I didn’t exactly throw my heart into trying Tinder. After eight years out of the dating pool, during an explosive evolution of technosocial perversion,1 I was faced with a system that prided itself on instant judgement. Every lesson from every romance movie was useless, which was okay because most of those lessons are about stalking, but even the good one2 and the mediocre ones about getting over your first impressions were of no use. The OkCupid renaissance of making online dating a not exclusively cautionary tale gave way to a nothing-but-net sorting algorithm.
The algorithm isn’t a Steve Zuckergate monster: It’s a neurological response to the infinite choice problem that makes the average salaryman spend as much time scrolling through Netflix as they do watching anything. Is this precisely what I want at the exact moment? Is there something slightly better suited to my mood at this time? It’s a losing search, because the mood changes as options scroll by, each one exciting memories and preferences, altering desire. The longer the search goes on, the more the original mood changes, and the more desperate it becomes, as old movies activate nostalgia and new movies activate curiosity, but no! The mood must be satisfied, even as the mood begins leveling out. Engorged by impulses, the velocity of attention is pushed by so many forces it cannot move, and eventually escapes to some well worn path in a bid for the homeostatic mood it has already achieved, unless a heroic act of will pushes it to take a risk on how it will feel in twenty minutes, passive regrets be damned.
Tinder is easier, because sex.
The endless choice is still there, but the UI is a simpler choice between no and maybe, and you must make some instant decision to move on, so you can make the next choice. Yet not knowing the path doesn’t deter the effects of its infinite length. “There will always be more” is the promise of the information age and everything it touches, even though it’s a flat and feeble lie: your life is paid for in time. The infinite access that expedites obtaining what you desire drains all that saved time when you’re not quite sure what you want. Tinder’s hidden potential makes it a rush to the future, to see more, to gather sexual karma, to see what hidden potential might be out there, to put more cards of possibility under the belt.
It creates the same flatline mood as Netwaffling, but adds a nervous left right tic to the equation, to stunt the mood further, even as it creates a libido-fueled stimulus addiction.
After a few thousand swipes, I found new depths of bigotry in my soul. Judgmentalism and misogyny and a thousand trained responses from past selves turned out not to be as dead as my self-satisfied reason wanted to believe. I established a rhythm of telling myself I wasn’t taking it seriously while still applying instinctive preferences, based on the averaged model of happy memories of dates and sex, curated by every event that ever made me doubt myself.
Since life is short there were an infinite number of options to get through, the list of reasons to reject an anonymous stranger grew:
- Too happy
- Too sad
- No you are not holding up the Tower of Pisa
- Same smile in every picture
- Too many pictures of jumping
- Too many pictures of Machu Picchu
- No solo pictures, forcing me to identify the person by process of elimination
- Petting a tiger3
- Lists travel as a “hobby” or “addiction”
- Mentions astrological sign
- Works in finance
- Two pounds more/less than my current celebrity crush
- Has height requirement, regardless of whether or not I meet it
- Skin too dark without other obvious alluring traits
Written out explicitly, these range from strange to hypocritical to Nazi-esque. And yeah, I’m “saying it like it is,” but what it is is a racist and misogynistic lifelong indoctrination into an image of beauty I mistake for a natural preference. Some of them are statistical nonsense: Too happy? Too sad? As if a single sliced moment out of a life reduces them to a supporting Disney character. At least having the same smile in ten pictures is demonstrably indicative of… something. When someone says they’re addicted to travel, at least I know they’ve never been addicted to anything or known anyone with an addiction, and, unrelated, are probably as insufferable as the budding astrologers.
Picking on women for having a height requirement is hypocritical. I have strict BMI requirements, but I don’t advertise that, which is all that barely saves me from being a complete hypocrite: I know this is shallow, and everybody should feel ashamed about this, so our children have a chance at being better. As long as I silently make a series of calculations based on shadows, angles, and relative limb thicknesses, my shame can stay in the dark corners where it belongs.
In person, a moving face expressing ideas automatically adds two dimensions by virtue of not being a photograph, and possibly many more depending on the ideas. A single picture belies the attempt to imagine attraction beyond what you imprint on a frozen headshot. As swiping speed increases, there’s no time to reframe my reactions in an acceptable manner, no time to try to learn from my presumptuous judgement. The unending flip flip flip of sexual judgements atrophies my ability to care. The superego erodes and the ego’s job is reduced to efficiently providing more candy to the id. Childhood basic training kicks in: Derision and irrational hatreds of imagined people behind these stills takes over, holding hands with the self-loathing slowly growing as I stare at a reflection of my greedy, bitter, entitled nature, and together they spin toward the vortex of xenophobic mental hatefucking. Tinder is potential porn, covertly carrying all the same baggage as actual porn.
More brevity; less melodrama: I axed anyone who was a standard deviation outside a naive fantasy I described to my grade school friends under cover of sleeping bag, flashlight, and virginity. It was regression to the dumb.
Where was I. Oh: I didn’t exactly throw my heart into it. I dusted off the eight-year-old picture on my abandoned OkCupid profile and slapped it on Tinder. Since I don’t have kids or work in finance, I’m aging slowly, but over the last eight years my face did approximately what Mark Hamill’s face did between Empire and Jedi. Clearly the same guy, and it’s not like his humorless gaze is turning anyone to stone, but it’s jarring and you spend a few minutes wondering what kind of drugs he must be doing, until the lightsaber comes out.
When my first Tinder date arrived, her face did that thing actors’ faces do when they’re pretending to pretend to hide disappointment. In good movies, this is an awkward moment; in bad movies, somebody’s charm saves the day, or one of the characters involved is ugly so they make ugly jokes and everybody gets to laugh at someone.
So two seconds in, before a word had been spoken, I knew the date was over. But I’d dragged myself to the financial district for this, so I was getting drunk, and might as well do it with my date. I even attempted to be nice and entertaining, but she was boring, which made me feel a bit better about the whole thing.
There are microexpression experts who can pick out a lie at fifty meters and a glance; I’m an amateur, more aware of my own subtle mood changes and track them back to other people’s microsignaling. Nearly everybody signals and reacts unconsciously, and it’s no less real for its opacity. My date and I felt some cultural obligation not to waste a commute, so we had time to recognize each other as decentish human beings merely disappointing each other. Most of these signals don’t get resolved, instead sinking into the daily static of thinking that invariably finds a way to justify itself. Especially when it’s been fortified with a daily regimen of succumbing to its own weaknesses to more efficiently speed through an illusion of infinite choice.
We parted ways, and headed back to a civilization capitalizing on our unconscious tics, training us with microdoses of adrenaline to double down on our own bullshit.