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Charlie Brooker thinks he hates Tinder – but Black Mirror says otherwise

Why the tech dystopia series is actually a vindication of dating apps.

Contains spoilers!

In October 2016, the creator of Black Mirror Charlie Brooker slammed online dating, calling the dating app Tinder “the ultimate gamification of romance”.

“It’s Pokémon GO for the heart,” he said, ranting about people meeting online “destroying the club scene” and accusing the app of putting users, “in a constant pattern of thinking there’s something better round the corner. And as we all know in life… there never is.”

Recently, he reiterated his bafflement at Tinder during an interview with NME, repeating that it is “gamifying relationships”. “It does look like a nightmare,” said the writer – who is married and admits he’s “so old now I don’t really know what it is”.

Brooker’s point-of-view isn’t particularly remarkable considering his tech-sceptic plotlines. Most episodes of Black Mirror – the fourth series of which has just hit Netflix – take place in some kind of dystopian world defined by the sinister over-use of technology (with some exceptions).

And Brooker has tackled online dating in this latest series, in the fourth episode “Hang the DJ”. It’s an unsettling yet affectionate piece of drama based on people pairing off for restricted periods of time set by an electronic coach, which gathers data to eventually couple them with the ultimate compatible life partner.

With a little gadget imposing what’s referred to as “The System” on Frank and Amy – who are falling in love despite being deemed an imperfect match – you can smell online dating snobbery bubbling: the soullessness of feeding an algorithm with human connections; the relentlessness of constantly meeting new matches; the absence of breakups or difficult conversations.

“What if actually all [The System is] doing is wearing us down?” asks Amy at one point, echoing Brooker’s characterisation of dating apps as a treadmill. “Putting us in one relationship after another, in random sequences. Each time you get a little bit more pliable, a little bit more broken, until eventually it coughs up the final offering and says that’s the one.”

And some viewers assume this is the message, despite the episode’s twist (Amy and Frank eventually match on a dating app in “real life” – they’ve been in a simulation all along).

In a piece headlined “Black Mirror Will Make You Want to Delete Tinder” in Haaretz, the writer argues that “Hang the DJ” will compel viewers to log off the app; The Atlantic calls it “Dystopian Dating”; Esquire described the episode as “coming for Tinder”; Wired warned that the series is taking “aim at dating apps” and tackling “the hell of modern dating” and in another piece found it “explores the emotional and technological limits of dating apps” and “perfectly captures the modern desperation of trusting algorithms to find us love”.

But actually, “Hang the DJ” vindicates modern dating. Brooker and co-creator Annabel Jones have given interviews admitting this episode has a bit more hope and humour than others, something that worked for them in the last season’s award-winning “San Junipero” episode (which also depicted an ultimately happy love story experienced via weird new technology).

But “Hang the DJ” said more good things about dating apps than perhaps the writers meant to.

Let’s look at what the episode condemns: strings of meaningless hook-ups, losing the art of the real-life relationship with all its awkwardness and pain, waiting for the non-existent One True Love, and relying on a machine for intimacy.

This is more of an indictment of pre-app dating.

Tinder and other similar apps have actually made people go on dates and sit down and talk, for one thing – surely more palatable to those clutching their pearls about “hook-up culture”. As Brooker himself notes, it used to be more common for people to approach each other in bars and clubs. The dinner date in “Hang the DJ” – though contrived by The System – is actually where we first ascertain a spark between Frank and Amy, and their personalities come through.

And as countless pieces against ghosting and poor break-up etiquette in general suggest, Tinder can evoke as much pain, rejection and angst as any IRL dating experience. It’s not soulless. It’s fraught with feeling.

And then there’s the One True Love fallacy. Pre-tech dating was definitely worse for this. An app that gives users the opportunity to date tens of millions of people at a swipe isn’t promoting that one perfect person; it benefits from the more matches you make.

So no, users aren’t working towards an impossible, perfect dream bereft of flaws invented by a machine; they’re meeting loads of people they might otherwise never have done, rich with humanity in their variety. And photos of zonked tigers.

Amy and Frank’s scorn at The System’s promise of finding their 99.8 per cent compatible match is born more of modern attitudes to dating; it’s The System that’s archaic.

That old-fashioned myth of the perfect partner is also condemned in series two’s “Be Right Back” episode, when a woman brings her dead boyfriend back via audiovisual and eventually physical material. Based on social media and unable to recreate his flaws and quirks, her One True Love turns out to be a burden she can never escape. If only she’d been able to download Tinder.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist