The good old days? Photo: Getty.
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Technology isn't ruining modern dating – humans are

Dating apps don't change what we want, they just gives us better access to it. 

The internet is ruining everything, right? It ruined teenagers. It ruined sex. And now, according to a big feature in this month’s Vanity Fair, it’s ruining dating

The piece, by investigative journalist Nancy Jo Sales (best-known for her writing on the Bling Ring) opens on a savage vista: a Manhattan bar, where “everyone is drinking, peering into their screens and swiping on the faces of strangers they may have sex with later that evening”. A financial worker tells Sales he hopes to “rack up 100 girls” in bed per year, and has slept with five in the past eight days. “We don’t know what the girls are like”, his friend chips in. They just sleep with them. 

Sales' piece is headlined “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse’”, and from here on out she inextricably links these woman-hating bros and their ilk with the rise of dating apps. The piece’s most convincing point centres on the "easiness” of online and app dating, a word that crops up again and again in Sales’ interviews. This easiness, David Buss, a psychology professor, tells her, changes the nature of demand:

When there is a surplus of women, or a perceived surplus of women, the whole mating system tends to shift towards short-term dating. Marriages become unstable. Divorces increase. Men don’t have to commit, so they pursue a short-term mating strategy."

(As Sales points out in the piece, Buss’s gendering of his theory seems a little unnecessary – the effect works both ways.)

As striking as this point is, it, and the piece’s underlying assumptions, are worth re-examining. My initial reaction while reading the opening lines of Sales’ piece was: “Well, it is Manhattan.” Sales’ two main groups of case studies are visitors to a bar in New York’s financial district and college students, neither of which have ever been known for their taste in mature, long-lasting relationships.  

This raises the suspicion that dating apps' effect within these communities is a self-fulfilling prophecy. At its base, technology is a revolution in logistics, not in psychology or sociology – it gives us better access to the things we already lust after; it doesn't change the nature of the lust itself. 

In a piece for the Guardian on the psychology of online dating, business psychology professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic notes (emphasis mine): 

Like any successful internet service, Tinder enables people to fulfil some basic evolutionary and social needs… we tend to overestimate the impact of technology on human behaviour; more often than not, it is human behaviour that drives technological changes and explains their success or failure.

Technology is created by humans to meet existing desires, otherwise it wouldn’t be profitable, and, as any Silicon Valley investor knows, profitability is all.

Twine, a new dating app, will inevitably cause controversy at launch, because it allows daters to select openers from a pre-written list based on your match's interests ("Would you agree that George Michael is fab?" is one excruciating suggestion). "These apps have stripped us of our ability to converse!" commentators will, inevitably, cry. But if the app takes off, it'll be because icebreakers, and even sexual relationships light on conversation, are as old as humanity itself. 

Sales' piece really investigates hook-up culture, not dating apps, and her choice of apps as a root cause seems like a mix-up between causality and correlation. Clickhole’s “What The Rise Of Hookup Culture Means For Everyone But You” excellently parodies the way hook-up culture is constantly pushed in front of us as a source of moral panic, despite the fact that those uninterested in it are unlikely to be affected by it. One study carried out by dating site PlentyOfFish.com found that anyone who included the word "love" in their profile was more likely to find it than other users – they weren’t sucked into a disposable hook-up culture, simply because they weren’t interested in it. 

I asked several twenty-somethings in London (who, by the way, were not financiers or students) whether apps had changed dating, and most focused on how apps have changed the logistics of dating. One Twitter user argued that people date “with more frequency now” as a result of dating apps, but, referring to Sales’ slimy male interviewees, “emotionless preening dick-drones exist in every era”.

Matt*, 22, told me:

Dating apps have changed the pace of dating and romance. Everything is sped up, and things are expected to progress more quickly. If not, you've probably missed the boat, and your digital beau might have moved on to the next right-swipe that ticks their boxes.

Anna*, 26, however, argues that apps change something fundamental in the way we view our dates:

People have become less real and more disposable to each other – apps have dehumanised dating to a certain extent, with people falling for a virtual version of each other that can be easily replaced by countless other people at the swipe of a thumb.

