When Samuel F. B. Morse sent his first long-distance telegraph message in 1844, he chose words that emphasized both the awe and apprehension he felt about his new device. “What hath God wrought?” read the paper tape message of dots and dashes sent from the U.S. Capitol building to Morse’s associates in Baltimore. Morse proved prescient about the potential scope and significance of his technology. In less than a decade, telegraph wires spread throughout all but one state east of the Mississippi River; by 1861, they spanned the continent; and by 1866, a transatlantic telegraph cable connected the United States to Europe.
The telegraph, and later, the telephone, forever changed the way we communicate. But the triumph wrought by these technologies was not merely practical. Subtly and not so subtly, these technologies also altered the range of ways we reveal ourselves. Writing in 1884, James Russell Lowell wondered a bit nervously about the long-term consequences of the “trooping of emotion” that the electric telegraph, with its fragmented messages, encouraged. Lowell and others feared that the sophisticated new media we were devising might alter not just how we communicate, but how we feel.
Rapid improvement in communication technologies and the expansion of their practical uses continue unabated. Today, of course, we are no longer tethered to telegraph or telephone wires for conversation. Cell phones, e-mail, Internet chatrooms, two-way digital cameras — we can talk to anyone, anywhere, including those we do not know and never see. The ethical challenges raised by these new communication technologies are legion, and not new. Within a decade of the invention of the telephone, for example, we had designed a way to wiretap and listen in on the private conversations flourishing there. And with the Internet, we can create new or false identities for ourselves, mixing real life and personal fantasy in unpredictable ways. The “confidence man” of the nineteenth century, with his dandified ruses, is replaced by the well-chosen screen name and false autobiography of the unscrupulous Internet dater. Modern philosophers of technology have studied the ethical quandaries posed by communication technologies — questioning whether our view of new technologies as simply means to generally positive ends is naïve, and encouraging us to consider whether our many devices have effected subtle transformations on our natures.
But too little consideration has been given to the question of how our use of these technologies influences our emotions. Do certain methods of communication flatten emotional appeals, promote immediacy rather than thoughtful reflection, and encourage accessibility and transparency at the expense of necessary boundaries? Do our technologies change the way we feel, act, and think?
There is perhaps no realm in which this question has more salience than that of romantic love. How do our ubiquitous technologies — cell phones, e-mail, the Internet — impact our ability to find and experience love? Our technical devices are of such extraordinary practical use that we forget they are also increasingly the primary medium for our emotional expression. The technologies we use on a daily basis do not merely change the ways, logistically, we pursue love; they are in some cases transforming the way we think and feel about what, exactly, it is we should be pursuing. They change not simply how we find our beloved, but the kind of beloved we hope to find. In a world where men and women still claim to want to find that one special person — a “soul mate” — to spend their life with, what role can and should we afford technology and, more broadly, science, in their efforts?
The pursuit of love in its modern, technological guise has its roots in the decline of courtship and is indelibly marked by that loss. Courtship as it once existed — a practice that assumed adherence to certain social conventions, and recognition of the differences, physical and emotional, between men and women — has had its share of pleased obituarists. The most vigorous have been feminists, the more radical of whom appear to take special delight in quelling notions of romantic love. Recall Andrea Dworkin’s infamous equation of marriage and rape, or Germaine Greer’s terrifying rant in The Female Eunuch: “Love, love, love — all the wretched cant of it, masking egotism, lust, masochism, fantasy under a mythology of sentimental postures, a welter of self-induced miseries and joys, blinding and masking the essential personalities in the frozen gestures of courtship, in the kissing and the dating and the desire, the compliments and the quarrels which vivify its barrenness.” Much of this work is merely an unpersuasive attempt to swaddle basic human bitterness in the language of female empowerment. But such sentiments have had their effect on our culture’s understanding of courtship.
