The hopeless calculation of a romantic

I was sitting on the Tube the other day, with one eye scanning the faces of my fellow passengers - each so stamped with individuality yet so smeared by anonymity - while the other roved from a copy of the Communist Manifesto, which was open on my knee, to the advertisements on the panels above the windows. "It [the bourgeoisie] has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism," thundered Karl and Friedrich, "in the icy water of egotistical calculation." Taking a more emollient line, an ad for an online dating agency suggested: "What if 2011 could be the year you make a meaningful connection? We're eHarmony and we focus on helping people find deep and meaningful love."

But no! For: "The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation." And yet . . . "Last year, 4 per cent of American newly-weds said they met on eHarmony. That's an average of 542 people per day - more people than you could fit into this Tube carriage." Blimey, what a disturbing idea, I thought to myself: a steel cylinder bursting with such credulous and impassioned individuals. And I went on musing on how it was that the rise of computer matchmaking represented the burgeoning of a social group Marxism made no allowance for: sentimental philistines who are also egotistically calculating. Or, to put it in a kinder way, hopeless romantics who are nonetheless rationally optimistic.

Wysiwyg

On the face of it, there's nothing nuttier than imagining that the dizzying complexities of human interrelationship can be reduced to a few keystrokes. Even old-style lonely-hearts ads are vastly more personalised than computer dating sites. That you and your potential mate read the same newspaper or magazine means you belong to a community of sorts, while the complex codes encrypted in such ads speak volumes about shared assumptions - this is a distinctively socialised interplay of appearance and reality that can never be approximated by the crude metric of "matched" personality tests and photos.

To give just one example: when I lived up in Suffolk about 15 years ago, I used to read the lonely-hearts ads in the local paper (I read all the small ads, lingering with special and tender longing over such terse notices as: "Two MFI shelving units, £15 ONO" - but that's another story) and was struck by how every single advertiser was seeking someone with a "GSOH".

It didn't take long in East Anglia for one to realise quite how humourless its natives are and thus comprehend that this was the public expression of a deep and collective urge to be amused.

Love, digitally

When I got home from my bizarre Tube ride, I was predictably in two minds: should I join the Communist Party (assuming there was one available) or go on eHarmony to see what Isoldes were available for a Tristan like me? To begin with, the questions were slightly irritating: why give me an option for a Shinto or New Age life partner, but not someone pagan or Jedi? Having conceded that I wouldn't mind a lover from eight out of ten ethnic groups listed, it seemed churlish - or even racist - not to tick the remaining two.

But when I got into the body of the personality test, I began to find the exercise curiously enthralling. I liked being asked to accede to or resile from personal attributes and revealing statements on a seven-point scale that stretched from one ("Not at all"), through four ("Somewhat") to seven ("Very"). What a relief, after all these years, to be able to admit that I was "somewhat" compassionate; how soothing to concede that I do find controlling people irritating. Even when the questions pointed to the deepest imponderables of human existence - eHarmony people, is any of us truly "rational"? - I experienced catharsis through the mere act of supplying a trite answer.

By the time I reached the end and was confronted by the question, "How far are you willing to search for your lifelong love?" I realised that none of the options - 30 miles, 60 miles, countrywide, worldwide - expressed the exclusivity of my feelings, for the one I sought was wearing the same trousers as me. This is the sort of bourgeois individualism that communists the world over decry - but then, so do dating agencies. l

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