This is convincing, especially as dating profiles are notoriously unrepresentative of the person behind them. However, it’s also true that in any fast-paced dating scene – among young professionals in any major city, say – the same effect is surely at play, as the next date could be waiting at the next party or bar. 

Take these two scenarios: in the first, you give your number to someone in a dark bar after a short conversation, then message for a while, and meet up for a date. In the second, you see a few badly lit Tinder photos, message for a while, and meet up for a date. Are these really so different that they could fundamentally change the way we interact with that person? 

One of Sales' particularly unapealling interviewees, 25-year-old “Alex” tells her: 

Romance is completely dead, and it’s the girls’ fault. They act like all they want is to have sex with you and then they yell at you for not wanting to have a relationship. How are you gonna feel romantic about a girl like that? Oh, and by the way? I met you on Tinder.

Do we really think Alex would have been a sensitive romantic if he'd been born 50 years ago? As with any other aspect of technology that has inserted itself into our daily life, it’s tempting to attribute social trends to the mode of dating, not the people doing it. But that’s giving technology too much credit: if people want a disposable dating culture, they’ll seek it out, with or without apps.  

All dating apps (or, frankly any apps) have done is give us easier access to what we wanted all along. If the results are unpalatable, that’s our problem, not Tinder’s.

*Names have been changed to protect respondents' online dating reputations. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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Man makes $4bn in two days explaining Facebook to old people

Mark Zuckerberg's supposed blockbuster grilling by Congress was the bust it was always going to be, and he went home victorious largely by default.

On Tuesday a crowd gathered on social media for what promised to be a generation-defining moment, like the moon landing, or the OJ bronco chase. There was an air of tension. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, was about to be dragged before the public and made to answer the Questions Of The People.

Many tuned in expecting a spectacle: namely, that of a socially awkward – albeit spectatularly wealthy – geek (like the one portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network) get absolutely tarred and feathered. Twitter filled with jokes as the crowd grew impatient. Some of them were even good.

They underestimated Zuckerberg. Expectations for his performance before a series of committees of both houses of the US congress started out lower than subterranean. Yet even at the start, the 33-year-old billionaire did look absolutely terrified. Blinking vacantly in the strobe-flashes of the cameras, his expression while he sat listening to the senators’ seemingly-endless introductory remarks was not so much lost as “404 not found”.

But over the course of an often-agonising ten total hours of testimony before a joint sitting of the Senate commerce, science, and transportation committee, and the judiciary committee on Tuesday, and the House energy and commerce committee on Wednesday, Zuckerberg managed to come out not just unscathed but victorious.

In recent years, the Facebook CEO has made an effort to learn to be a more disciplined public speaker and a more responsive interviewee. On top of that, in preparation for this appearance Zuckerberg hired a crack team of outside consultants and lawyers to coach him, and even held mock hearings to hone his answers and manner, the New York Times reported. His investment paid dividends: Zuckerberg spoke with a glossy confidence and gave an effective and assured – though somewhat robotic – performance which left many of the lawmakers visibly charmed. He largely avoided answering questions he didn’t want to, and no lawmaker was able to press him to the point where he became visibly physically uncomfortable, as he has in the past.

It was possible to watch the Zuckerberg charm offensive play out in real time, not just on social media but on the financial markets. As soon as he began to talk, Facebook stock began to rise, and apart from a bit of a dip on Wednesday morning it pretty much never stopped. On Tuesday Zuckerberg’s confidence before the Senate committee gave Facebook shares their best single day of trading in two years, closing 4.5 per cent up. By the time Zuckerberg finished answering questions on Wednesday afternoon the stock price increase meant his own personal net worth had gone up by just under $4bn.

Far from the meltdown that many tuned in expecting to see, viewers were treated to Zuckerberg dealing patiently and even-temperedly with questions that occasionally betrayed a lack of even a basic conception of how the internet works, let alone Facebook. Some of his interrogators, especially in the Senate hearing on Tuesday, barely seemed to understand their own prepared questions even as they read them aloud.

This allowed Zuckerberg to get off considerably more lightly than he appears to have been expecting. A tantalising glimpse into the hearing we could have had was given to us when Zuckerberg accidentally left his sheet of notes open on the table when he left the hearing-room for a break. The notes, which were photographed, show that he was prepared for broader existential questions on subjects like workplace diversity and European privacy regulation which sadly, in the end, went largely unasked.