More thoughtful chroniclers of the institution’s demise have noted the cultural and technological forces that challenged courtship in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, eroding the power of human chaperones, once its most effective guardians. As Leon Kass persuasively argued in an essay in The Public Interest, the obstacles to courtship “spring from the very heart of liberal democratic society and of modernity altogether.” The automobile did more for unsupervised sexual exploration than many technologies in use today, for example, and by twentieth century’s end, the ease and availability of effective contraceptive devices, especially the birth control pill, had freed men and women to pursue sexual experience without the risk of pregnancy. With technical advances came a shift in social mores. As historian Jacques Barzun has noted, strict manners gave way to informality, “for etiquette is a barrier, the casual style an invitation.”
Whether one laments or praises courtship’s decline, it is clear that we have yet to locate a successful replacement for it — evidently it is not as simple as hustling the aging coquette out the door to make way for the vigorous debutante. On the contrary, our current courting practices — if they can be called that — yield an increasing number of those aging coquettes, as well as scores of unsettled bachelors. On college campuses, young men and women have long since ceased formally dating and instead participate in a “hooking up” culture that favors the sexually promiscuous and emotionally disinterested while punishing those intent on commitment. Adults hardly fare better: as the author of a report released in January by the Chicago Health and Social Life Survey told CNN, “on average, half your life is going to be in this single and dating state, and this is a big change from the 1950s.” Many men and women now spend the decades of their twenties and thirties sampling each other’s sexual wares and engaging in fits of serial out-of-wedlock domesticity, never finding a marriageable partner.
In the 1990s, books such as The Rules, which outlined a rigorous and often self-abnegating plan for modern dating, and observers such as Wendy Shalit, who called for greater modesty and the withholding of sexual favors by women, represented a well-intentioned, if doomed, attempt to revive the old courting boundaries. Cultural observers today, however, claim we are in the midst of a new social revolution that requires looking to the future for solutions, not the past. “We’re in a period of dramatic change in our mating practices,” Barbara Dafoe Whitehead told a reporter for U.S. News & World Report recently. Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, is the author of Why There are No Good Men Left, one in a booming mini-genre of books that offer road maps for the revolution. Whitehead views technology as one of our best solutions — Isolde can now find her Tristan on the Internet (though presumably with a less tragic finale). “The traditional mating system where people met someone in their neighborhood or college is pretty much dead,” Whitehead told CBS recently. “What we have is a huge population of working singles who have limited opportunities to go through some elaborate courtship.”
Although Whitehead is correct in her diagnosis of the problem, neither she nor the mavens of modesty offer a satisfactory answer to this new challenge. A return to the old rules and rituals of courtship — however appealing in theory — is neither practical nor desirable for the majority of men and women. But the uncritical embrace of technological solutions to our romantic malaise — such as Internet dating — is not a long-term solution either. What we need to do is create new boundaries, devise better guideposts, and enforce new mores for our technological age. First, however, we must understand the peculiar challenges to romantic success posed by our technologies.
Although not the root cause of our romantic malaise, our communication technologies are at least partly culpable, for they encourage the erosion of the boundaries that are necessary for the growth of successful relationships. Our technologies enable and often promote two detrimental forces in modern relationships: the demand for total transparency and a bias toward the over-sharing of personal information.
With the breakdown of the old hierarchies and boundaries that characterized courtship, there are far fewer opportunities to glean information about the vast world of strangers we encounter daily. We can little rely on town gossips or networks of extended kin for background knowledge; there are far fewer geographic boundaries marking people from “the good part of town”; no longer can we read sartorial signals, such as a well-cut suit or an expensive shoe, to place people as in earlier ages. This is all, for the most part, a good thing. But how, then, do people find out about each other? Few self-possessed people with an Internet connection could resist answering that question with one word: Google. “To google” — now an acceptable if ill-begotten verb — is the practice of typing a person’s name into an Internet search engine to find out what the world knows and says about him or her. As one writer confessed in the New York Observer, after meeting an attractive man at a midtown bar: “Like many of my twentysomething peers in New York’s dating jungle, I have begun to use Google.com, as well as other online search engines, to perform secret background checks on potential mates. It’s not perfect, but it’s a discreet way of obtaining important, useless and sometimes bizarre information about people in Manhattan — and it’s proven to be as reliable as the scurrilous gossip you get from friends.”
