To Swipe Or Not To Swipe?

Love, Technology & Tinder

By Professor Gordon Graham (Princeton Theological Seminary)

February 14, 2017         Picture: Mike Blake/Reuters.

This is a preview article for The Critique’s upcoming 2018 Valentine’s Day Issue “What Is Love? Friendship, Sex, And Romance In The 21st Century.”

I. Technological Innovation and its consequences

The history of the world over the last century and a half has been remarkable for a large number of dramatic advances in technology – motorcars, the airplane, radio, telephone, television, magnetic resonance imaging, and most recently of course, digital technology and the internet. How we assess the significance of this history is a reflection of how we understand technology. There is a very common tendency to regard even the most impressive technology simply as a matter of improved means to previously existing ends. Regarded in this light, technological innovations are valuable because they enable us to do things more easily and/or cost effectively than we did them hitherto. So, for instance, electric light is cleaner, cheaper and safer than gas mantles. The invention of the car enabled people to take longer journeys more quickly and comfortably than they had with horse and carriage. Keyhole surgery proved a great advance because it secured the same health benefits as open surgery, but much less intrusively and with far fewer risks of complication. In a similar fashion, it is easy to think, that the huge advances in information technology and electronic communication that the world has witnessed over the last few decades, can be understood primarily as greatly improved means to long established ends. Email is an advance on snail mail, say, because it is a faster, cheaper, more reliable way of sending messages, and makes it much easier to duplicate the same message to multiple recipients. Or again, online shopping offers greater choice, better prices, easier comparisons and requires far less effort than a trip to the store or the retail park.

All these examples seem to illustrate a general truth — that technological advance can be characterized as the invention of better means to given ends. But while this inference may sound like simple common sense, it does not take much additional reflection to see that the relationship of means to ends is less static and far more dialectical than these few examples suggest. New means do not merely serve the ends to which they are the means; they often change those ends in subtle ways, usually by making it possible to do things that were impossible formerly. For instance, the airplane goes further faster than the steamship. This difference can add a valuable few hours to the length of a vacation, but this little bonus hardly reflects its true impact. So enormous is the temporal difference between these two forms of transport that people can engage in activities they could never have contemplated before – shuttle diplomacy being an especially striking example. The same point can be made about many recent inventions, not least the innovations of ‘social media’ in the era of the smart phone. As has been demonstrated repeatedly, text messaging, Facebook and Twitter can be used to get a crowd together far more quickly and effectively than any hitherto existing methods, so much so that they have made ‘the instant crowd’ a significant phenomenon in a variety of political campaigns.

This same innovation, however, has had an impact on the nature of politics as such. In some quarters, the remarkable crowd-pulling abilities of social media has been thought to signal a new and effective realization of ‘power to the people’, and thus a way of remedying the ‘democratic deficit’ that troubles some political theorists. This would indeed be a remarkable result for a technological invention. There is good reason, however, to think that this ‘effect’ is illusory. The ability of social media to assemble a crowd of likeminded people in one specific place at one specific time has had the effect of rendering political leadership unnecessary. This means, certainly, that as ways of bringing a crowd on to the streets, Facebook and Twitter are deeply egalitarian. Pretty much anyone with a smart phone can start such a movement, and anyone and everyone can help it spread, regardless of knowledge, intention or motive. The result, though, as the phenomena of ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ illustrate, is that the crowd that appears, even if it is unmistakably political, generally lacks any specific political identity, and this is because it is leaderless. While the original posting or tweet is its initial cause, it is not a controlling cause. Consequently, though the crowd may be numerically very impressive, its lack of leadership means a lack of political direction, and without direction the political impact of the crowd is inevitably diffused. Occupy Wall Street was an impressively large ‘movement’, for a time, but because it did not need any Lenin or Martin Luther King to call it into existence, there was no Lenin or Martin Luther King to direct it to any specific purpose.

The illusion of political empowerment can be fostered by another consequence of the internet’s egalitarianism. Political pamphleteering has a long history, and there are some celebrated cases in which pamphleteering has played an important part in securing political change. Consider Tom Paine’s ‘Common Sense’, which first appeared six months before the Declaration of Independence and went through no less than fifty-six printings within a year. Paine, of course, had to find a publisher and distributor, and find a second publisher when the first one (in his judgment) had cheated him. It might seem that blogging has made almost everyone a potential Paine, but without any of the costs or difficulties he encountered. There is a sense in which this is clearly true, but precisely because of this fact the potential impact of any given blog is vanishingly small. On almost every issue everywhere there are thousands, and in some cases millions of blogs, so many that a blog’s ability to influence can be discounted. Either they are not read at all, or they are read only by the like-minded.

This is not to deny that when a large crowd has gathered in support of, or in opposition to, a particular event or policy, it may well have an effect on the subsequent course of politics, and the same thing can be true of tweets and blogs. The point rather is that the nature of that effect is not under the control of the crowd or the tweeter/blogger whose message first brought the crowd into existence. That is why talk of the ‘power’ of social media is deeply misleading, and why the rhetoric of ‘power to the people’ is illusory. The technical ability to cause large-scale events is only properly called a ‘power’ if those events can be controlled to ends desired and intended by those who have that technical ability. Since this is not the case, we are driven to the conclusion that though widely welcomed for its ability to ‘empower’ ordinary people, this new technology turns out, in reality, to be a form of their disempowerment – the generator of truly mass movements that go nowhere in particular, and so egalitarian a method of ‘pamphleteering’ that the expression of opinion is robbed of its influence.

Furthermore, it may be a technology that surreptitiously empowers hidden controlling agencies. As is now widely known and acknowledged, social media can be, and are, manipulated by those who have technical control of them – to gather and to disseminate information about users, to classify them into target ‘groups’, and thereby to create individual ‘profiles’ that are in fact composite identities. Such profiles, nevertheless, may significantly affect the lives of individuals in a variety of important ways, through selective communication or credit rating for example.


“The technical ability to cause large-scale events is only properly called a ‘power’ if those events can be controlled to ends desired and intended by those who have that technical ability.”


We do not have to suppose that all this is done for nefarious purposes. The motivation may be purely commercial. The point remains though, that as far as social impact goes, when it comes to digital technology, what you seem to see may not be what you get. This much we can say is certain; technological innovation can have ramifications far beyond the simple ‘new means to old ends’ conception with which we began. Yet more significantly, these ramifications may bring about changes in social norms and values that we only come to appreciate with hindsight. In the case we have been considering, for instance, it is plausible to hold that once the apparent empowerment of the crowd and the blogger is recognized as a sort of disempowerment, disillusion kicks in. What is the point of gathering on the streets or posting on Facebook if it leads to nothing? It is understandable that once people start to think in this way, they may become alienated from the political process, skeptical about its transparency, and even cynical about the value of political policies and social programs.


II. Social media and personal relationships

This is one example of how what initially seems like an interesting and valuable technological innovation can have unanticipated consequences for the norms and values by which we govern our lives. Other instances are not hard to find. It has been remarked many times that the enormous success of Facebook has given its use of the term ‘friend’ an impact very much wider than one would expect from what looks like an innocuously semi-technical term. The distinctions that people hitherto held to be important — between relatives, close friends and mere acquaintances — are subsumed in a far vaguer classification that allows pictures, personal preferences and confidential information to be ‘shared’ in a form that makes the number, and the nature, of the recipients, not only indeterminate, but effectively boundless. The indeterminate nature of this ‘sharing’ can be very damaging, especially since, as soon as they have been posted, personal text or images cannot be recovered. Just how destructive this can be for the lives of individuals has been recorded innumerable times. The more widespread and intangible effect has been to dilute the sphere of ‘personal privacy’ partly by leaving many people uncertain about what privacy means and why it matters. All this is in addition to the now notorious fact that, ironically, a fixation with ‘social media’ can make people very anti-social – unable to take part in conversations with people actually present because of distracting messages from absent ‘friends’. It is common to witness silence around a restaurant table with every member of the family looking at their cell phone.


“What is the point of gathering on the streets or posting on Facebook if it leads to nothing?”


It is possible to argue, however, that the very same social media, used in a different way, also have the power to promote and advance private life and personal relationships. If so, this is especially valuable because of globalization. It is a platitude that the world most people now live in is almost unrecognizable by the standards of earlier times. Modern methods of transport and communication have made us far better acquainted with geographically distant cultures, hugely increased mobility and thereby extended the range of opportunities beyond local boundaries and across the globe. Employers now actively engage in international not just national recruitment, economic migrants can easily obtain information about employment prospects in distant places, and in very large numbers the victims of war and civil conflict are able to leave their homelands to seek safety elsewhere as transnational refugees. There are thus many ways in which globalization has greatly enriched human experience.

On the other hand, it has also created a world in which individuals can easily become isolated and alienated. When stable family structures, life membership of a local community, and/or traditional patterns of employment have all been seriously weakened, or ceased to exist, individuals can find themselves at a loss. It becomes harder and harder to form relationships that last long enough to provide the framework for a life that is personally satisfying and emotionally fulfilling. It is precisely here, it is tempting to suppose, that the internet and social media can play a valuable role. If they can connect us intimately with strangers, then perhaps they can do so to the point of enabling us to find love. This explains both the rise of online dating agencies, and the motivational hope of many (possibly the majority), of those who use them. If the Internet has emptied ‘friendship’ of much that it previously meant, it may yet be the means by which distant strangers can be bought to fall in love.

There is nothing new about dating or matchmaking. These are venerable human practices, and once again, it seems, technological innovation has not only given us a new way of engaging in them, but one that may combat the alienating conditions of modernity. As we noted earlier, Facebook, Google and lots of other less well-known organizations use what they glean from our activities online to construct profiles that they can sell to advertisers, commercial enterprises, political parties, special interest groups and so on. At their best, however, these profiles amount to little more than detailed generalizations. At worst, they positively misrepresent the individual they are supposed to be profiling. But the Internet also seems to offer the complete antidote to this: the possibility of representing ourselves to a huge number of other people as we actually are, and not as some ingenious algorithm has construed us to be. Personal profiling is not confined to dating, of course. It is the basis of sites such as Linked-in where individuals and companies can ‘match’ professional accomplishments with job vacancies. In the case of online dating such as eHarmony or OkCupid, the aim is mutual personal matching. The profiles are meant to have a dimension that will enable them, in the context of indefinitely many profiles, to resonate with the handful of people whose own self-constructed profiles suggest the likelihood of personal rapport.

Anecdotally, online dating seems to work. That is to say, it is common to hear reports of cases in which total strangers met online and formed a lasting relationship. It might seem, then, that the success of online dating more generally is a fairly straightforward empirical matter. What proportion of cases have the result that these anecdotes recount? Actually, the statistics that would answer this question are probably very hard to gather (though eHarmony tells us confidently that ‘every day an average of 438 singles marry a match they found on eHarmony’). That is not the most important issue, however. Far more interesting is the question of what is to count as success. We can agree that never finding someone to go out on a date with must count as failure. The criterion of success, however, is not so easily established. What is a ‘lasting’ relationship? Has my participation in online dating been successful if I ‘connect’ sufficiently with someone to go out on not just one, but several dates? Must these dates lead to having sex, or going on vacation together, before the relationship can be said to be a ‘significant’ one? If we end up moving in together, how long does this have to last to count as ‘lasting’? Is the ‘lasting relationship’ more ‘successful’ if we marry (as eHarmony’s statistic implies), and does raising children together increase its success? These are all good questions, but there is no determinate answer to them. Part of the reason lies in the fact any one of these stages could be hailed as a ‘success’; it all depends on what the person who went online was hoping for in the first place.


III. Cost and benefit

This variable standard of ‘success’ matters in another way. If we apply cost/benefit analysis to our actions, and we often do, we will ask whether the outcome is worth the time and effort that we put into securing it. This obviously depends on what that outcome is. Securing a life-long marriage partner (let us plausibly assume) is worth a lot more time and effort than going on a single date. Both constructing a detailed personal profile, and reading the profiles of potential ‘partners’ is time consuming, and quite a labor. Is it worth it? The rational answer seems to be, ‘yes’ if it has a high value outcome (life-time relationship), ‘no’ if it has a low value outcome (one-off date). It needs to be observed, though, that whether the value of the outcome is high or low is not a matter wholly independent of the means we take to secure it. Standard accounts of rational evaluation hold that an action is rational if the end value is anticipated to outweigh the cost of obtaining it, but the two are connected because anticipated value is a function of the likelihood of the outcome. The precise relationship between the two is determined to a considerable degree by means chosen to secure the end. The near certainty of losing my bet in a lottery where my ticket has less than one chance in ten million of winning, for instance, outweighs even a huge amount of prize money.

