “the enchantment leap”—when “something dry and utilitarian erupts into something passionate, inescapable, and devotional.” The algorithmic relies on the measurable, and thus most often depends on the physical, as Brooks points out. Through apps like OKCupid and Tinder, we have learned to emphasize the temporary and the sensually gratifying in our pursuit of love.
But enchantment requires us to look beyond ourselves and our temporary desires—it requires us to give up control, or as Mr. Brooks puts it, to become “vulnerable.” Part of the reason we love quantification—of our love lives, our vocations, even our pastimes—is because we love having a sense of control, the reassurance of a pleasurable outcome. Even those of us who would never use online dating sites will still often Facebook-stalk someone before a date. We take the Meyers-Briggs personality test and various strengths-finder quizzes in order to determine whether we have picked the right job. We use Yelp to check every restaurant, pick movies via Rotten Tomatoes, use wine apps to purchase the perfect bottle. Because we are so anxious to control outcomes, we are unable to take any real risks. But we forget, in the midst of our controlling, that it is absolutely impossible to eliminate all risk. We forget that embracing our limits and vulnerability can actually bring us greater pleasure, greater adventure, and even greater closeness.
Our culture prizes quantification to the detriment of true intimacy, as well. Quantification destroys intimacy through its rigid measurements of human beings: measurements that cannot encompass the inner intricacies and contradictions that make us unique. Quantification requires open books: not mysterious, deep, changeable, thoughtful individuals. But we need mystery for true relational intimacy because it is through the sharing of our deeper selves that we grow in love and devotion.
Quantification can destroy our very desire for the unique: Seeking love through an algorithm necessitates that we look for some sort of golden mean, some perfect conglomeration of ideal attributes. Thus, we do not see Andrew or Carl—we see Andrew, the seventy per cent match, or Carl, the ninety-four per cent match. We do not see them as human beings: We see them as objects.
How do we re-capture an attitude of enchantment, a qualitative rather than quantitative pursuit of love? Mr. Brooks believes it will require a return to humanism, religion, and the humanities, “the great instructors of enchantment.” Countering algorithmic fixation requires a re-education of the American populace—teaching people how to see and prize the philosophical, spiritual, intellectual, and thus immeasurable characteristics that cannot be removed from our pursuit of love.
But a short-term answer to the algorithm dilemma can also be found in urging people to stop putting so much weight on numbers, studies, and quizzes. We are fascinated with Buzzfeed quizzes, personality tests, and scientific studies: enchanted by the prospect that reading from a print book improves your brain, that friendship is good for your health, that married people are financially better off. But so what? You should be reading because—books. You should have friends, because friendship is good, in and of itself, regardless of its personal repercussions. You should get married because whoever your potential spouse is—Andrew or Carl, Mary or Jane—you love them. It is about taking the great leap of enchantment: seeing the other, and prizing them for who they are, in all their mystery and imperfection and potentiality. It is about choosing to love a person, not an algorithm.