That is — not reliable at all. What Google and other Internet search engines provide is a quick glimpse — a best and worst list — of a person, not a fully drawn portrait. In fact, the transparency promised by technologies such as Internet search engines is a convenient substitute for something we used to assume would develop over time, but which fewer people today seem willing to cultivate patiently: trust. As the single Manhattanite writing in the Observer noted, “You never know. He seemed nice that night, but he could be anyone from a rapist or murderer to a brilliant author or championship swimmer.”
In sum, transparency does not guarantee trust. It can, in fact, prove effective at eroding it — especially when the expectation of transparency and the available technological tools nudge the suspicious to engage in more invasive forms of investigation or surveillance. One woman I interviewed, who asked that her name not be revealed, was suspicious that her live-in boyfriend of two years was unfaithful when her own frequent business trips took her away from home. Unwilling to confront him directly with her doubts, she turned to a technological solution. Unbeknownst to him, she installed a popular brand of “spyware” on his computer, which recorded every keystroke he made and took snapshots of his screen every three minutes — information that the program then e-mailed to her for inspection. “My suspicions were founded,” she said, although the revelation was hardly good news. “He was spending hours online looking at porn, and going to ‘hook-up’ chatrooms seeking sex with strangers. I even tracked his ATM withdrawals to locations near his scheduled meetings with other women.”
She ended the relationship, but remains unrepentant about deploying surveillance technology against her mate. Considering the amount of information she could find out about her partner by merely surfing the Internet, she rationalized her use of spyware as just one more tool — if a slightly more invasive one — at the disposal of those seeking information about another person. As our technologies give us ever-greater power to uncover more about each other, demand for transparency rises, and our expectations of privacy decline.
The other destructive tendency our technologies encourage is over-sharing — that is, revealing too much, too quickly, in the hope of connecting to another person. The opportunities for instant communication are so ubiquitous — e-mail, instant messaging, chatrooms, cell phones, Palm Pilots, BlackBerrys, and the like — that the notion of making ourselves unavailable to anyone is unheard of, and constant access a near-requirement. As a result, the multitude of outlets for expressing ourselves has allowed the level of idle chatter to reach a depressing din. The inevitable result is a repeal of the reticence necessary for fostering successful relationships in the long term. Information about another person is best revealed a bit at a time, in a give-and-take exchange, not in a rush of overexposed feeling.
Perhaps the best example of this tendency is reality TV and its spawn. Programs like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, as well as pseudo-documentary shows such as A Dating Story (and A Wedding Story and A Baby Story) on The Learning Channel, transform the longings of the human heart into top Nielsen ratings by encouraging the lovelorn to discuss in depth and at length every feeling they have, every moment they have it, as the cameras roll. Romances begin, blossom, and occasionally end in the space of half an hour, and audiences — privy to even the most excruciatingly staged expressions of love and devotion — nevertheless gain the illusion of having seen “real” examples of dating, wedding, or marriage.
On the Internet, dating blogs offer a similar sophomoric voyeurism. One dating blogger, who calls himself Quigley, keeps a dreary tally of his many unsuccessful attempts to meet women, peppering his diary with adolescent observations about women he sees on television. Another dating blogger, who describes herself as an “attractive 35-year old,” writes “A Day in the Life of Jane,” a dating diary about her online dating travails. Reflecting on one of her early experiences, she writes: “But what did I learn from Owen? That online dating isn’t so different from regular dating. It has its pros and cons: Pros — you learn a lot more about a person much more quickly, that a person isn’t always what they seem or what you believe them to be, that you have to be really honest with yourself and the person you are communicating with; Cons — uh, same as the pros!”
