Love in the Time of Algorithms: What Technology Does to Meeting and Mating
272 pp., $25.95
Mating Intelligence Unleashed: The Role of the Mind in Sex, Dating, and Love
Oxford University Press, 2013
320 pp., $31.95
Unexpectedly, this insight made sense of a parenting strategy my father employed with his daughters, which I felt frequently hurt by during my youth. As my sister and I were growing up, Dad frequently de-emphasized physical beauty, stressing that character mattered much more. Since we were growing up in a world that clearly valued beauty, however, I often took Dad's reluctance to call us "beautiful" as a sign that we lacked value and the key trait necessary for relational success. Though I've subsequently worked through a lot of the identity issues underlying my distorted perspective, something clicked while reading Geher and Kaufman. Dad wanted us to pursue a long-term relational strategy. That's what he was after.
The fact that I could so grossly misunderstand him speaks not just to his imperfect parenting and my own fallible judgment, but to the power of a culture that overwhelmingly stresses the traits most valuable for short-term mating. Its power to do so may partly stem from the sort of technological changes that interest Slater. As Neil Postman noted in his classic jeremiad, Amusing Ourselves to Death, you can't do philosophy by smoke signal. For the same reasons Richard Nixon lost his first televised debate, youth and beauty trump character in the ascendant media of our day (not to say that Nixon provided the character to JFK's youth!). Thus, even if we were to regularly encounter an equal number of messages promoting short-term and long-term mating strategies, we would likely find the former more compelling. Just think about how many Facebook links you've clicked because the preview included an interesting image. Do you click image-free links as often? Probably not.
If one extends this reasoning to online-dating sites, it's not hard to see which type of relationship fares best. Despite sites like eHarmony, and online dating's conduciveness to finding like-minded singles, the medium is inherently better suited to showing physical attractiveness than the character that matters for the long-term. Not surprisingly, mobile-based dating's first big success, the app Grindr, has "a reputation for facilitating sex on the fly," Slater says. And why wouldn't it? Smartphone users are notoriously impatient in their web browsing, a trait likely to discourage the wordier profiles most valued by long-term mating strategists. By dint of the medium, apps built for short-term mating are more likely to succeed.
What does all this mean for relationships? As with many shifts tied to the digitization of culture, no one can say with certainty. In my own life, I find myself wanting books (books with paper and binding and heft) and CDs or even LPs for things I plan to regularly consult for a long while. For shorter-term experiences, though, such as reading the morning news, I confess a keen preference for the dustless online format that won't accumulate in a large, mostly unread recycling pile. Perhaps, too, online dating sites will evolve to become the preference of those seeking short-term mates. Maybe sites for those seeking long-term partners will find ways to showcase character, such as video testimonials from friends.
Though one could easily fret over all this change—I certainly mourn the decline of handwritten correspondence—I tend to agree with Slater that "technology is neutral"; how it facilitates good and bad outcomes depends on us, the people using it. And while, as a Christian, I believe that all of us are fallen, sinful creatures, I also believe that nothing can remove the divine imprint spurring us to make music, tell stories, and form rich and lasting communities.
Anna Broadway is the author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity (WaterBrook) and a contributor to the anthology Faith at the Edge (Ave Maria). She also writes for the Her.meneutics blog. She lives near San Francisco.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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