Though Tinder has become the punching bag for all those decrying the end of romance as we know it, it is only a symbolic mnemonic for the smorgasbord of hook-up/dating apps such as Sexy Vibes, Blendr, Bang, Pure (yes, really), Discreet, Bang With Friends et al, which have seemingly altered the algorithm of the man-woman equation, cutting out uncertainty, bringing in choice and commodifying sex without a monetary transaction. Perhaps, it’s fitting for our time as well, since the majority of people today don’t have the extra cash to put down on a home loan, let alone pay for transactional sex.
While I was an early adopter of the online universe, I exited the dating world before apps became mainstream. But, second-hand information via friends and colleagues keeps me as close to this new found wonder as I dare to go without getting burnt — the Tinder is never set aflame, as it were. While I remain bemused, amused and sometimes plain taken aback at the speed, ease and variety of the coupling on offer, I can’t say I’m indignant at its social impact. In its own way, it’s not that different from an instrument of mass matchmaking popular in our parents’ generation (and to which I owe my existence) — the Matrimonial Classified section in newspapers.
Just think about it; before Twitter invented 140 characters, the matrimonial ad was using cut-to-the-chase shorthand to ask for exactly what parents wanted; complexion (usually fair), minimum education (usually graduate), caste (usually Brahmin) and occasionally advanced search options like height (usually at least 5’7”) and fiscal capability (usually a salary measured in zeros). Marriage in India (as in most parts of the world at varying points in time) was a social institution founded on property and procreation, and the matrimonial ad delivered on its core premise; of matching men and women with similar social and economic backgrounds who would be able to further this social institution. That some marriages thus arranged developed into love, sexual compatibility and deep friendship was an added bonus, but not the central driving force of the process.
Cut to 2015 and the aforementioned apps are doing pretty much the same thing. With precision algorithms, savvy use of people’s online networks and user-friendly swipes and chats, they’re enabling people to have no strings attached sex without having to pay for it — or be jailed for it. It’s not very different from walking into a naughty bar in Bangkok, examining a line-up of beautiful men, women and lady-boys and taking your pick, but without any financial transaction. These apps have promised unlimited, convenient sex and they are delivering fairly efficiently on that promise. If there are instances when some of these hook-ups turn into relationships, it’s an added bonus — but not the core premise. That would be akin to people looking to prostitution for true love because they’ve seen Pretty Woman.
What of the romantics, though, those inconvenient people who want more out of a man-woman coupling than just the social structure, or just an orgasm? What’s their recourse? The romantic ideal of a connection, of deep friendship, of a desire to be with each other without any social or biological compulsion remains as knotty and elusive a problem now as it was in the newspaper classifieds age — because an algorithm’s central USP (unlimited choice) is its central stumbling block when it comes to something as intangible as love.
Let’s face it; human brains are not designed to respond effectively to endless choice. We like it, but it’s an idea mostly elegant on paper, because when faced with endless choice (pages-long menus, thousands of films on Netflix, malls in Dubai) our brains become dazed and confused. The browsing becomes the end rather than the means, and the final selection becomes a random, sub-optimal outcome brought about by confusion and indifference — you rarely have your favourite meal at The Cheesecake Factory, or buy your dream outfit at Walmart.
Thus there is no reason to believe that a swipe to the right will yield anything more special than momentarily satisfying sexual intercourse. That’s because just having a smorgasbord of options does not define choice. The most sought after and special experiences in life are those we actively seek and cull and pay an opportunity cost to access, whether it’s with time, money and courage or faith. Dating, in its old-fashioned form, requires all three — the time to ask someone out and get to know them, the money that buys unique experiences and the courage to put yourself emotionally on the line. Sure, it’s not all hunky dory. Dating disasters have spawned the self-help industry and the rom-com genre of films in Hollywood. But to its credit, even the cads and commitment-phobes have to have the courage to lay out their requirements and limitations and risk losing people and face. To tell someone “I’m just in it for the sex” is a lot harder than having an app to do that.
So the next time you rue the heartlessness of hook-up apps, remember that they weren’t designed for grand romance. They were the brainchildren of Silicon Valley nerds who couldn’t get laid by walking into a bar and asking a girl out.