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.