Technology isn't ruining modern dating – humans are

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

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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.