Successful relationships are not immune to the over-sharing impulse, either; a plethora of wedding websites such as SharetheMoments.com and TheKnot.com offer up the intimate details of couples’ wedding planning and ceremonies — right down to the brand of tie worn by the groom and the “intimate” vows exchanged by the couple. And, if things go awry, there are an increasing number of revenge websites such as BadXPartners.com, which offers people who’ve been dumped an opportunity for petty revenge. “Create a comical case file of your BadXPartners for the whole world to see!” the website urges. Like the impulse to Google, the site plays on people’s fears of being misled, encouraging people to search the database for stories of bad exes: “Just met someone new? Think they are just the one for you? Well remember, they are probably someone else’s X…. Find out about Bill from Birmingham’s strange habits or Tracy from Texas’ suspect hygiene. Better safe than sorry!”
Like the steady work of the wrecking ball, our culture’s nearly-compulsive demand for personal revelation, emotional exposure, and sharing of feelings threatens the fragile edifice of newly-forming relationships. Transparency and complete access are exactly what you want to avoid in the early stages of romance. Successful courtship — even successful flirtation — require the gradual peeling away of layers, some deliberately constructed, others part of a person’s character and personality, that make us mysteries to each other.
Among Pascal’s minor works is an essay, “Discourse on the Passion of Love,” in which he argues for the keen “pleasure of loving without daring to tell it.” “In love,” Pascal writes, “silence is of more avail than speech…there is an eloquence in silence that penetrates more deeply than language can.” Pascal imagined his lovers in each other’s physical presence, watchful of unspoken physical gestures, but not speaking. Only gradually would they reveal themselves. Today such a tableau seems as arcane as Kabuki theater; modern couples exchange the most intimate details of their lives on a first date and then return home to blog about it.
“It’s difficult,” said one woman I talked to who has tried — and ultimately soured on — Internet dating. “You’re expected to be both informal and funny in your e-mails, and reveal your likes and dislikes, but you don’t want to reveal so much that you appear desperate, or so little so that you seem distant.” We can, of course, use these technologies appropriately and effectively in the service of advancing a relationship, but to do so both people must understand the potential dangers. One man I interviewed described a relationship that began promisingly but quickly took a technological turn for the worse. After a few successful dates, he encouraged the woman he was seeing, who lived in another city, to keep in touch. Impervious to notions of technological etiquette, however, she took this to mean the floodgates were officially open. She began telephoning him at all hours, sending overly-wrought e-mails and inundating him with lengthy, faxed letters — all of which had the effect not of bringing them closer together, which was clearly her hope, but of sending him scurrying away as fast as he could. Later, however, he became involved in a relationship in which e-mail in particular helped facilitate the courtship, and where technology — bounded by a respect on the part of both people for its excesses — helped rather than harmed the process of learning about another person. Technology itself is not to blame; it is our ignorance of its potential dangers and our unwillingness to exercise self-restraint in its use that makes mischief.
Internet dating offers an interesting case study of these technological risks, for it encourages both transparency and oversharing, as well as another danger: it insists that we reduce and market ourselves as the disembodied sum of our parts. The woman or man you might have met on the subway platform or in a coffee shop — within a richer context that includes immediate impressions based on the other person’s physical gestures, attire, tone of voice, and overall demeanor — is instead electronically embalmed for your efficient perusal online.
And it is a booming business. Approximately forty percent of American adults are single, and half of that population claims to have visited an online dating site. Revenue for online dating services exceeded $302 million in 2002. There is, not surprisingly, something for the profusion of tastes: behemoth sites such as Match.com, Flirt.com, Hypermatch.com, and Matchmaker.com traffic in thousands of profiles. Niche sites such as Dateable.org for people with disabilities, as well as sites devoted to finding true love for foot fetishists, animal lovers, and the obese, cater to smaller markets. Single people with religious preferences can visit Jdate.com (for Jewish dates), CatholicSingles.com, and even HappyBuddhist.com to find similarly-minded spiritual singles. As with any product, new features are added constantly to maintain consumer interest; even the more jaded seekers of love might quail at Match.com’s recent addition to its menu of online options: a form of “speed dating” that offers a certain brutal efficiency as a lure for the time-challenged modern singleton.