Instead, some lawmakers used their time to throw dozens of redundant questions to which we already knew the answers. Zuckerberg at times looked like he was struggling to suppress his obvious delight at answering questions which contained fundamental errors, causing howls of frustration on Twitter from the watching tech press, who understood the opportunity missed. Other times, lawmakers threw softballs, leading to such scintillating exchanges as the following, between Zuckerberg and Dan Sullivan, a Republican senator from Alaska:

SULLIVAN: Mr Zuckerberg, quite a story, right? Dorm room to the global behemoth that you guys are. Only in America, would you agree with that?

ZUCKERBERG: Senator, mostly in America.

SULLIVAN: You couldn't – you couldn't do this in China, right? Or, what you did in 10 years.

ZUCKERBERG: Well – well, Senator, there are – there are some very strong Chinese Internet companies.

SULLIVAN: Right, but you're supposed to answer “yes” to this question.

The main problem was the format didn't lend itself to a genuine search for insight. That's because any time it got half-way interesting, such as in an early exchange with South Dakota senator John Thune on the technical and linguistic difficulties involved in teaching AI bots how to accurately spot hate-speech, the dialogue would be abruptly cut off as each successive legislator ran up against their four-minute time limit.

Some legislators didn’t even bother trying to ask key questions about privacy and data protection, but instead decided to fawn or grandstand. Ted Cruz took an audaciously pompous line of questioning about how he felt Facebook was biased against the political right – without mentioning, of course that he actually ranked among Cambridge Analytica’s political clients.

The lack of coordination and preparation among his interlocutors allowed Zuckerberg time and again to cast Facebook as a company exists only to make people's lives better now and forever, rather than as a for-profit surveillance organisation. Time was wasted explaining over and over that, no, Facebook does not literally “sell data”, though John Cornyn, a senator from Texas, did pull off probably Tuesday night’s only true zinger with his muttered riposte: “well, you clearly rent it”.

There were some exceptions. California Democratic senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, almost drew blood with a searing, sustained enquiry into whether there had been, when the company learned that user data had been shared with Cambridge Analytica, “a discussion that resulted in a decision not to inform your users”. In one of the few moments of the entire proceeding in which Zuckerberg found himself on the back foot, Harris pressed home the question a brutal seven times before her allotted four minutes were up.

His appearance before the House committee on Wednesday was testier in general but not much more enlightening. Anna Eshoo, a Democratic representative from California, scolded Zuckerberg for the opacity of the site’s terms and conditions, telling him: “you have to make it transparent, clear, in pedestrian language, just once, ‘This is what we will do with your data. Do you want this to happen, or not?’” Others pressed Zuckerberg for action controlling the sale of opioids on the Facebook platform. Zuckerberg nodded, smiled, and made the correct engaging noises at the appropriate times.

Despite his polish, the moments when Zuckerberg came closest to slipping up his mistakes were largely own goals rather than the result of incisive questioning. One particularly embarassing slip-up came during the Senate hearing when he accidentally answered “yes” to the question of whether the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election had served Facebook with subpoenas. Scrambling, he hastily muddied the waters a few moments later with: “actually, let me clarify that. I actually am not aware of a subpoena. I believe that there may be, but I know we're working with them.”

Mostly, though, Zuckerberg was poised enough to avoid any question he didn’t want to answer either by promising to “have people look into it and get back to you” or with a robotically careful line like “I am not specifically aware of that.” If faced with a tough question, he could simply run down the clock for four minutes until the questioner's time ran out. And the more he talked, the more Facebook stock soared.

In the end, the most interesting part of the hearing wasn’t what was said in the room itself but in watching it all play out on social media, where commentators from the two different worlds of technology and politics collided at the same real-time event. The conversation was split right down the middle into two distinct groups: those mainly frustrated and confused by Zuckerberg’s jargon-laden technobabble, and those mainly frustrated and confused by the lawmakers’ inability to understand the basic working principles of Facebook or even the internet – though mostly they agreed with each other on their distaste for Ted Cruz.

If nothing else, it was illuminating to see just how wide the gulf between those two worlds was.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.