The heart as a consumer good
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"Tinder is how people meet. It’s like real life, but better." So reads the slogan of one of the world’s most populated and powerful apps.
Ostensibly designed to allow people to meet, Tinder is — in both design and practice — a dating app designed to encourage, develop, and foster romantic relationships.
Naturally, people use Tinder for a number of different purposes: some use it for sex, others as a spurious distraction. For many, Tinder simply represents a real and convenient pathway to a romantic relationship. But are these people looking for love in the wrong place?
The official number of users on Tinder isn’t public knowledge, but estimates place it somewhere between 10 and 50 million people who swipe left or right through over 1 billion profiles a day. The app also boasts better user engagement than either Facebook or Instagram.
This shouldn’t be remotely surprising. Facebook is usually used to keep in touch with friends and family, to be involved in their lives. Instagram seems more about projecting a visual narrative of one’s life while consuming the narratives of others. Tinder is (for many, at least), about love, and social imperatives tell us that the successful pursuit of love is an intrinsic element of – or even synonymous with – living a fulfilled and happy life.
Keeping in touch with friends and family, or knowing which artisan cafe served their avocado on spelt this morning is certainly important, but it is unsurprising that finding the person with whom one becomes "one tree and not two," as Louis de Bernieres describes in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, would occupy more of one’s time.
On Tinder, the quest for love is made more efficient. Single men and women don’t need to waste time in half-hour conversations only to learn their interlocutor is taken, gay, straight, incompatible, or about to join the Peace Corps. Still, it seems to me — admittedly, a married man who has never used Tinder — that something is lost in the efficiency of Tinder; something that goes beyond an accidental change in the way our society practices romance, and strikes at the heart of love itself.
Think about the process involved in "falling in love" on Tinder. It begins, like so many others, with attraction. A photo and a short description are presented to be judged: attractive or unattractive? Left or right? After that initial judgement, if both people are interested, short messages are exchanged with the possibility of a meet-up where, presumably, true love can flourish. If the relationship stays in the space of the chat, it cannot generate erotic or romantic love – these require an interaction with the embodied person.
However, by the time the physical meeting between the two potential lovers has occurred, Tinder has already set a dynamic that is directly opposed to the generation of love — safety. On Tinder, anonymity and distance protect a user from being vulnerable to the Other, and empowers them to control the conditions under which they will reveal themselves. Photos are carefully selected, descriptions crafted, and on these conditions individuals are chosen or rejected as lovers.
C.S. Lewis describes love as a condition defined in part by its vulnerability: "love anything and your heart will possibly be broken." This modern love, by comparison, denies that vulnerability by allowing the initial judgements to take place from a safe distance.Alain Badiou calls this "safety first" love:
"love comprehensively insured against all risks: you will have love, but will have assessed the prospective relationship so thoroughly, will have selected your partner so carefully by searching online – by obtaining, of course, a photo, details of his or her tastes, date of birth, horoscope sign, etc. – and putting it all in the mix you can tell yourself: ‘This is a risk-free option!’"
Tinder-inspired love creates an environment that needs to be undone before love can develop: conditionality and self-protection. The Tinder partner is judged by a certain condition set and is accepted on those conditions. If he or she fails to fulfil the conditions promised, the relationship will end. Here there is a manifest failure to be open to the Other as an equal; they are consumed on the screen, and later consumed in the physical world as well.
This comes very close to what Soren Kierkegaard saw as the lowest kind of love – based entirely in the erotic. Kierkegaard thought love was frequently selfish, aiming to obtain something we ourselves lack from the Other. We consume the other person, whose value is defined relative to our own needs. Our gaze upon the Other commodifies him or her.
That being said, technology is only a thing, and it can’t itself determine or alter radically the course of human history. What can change is us and our attitudes – and new technologies often bring to the surface, intensify, or normalise beliefs and behaviours that already existed. Much of what I’ve described here happens every day in pubs, on public transport, and in countless ordinary human interactions: we engage with other people as objects first, and only later come to appreciate their full personhood.
In this sense, Tinder hasn’t changed the nature of dating or set love on a causal path to ruin. What it has done is highlight and encourage attitudes that might be better unencouraged. It feeds into illusory beliefs we already have – that love can be made safe from risk, that we can predict the type of people who we might fall in love with, and that love is always conditional.
Of course, Tinder puts all these beliefs on steroids. Although lots of people hold these beliefs when they walk into a bar, they aren’t required to. Our interactions in the physical world are far less regulated, making possible different kinds of gazes – some less consumerist and risk-averse. Tinder, by contrast, provides only one possible way of viewing the Other: its very structure — only allowing extremely limited information to be provided, focussing on physical appearance and relying on a polarised decision (accept or reject) — demands and facilitates risk aversion, conditional relationships and a consumerist attitude to the Other.
Many will look at this argument as trumped-up romanticism, and it is. But recall that I’m focussing here only on those who are using Tinder as a means to finding love in a deeper sense than that described by casual sexual encounters, friendships, or playful banter over chat to be submitted to a comic Instagram or Twitter account.
Perhaps romantics should simply not use Tinder? If you’re looking for something serious, log off and find another dating app, or stick to the physical world. But it might not be that simple: the growing power of Tinder means it’s no longer just an app, it is quickly dominating the landscape of romance in the Western Zeitgeist. Even those who don’t want what Tinder represents will be forced to confront those attitudes as they slowly trickle down into other interactions between people.
In this, also, Tinder isn’t alone. In the long run it might have some effect on how we approach and understand dating, but it is itself the product of existing values. There was a market for Tinder before it was created, and the beliefs that lay at Tinder’s foundation existed well before it. Indeed, they existed before apps did, and probably before online dating forums of any kind.
It might seem predictable to say, but capitalism appears to be indicted here. A society that encourages possession, consumption and individual needs satisfaction is antithetical to vulnerable, open, other-regarding love. It also inoculates us from the reality of what we are doing when we swipe left: we are so desensitised by a society that consumes images – news, pornography, film, television, advertising — that human beings, embodied persons with lives, feelings and stories of their own are also ripe for consumption.
As Badiou notes, risk-free (or, perhaps more accurately, risk-averse love) is only risk averse for one person:
"If you have been well trained for love, following the canons of modern safety, you won’t find it difficult to dispatch the other person if they do not suit. If he suffers, that’s his problem, right?"
The point is not that those on Tinder can’t take risks, or don’t experience true love. It’s that Tinder itself (alongside some other types of online dating, mainstream pornography, reality television and other reductive treatments of humanity) seems to embody some of love’s essential features, and so the collateral damage might outweigh the net gain. It may be possible to successfully move romance online, but it will take a more comprehensive app than Tinder to do it.
Matthew Beard, is an Australian philosopher and ethicist. He holds a PhD in philosophy on the subject of just war theory, and is currently a Research Associate in the Centre for Faith, Ethics and Society at the University of Notre Dame, Australia. His primary areas of research are military ethics, post-war experiences of military personnel, and applied ethics; topics on which he has published articles, book chapters, consulted, and spoken internationally. He can be found on Twitter. This article has been republished with permission from the Religion and Ethics section of abc.net.au