One woman I interviewed, an attractive, successful consultant, tried online dating because her hectic work schedule left her little time to meet new people. She went to Match.com, entered her zip code, and began perusing profiles. She quickly decided to post her own. “When you first put your profile on Match.com,” she said, “it’s like walking into a kennel with a pork chop around your neck. You’re bombarded with e-mails from men.” She received well over one hundred solicitations. She responded to a few with a “wink,” an electronic gesture that allows another person to know you’ve seen their profile and are interested — but not interested enough to commit to sending an e-mail message. More alluring profiles garnered an e-mail introduction.
After meeting several different men for coffee, she settled on one in particular and they dated for several months. The vagaries of online dating, however, quickly present new challenges to relationship etiquette. In her case, after several months of successful dating, she and her boyfriend agreed to take their Match.com profiles down from the site. Since they were no longer “single and looking,” but single and dating, this seemed to make sense — at least to her. Checking Match.com a week later, however, she found her boyfriend’s profile still up and actively advertising himself as available. They are still together, although she confesses to a new wariness about his willingness to commit.
The rapid growth of Internet dating has led to the erosion of the stigma that used to be attached to having “met someone on the Internet” (although none of the people I interviewed for this article would allow their names to be used). And Internet dating itself is becoming increasingly professionalized — with consultants, how-to books, and “expert” analysis crowding out the earlier generation of websites. This February, a “commonsense guide to successful Internet dating” entitled I Can’t Believe I’m Buying This Book hit bookstores. Publishers Weekly describes the author, an “Internet dating consultant,” as “a self-proclaimed online serial dater” who “admits he’s never sustained a relationship for more than seven months,” yet nevertheless “entertainingly reviews how to present one’s self on the Web.”
Designing the “dating software” that facilitates online romance is a science all its own. U.S. News & World Report recently described the efforts of Michael Georgeff, who once designed software to aid the space shuttle program, to devise similar algorithms to assess and predict people’s preferences for each other. “Say you score a 3 on the introvert scale, and a 6 on touchy-feely,” he told a reporter. “Will you tend to like somebody who’s practical?” His weAttract.com software purports to provide the answer. On the company’s website, amid close-ups of the faces of a strangely androgynous, snuggling couple, weAttract — whose software is used by Match.com — encourages visitors to “Find someone who considers your quirks adorable.” Fair enough. But the motto of weAttract — “Discover your instinctual preferences” — is itself a contradiction. If preferences are instinctual, why do you need the aid of experts like weAttract to discover them?
We need them because we have come to mistrust our own sensibilities. What is emerging on the Internet is a glorification of scientific and technological solutions to the challenge of finding love. The expectation of romantic happiness is so great that extraordinary, scientific means for achieving it are required — or so these companies would have you believe. For example, Emode, whose pop-up ads are now so common that they are the Internet equivalent of a swarm of pesky gnats, promotes “Tickle Matchmaking,” a service promising “accurate, Ph.D. certified compatibility scores with every member!”
The apotheosis of this way of thinking is a site called eHarmony.com, whose motto, “Fall in love for the right reasons,” soothes prospective swains with the comforting rhetoric of professional science. “Who knew science and love were so compatible?” asks the site, which is rife with the language of the laboratory: “scientifically-proven set of compatibility principles,” “based on 35 years of empirical and clinical research,” “patent-pending matching technology,” “exhaustively researched” methods, and “the most powerful system available.” As the founder of eHarmony told U.S. News & World Report recently, we are all too eager — desperate, even — to hustle down the aisle. “In this culture,” he said, “if we like the person’s looks, if they have an ability to chatter at a cocktail party, and a little bit of status, we’re halfway to marriage. We’re such suckers.” EHarmony’s answer to such unscientific mating practices is a trademarked “Compatibility Matching System” that promises to “connect you with singles who are compatible with you in 29 of the most important areas of life.” As the literature constantly reminds the dreamy romantics among us, “Surprisingly, a good match is more science than art.”