Now we know that personal profiles can be misleading, whether deliberately or not, and this generates the possibility that, though an attractive profile does result in a date, the relationship stops there. Consequently, the greater the probability that a profile is misleading, the higher the probability that a lower value outcome will be the result. It follows that what the ‘method’ of meeting by profile costs me may outweigh the likelihood of the most desirable outcome. For this reason, the power of Photoshop and similar digital technologies to construct really good profiles quickly and inexpensively is at one and the same time what makes those profiles more likely to be misleading, and hence less worth reading.

The point does not turn on deception. Online dating profiles have another deficiency. Even if they are in some important ways much more ‘personal’ than the profiles that Internet companies construct, they are nonetheless also abstractions from the people whose profiles they are. That is to say, no combination of pictures and text can ever be an adequate substitute for personal acquaintance. How could it be? After all, the whole point of online dating is to go beyond the profile, and actually meet the person. To state the matter graphically: Whatever the attractions of pornography, it necessarily falls short of sexual intercourse, and is at best a poor substitute. The abstract nature of internet profiles means that, even where there is no intent to deceive, meeting a person whose pictures and profile seem very attractive or even ‘ideal’ may still prove a disappointment.


“The power of Photoshop and similar digital technologies to construct really good profiles quickly and inexpensively is at one and the same time what makes those profiles more likely to be misleading, and hence less worth reading.”


One upshot is this. The less likely a satisfactory outcome, the more reason to scale back on the effort. But as was noted earlier, the relation between means and ends is dialectical. As we scale back on the effort so we may adjust our expectation of the outcome. A far less detailed profile may be enough to generate a dinner date, and I can bring effort and outcome into balance if I settle for this. And if I know that (initially at any rate) a dinner date is all the other person is hoping for, then disappointment will be avoided all round.


IV. Sex and Love

It seems plausible to regard this as the trajectory that has led to Tinder and the like. Standard online dating requires an investment of effort whose efficacy is very uncertain when it comes to securing a full blown ‘relationship’, and unnecessary if we are willing to settle for less. Conversely, posting a picture without a profile, making contact on the basis of physical appearance alone, meeting within a short space of time, and with the implicit understanding that the aim is mutually satisfying sex and nothing more, takes far less effort for a far more likely outcome. Accordingly, rational choice theory would seem to commend it.

Before we endorse this conclusion, however, we should return to the criterion of ‘success’. It is undoubtedly true that practical wisdom suggests settling for ‘the less we are likely to get’ is preferable to fruitlessly pursuing ‘the more we are likely to miss’. As the old proverb says, ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’, and it seems pertinent to cite it in this context. Still, we need to ask whether sex with a stranger is truly commensurate with falling in love. The question, it should be emphasized, is about their commensurability. Is sex ‘less’, and love ‘more’? We can all agree that the two are not equally valuable. A Shakespearean tragedy and an apple pie are not equally valuable, but being radically different kinds of thing, they are not commensurable either; no amount of pie will compensate for missing the play. The shift from eHarmony to Tinder may be understood by some of those who make it to mean nothing more than lowering their sights and moderating their ambition.

On the face of it, the idea that sex and love are incommensurable may seem implausible, a hangover from puritanical prudery. That is because love between two people so often encompasses a sexual relationship. Even if this is a fact that previous ages sometimes found hard to talk about, they tacitly assumed a crucial link between the two because they understood love to imply sexual fidelity. It is this assumption that makes adulterous relationships hurtful and destructive, and hence to warrant condemnation. Still, this familiar association falls far short of showing that sex and love have something in common. Consider an illuminating parallel – the dinner date. Eating is how hunger is satisfied and bodies are nourished. Both ends can be accomplished in solitude. Eating with others, accordingly, generally satisfies hunger and provides nourishment, but it has an additional end, namely companionship. One consequence of this is that some forms of eating together imply a special intimacy. It would make sense, for instance, if I were troubled by the knowledge that my wife was having regular dinner dates with her hairdresser, even if I was reasonably certain that they had not slept together.


“The shift from eHarmony to Tinder may be understood by some of those who make it to mean nothing more than lowering their sights and moderating their ambition.”


