October 2, 2015

Technology-assisted dating in the 1800s and 2010s

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Recently, I read two books that address mankind’s experience when faced with finding romance through new technologies, albeit one instance in the 1800s and another today: Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet (2014) and Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance (2015).

The bulk of Ansari’s book is focused squarely on how dating in today’s digital age is markedly different from the past when one was forced to date in-person and/or through communication formats that required a more physical, personal presence. Mobile or app texting has become such an essential communication tool in dating that we have now developed two selves: a “phone self” and a “real-world self,” whereby our phone selves are defined by the perceptions that others have formed of us based on what texts we sent them.

His main critique of this medium is that “texting facilitates flakiness and rudeness and many other personality traits that would not be expressed in a phone call or an in-person interaction.” And because of this ability to communicate with very little accountability or linkage to our real-world selves, people capitalize on the fact that they can get away with bad behaviour so easily. As such, they become much more uninhibited about the way that they express themselves, which often leads to results that come off as inconsiderate or hurtful. This is especially true when paired with the fact that conciseness as a form of casualness is highly prized in texting and therefore an added pressure that encourages us to exclude explanations and present ourselves in ways that we otherwise might not, verbally or in-person, in order to preserve our self-images.

However, in light of Standage’s The Victorian Internet, that these bad behaviours are exacerbated by a protective layer of impersonality is not an entirely novel happenstance in the history of human interactions through technology. More specifically, the technology he refers to is the electric telegraph, the precursor to today’s Internet, which connected the globe and “unleashed the greatest revolution in communications since the development of the printing press.” Throughout his book, Standage explores the range of wrong-doings that accompanied the advent of the telegraph and cumulatively views them as a demonstration of society’s tendency to blame problems that are facilitated by new technologies on the technologies themselves.

His chapter entitled, “Love over the Wires,” is devoted to examples of romances that were made possible by the telegraph. These romances ranged from inconsequential flirtations between people who had never met, to long-distance dating, to marriages. As Standage writes, “Spies and criminals are invariably among the first to take advantage of new modes of communication. But lovers are never far behind.” Within the first few months of the telegraph being opened to the public, “on-line wedding[s]” took place, and strict regulations between female and male operators were enforced to keep flirtations at bay. “Romances of the Telegraph,” an article published in Western Electrician in 1891, detailed numerous examples of couples who met each other over telegraph lines and sustained their relationships that way. Predictably enough, the varied results of such unions were strikingly similar to the varied results of relationships that happen over text today. Both flaky and considerate people who dated using fast communication tools existed in the Victorian age, just as they do now.

It makes me wonder to what degree the human experience has changed with regard to courtship, irrespective of what new technologies we’ve employed to assist it. Although the world is infinitely more connected now, and there are many more options as a result, the concept of ‘The Game’ has always existed: the vacillation between expressing our true feelings and hiding them in order to uphold the self-images that we’ve created and would like others to see us as. We humans are proud. We do not like being vulnerable or losing, so we play games with each other. The only difference is that now we are able to play as many games as we want, with as many people as we want, whenever we want. This was not the case in the Victorian age. It seems that the dating process is far more exhausting today, the main reason for which can be largely attributed to the burden of immense choice.

On a more positive note, here is some pertinent advice from the Dalai Lama, whose insightful wisdom even on popular culture has impressed me ever since he remarked that Hollywood is “very bad for [his] eyes and a waste of time.” Concerning technology and our livelihoods’ dependence on it, he recommends the following: “I think technology has really increased human ability. But technology cannot produce compassion. We are the controller of the technology. If we become a slave of technology, then [that’s] not good.”

And that’s why he’s the Dalai Lama.

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