EHarmony’s insistence that the search for true love is no realm for amateurs is, of course, absurdly self-justifying. “You should realize,” their website admonishes, after outlining the “29 dimensions” of personality their compatibility software examines, “that it is still next to impossible to correctly evaluate them on your own with each person you think may be right for you.” Instead you must pay eHarmony to do it for you. As you read the “scientific” proof, the reassuring sales pitch washes over you: “Let eHarmony make sure that the next time you fall in love, it’s with the right person.”
In other words, don’t trust your instincts, trust science. With a tasteful touch of contempt, eHarmony notes that its purpose is not merely dating, as it is for megasites such as Match.com. “Our goal is to help you find your soul mate.” Four pages of testimonials on the website encourage the surrender to eHarmony’s expertise, with promises of imminent collision with “your” soul mate: “From the minute we began e-mailing and talking on the phone, we knew we had found our soul mate,” say Lisa and Darryl from Dover, Pennsylvania. “It took some time,” confessed Annie of Kansas City, Missouri, “but once I met John, I knew that they had made good on their promise to help me find my soul mate.”
Some observers see in these new “scientific” mating rituals a return to an earlier time of courtship and chaperoned dating. Newsweek eagerly described eHarmony as a form of “arranged marriage for the digital age, without the all-powerful parents,” and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead argues that the activities of the Internet love seeker “reflect a desire for more structured dating.” Promoters of these services see them as an improvement on the mere cruising of glossy photos encouraged by most dating sites, or the unrealistic expectations of “finding true love” promoted by popular culture. Rather, they say, they are like the chaperones of courtship past — vetting appropriate candidates and matching them to your specifications.
As appealing as this might sound, it is unrealistic. Since these sites rely on technological solutions and mathematical algorithms, they are a far cry from the broader and richer knowledge of the old-fashioned matchmaker. A personality quiz cannot possibly reveal the full range of a person’s quirks or liabilities. More importantly, the role of the old-fashioned matchmaker was a social one (and still is in certain communities). The matchmaker was embedded within a community that observed certain rituals and whose members shared certain assumptions. But technological matchmaking allows courtship to be conducted entirely in private, devoid of the social norms (and often the physical signals) of romantic success and failure.
Finally, most Internet dating enthusiasts do not contend with a far more alarming challenge: the impact such services have on our idea of what, exactly, it is we should be seeking in another person. Younger men and women, weaned on the Internet and e-mail, are beginning to express a preference for potential dates to break down their vital stats for pre-date perusal, like an Internet dating advertisement. One 25-year old man, a regular on Match.com, confessed to U.S. News & World Report that he wished he could have a digital dossier for all of his potential dates: “It’s, ‘OK, here’s where I’m from, here’s what I do, here’s what I’m looking for. How about you?’” One woman I spoke to, who has been Internet dating for several years, matter-of-factly noted that even a perfunctory glance at a potential date’s résumé saves valuable time and energy. “Why trust a glance exchanged across a crowded bar when you can read a person’s biography in miniature before deciding to strike up a conversation?” she said. This intolerance for gradual revelation increases the pace of modern courtship and erodes our patience for many things (not the least of which is commencement of sexual relations). The challenge remains the same — to find another person to share your life with — but we have allowed the technologies at our disposal to alter dramatically, even unrecognizably, the way we go about achieving it.
This impulse is part of a much broader phenomenon — the encroachment of science and technology into areas once thought the province of the uniquely intuitive and even the ineffable. Today we program computers to trounce human chess champions, produce poetry, or analyze works of art, watching eagerly as they break things down to a tedious catalog of techniques: the bishop advances, the meter scans, the paintbrush strokes across the canvas. But by enlisting machines to do what once was the creative province of human beings alone, we deliberately narrow our conceptions of genius, creativity, and art. The New York Times recently featured the work of Franco Moretti, a comparative literature professor at Stanford, who promotes “a more rational literary history” that jettisons the old-fashioned reading of texts in favor of statistical models of literary output. His dream, he told reporter Emily Eakin, “is of a literary class that would look more like a lab than a Platonic academy.”
Yet this “scientific” approach to artistic work yields chillingly antiseptic results: “Tennyson’s mind is to be treated like his intestines after a barium meal,” historian Jacques Barzun noted with some exasperation of the trend’s earlier incarnations. Critic Lionel Trilling parodied the tendency in 1950 in his book, The Liberal Imagination. By this way of thinking, Trilling said, the story of Romeo and Juliet is no longer the tragic tale of a young man and woman falling in love, but becomes instead a chronicle of how, “their libidinal impulses being reciprocal, they activated their individual erotic drives and integrated them within the same frame of reference.”
What Barzun and Trilling were expressing was a distaste for viewing art as merely an abstraction of measurable, improvable impulses. The same is true for love. We can study the physiological functions of the human heart with echocardiograms, stress tests, blood pressure readings, and the like. We can examine, analyze, and investigate ad nauseam the physical act of sex. But we cannot so easily measure the desires of the heart. How do you prove that love exists? How do we know that love is “real”? What makes the love of two lovers last?
There is a danger in relying wholly or even largely on science and technology to answer these questions, for it risks eroding our appreciation of the ineffable things — intuition and physical attraction, passion and sensibility — by reducing these feelings to scientifically explained physiological facts. Today we catalog the influence of hormones, pheromones, dopamine, and serotonin in human attraction, and map our own brains to discover which synapses trigger laughter, lying, or orgasm. Evolutionary psychology explains our desire for symmetrical faces and fertile-looking forms, even as it has little to tell us about the extremes to which we are taking its directives with plastic surgery. Scientific study of our communication patterns and techniques explains why it is we talk the way we do. Even the activities of the bedroom are thoroughly analyzed and professionalized, as women today take instruction from a class of professionals whose arts used to be less esteemed. Prostitutes now run sex seminars, for example, and a recent episode of Oprah featured exotic pole dancers who teach suburban housewives how to titillate their husbands by turning the basement rec room into a simulacrum of a Vegas showgirl venue.
Science continues to turn sex (and, by association, love and romance) into something quantifiable and open to manipulation and solution. Science and technology offer us pharmaceuticals to enhance libido and erectile function, and popular culture responds by rigorously ranking and discussing all matters sexual — from the disturbingly frank talk of female characters on Sex and the City to the proliferation of “blind date” shows which subject hapless love-seekers to the withering gaze of a sarcastic host and his viewing audience. “What a loser!” cackled the host of the reality television program Blind Date, after one ignominious bachelor botched his chance for a good night kiss. “The march of science,” Barzun wrote, “produces the feeling that nobody in the past has ever done things right. Whether it’s teaching or copulation, it has ‘problems’ that ‘research’ should solve by telling us just how, the best way.”
Why is the steady march of science and technology in these areas a problem? Shouldn’t we be proud of our expanding knowledge and the tools that knowledge gives us? Not necessarily. Writing recently in the journal Techné, Hector Jose Huyke noted the broader dangers posed by the proliferation of our technologies, particularly the tendency to “devalue the near.” “When a technology is introduced it, presumably, simply adds options to already existing options,” he writes. But this is not how technology’s influence plays out in practice. In fact, as Huyke argues, “as what is difficult to obtain becomes repeatedly and easily accessible, other practices and experiences are left out — they do not remain unchanged.” The man who sends an e-mail to his brother is not merely choosing to write an e-mail and thus adding to his range of communication options; he is choosing not to make a phone call or write a letter. A woman who e-mails a stranger on the Internet is choosing not to go to a local art exhibit and perhaps meet someone in person. “Communications technologies indeed multiply options,” says Huyke. “An increase in options, however, does not imply or even serve an advance in communications.” Technologies, in other words, often make possible “what would otherwise be difficult to obtain.” But they do so by eliminating other paths.
Love and genuine commitment have always been difficult to attain, and they are perhaps more so today since it is the individual bonds of affection — not family alliance, property transfer, social class, or religious orthodoxy — that form the cornerstone of most modern marriages. Yet there remains a certain grim efficiency to the vast realm of love technologies at our disposal. After a while, perusing Internet personal ads is like being besieged by an aggressive real estate agent hoping to unload that tired brick colonial. Each person points out his or her supposedly unique features with the same banal descriptions (“adventurous,” “sexy,” “trustworthy”) never conveying a genuine sense of the whole. Machine metaphors, tellingly, crop up often, with women and men willingly categorizing themselves as “high maintenance” or “low maintenance,” much as one might describe a car or small kitchen appliance. As an executive of one online dating service told a reporter recently, “If you want to buy a car, you get a lot of information before you even test-drive. There hasn’t been a way to do that with relationships.”
But we have been “test driving” something: a new, technological method of courtship. And although it is too soon to deliver a final verdict, it is clear that it is a method prone to serious problems. The efficiency of our new techniques and their tendency to focus on people as products leaves us at risk of understanding ourselves this way, too — like products with certain malfunctioning parts and particular assets. But products must be constantly improved upon and marketed. In the pursuit of love, and in a world where multiple partners are sampled before one is selected, this fuels a hectic culture of self-improvement — honing the witty summary of one’s most desirable traits for placement in personal advertisements is only the beginning. Today, men and women convene focus groups of former lovers to gain critical insights into their behavior so as to avoid future failure; and the perfection of appearance through surgical and non-surgical means occupies an increasing amount of people’s time and energy.
Our new technological methods of courtship also elevate efficient communication over personal communication. Ironically, the Internet, which offers many opportunities to meet and communicate with new people, robs us of the ability to deploy one of our greatest charms — nonverbal communication. The emoticon is a weak substitute for a coy gesture or a lusty wink. More fundamentally, our technologies encourage a misunderstanding of what courtship should be. Real courtship is about persuasion, not marketing, and the techniques of the laboratory cannot help us translate the motivations of the heart.
The response is not to retreat into Luddism, of course. In a world where technology allows us to meet, date, marry, and even divorce online, there is no returning to the innocence of an earlier time. What we need is a better understanding of the risks of these new technologies and a willingness to exercise restraint in using them. For better or worse, we are now a society of sexually liberated individuals seeking “soul mates” — yet the privacy, gradualism, and boundaries that are necessary for separating the romantic wheat from the chaff still elude us.
Perhaps, in our technologically saturated age, we would do better to rediscover an earlier science: alchemy. Not alchemy in its original meaning — a branch of speculative philosophy whose devotees attempted to create gold from base metals and hence cure disease and prolong life — but alchemy in its secondary definition: “a power or process of transforming something common into something precious.” From our daily, common interactions with other people might spring something precious — but only if we have the patience to let it flourish. Technology and science often conspire against such patience. Goethe wrote, “We should do our utmost to encourage the Beautiful, for the Useful encourages itself.” There is an eminent usefulness to many of our technologies — e-mail and cell phones allow us to span great distances to communicate with family, friends, and lovers, and the Internet connects us to worlds unknown. But they are less successful at encouraging the flourishing of the lasting and beautiful. Like the Beautiful, love occurs in unexpected places, often not where it is being sought. It can flourish only if we accept that our technologies and our science can never fully explain it.
Romance in the Information Age