The social dimension of eating is distinct from its relation to bodily desires and nourishment. Sharing food with one other person need neither satisfy my hunger nor nourish my body and still have value. In David Lean’s classic film Brief Encounter, for instance, the intimacy between Laura and Alex starts with a snack in a train station café. Similarly, while sexual activity satisfies a bodily desire and has a key role in biological reproduction (not just key, but indispensable, until the invention of IVF), it can also be indicative of love between two people. Like eating and intimacy, sex is contingently connected to love, but not a constituent element of it. This is shown by the fact that loving relationships can persist into old age, and thus past the point of sexual activity.

Suppose two strangers are hungry and in need of food, but both hate eating alone. They make an arrangement to eat dinner together and split the cost. The evening might pass very pleasantly, but it would plainly be misleading to describe it as a dinner between friends, even if it is possible for real friendship to spring up from such an inauspicious beginning. In the same way, if, thanks to Tinder, two people meet, have sex, enjoy it, and do not see each other again, for them to refer to it as ‘making love’ would be no less misleading. Rather, the phrase would be what the 18th century called ‘cant’ — reality masked by euphemism. But suppose they accept it, and describe it, for what it is — a fleeting exchange whose sole purpose is the mutual satisfaction of sexual desires. There is a straightforward honesty about this that might be thought to commend sites like Tinder over eHarmony or OkCupid, where sex mis-described as ‘love’ may in fact be the real goal. So what, if anything, is there to object to in Tinder? Is a casual sexual relationship any worse than the companionable dinner? The right answer to these questions is that whether we call it right or wrong, contrary to the necessarily intimate nature of sex, what Tinder permits is not a personal relationship at all. Why not, and why should that matter?


“If, thanks to Tinder, two people meet, have sex, enjoy it, and do not see each other again, for them to refer to it as ‘making love’ would be no less misleading.”


V. Bodies and People

A personal relationship is a relationship between persons. This seems like stating the obvious, until we note that not all relationships between human beings are personal. Slavery is the most striking example. Slaves are human beings, but they relate to their owners as pieces of property not as persons in their own right. Objections to slavery rest on a longstanding principle in moral philosophy known as ‘respect for persons’. Since slaves are human beings they ought to be treated as persons. The most brilliant exponent of this principle was Immanuel Kant. In line with the ancient supposition that people have a double nature, Kant contends that human beings are both physical objects subject to natural laws, and free agents capable of rationally determining their own activity. As physical objects (their ‘empirical’ part), human beings are governed by deterministic laws, just like the rest of the universe. As free agents, by contrast, they are governed by the laws of reason. The two types of ‘law’ are radically different. It makes no sense to speak of deterministic natural laws being ‘broken’, but this is precisely what matters when it comes to the ‘laws’ of rational action. As material objects we necessarily behave as the laws of physics determine. As rational agents we are subject to a different kind of necessity; the laws of reason that we ought to obey. Persons are not objects, but autonomous rational beings. Accordingly, the most fundamental law of practical reason is ‘respect for persons’. This means not using other people to our own ends (as the slave owner uses the slave), but treating them as valuable ends in themselves. If I fail to treat another person as a person, I am treating him or her as an object, and hence failing to accord them the equal status that, as moral beings, they share with me.

This ideal of ‘respect for persons’ has been hugely influential and is widely endorsed. Kantian moral philosophy, however, has generated an enormous literature, both because it seems to rely on some incontrovertible contentions, and at the same time, generate seemingly irresolvable problems. In this context, fortunately, it is only relevant to note that the Kantian ideal does not accommodate sexual relations very easily. Kant says virtually nothing about this, but it seems evident that sexual desires and their satisfaction must fall within the ‘empirical part’ of our nature, and hence under the governance of the natural laws that determine the behavior of objects. Yet a human partner in sexual intercourse is not simply an object by means of which I satisfy my physical desires. If that were so, a human corpse or inflatable model would serve just as well. Rather, I engage in sexual intercourse with another human being, and he or she engages in it with me. It is true that this mutual engagement need amount to nothing more than the physical arousal and satisfaction of sexual desire. Even so, there is also a dimension of reciprocity, as there would not be with an inflatable model. That is because it is voluntary and consensual. Does this mean, bearing in mind Kant’s principle, that we have to include physical sexual activity within our lives as persons rather than objects? This does not seem quite right either. Two people motivated purely by lust are exclusively interested in each other’s bodies, and indifferent to each other as persons. So what are we to say about voluntary, consenting sexual intercourse? Since it is reciprocal, the people involved are not treating each other as objects, but since it is limited to the physical, they are not treating each other as persons either.

The dilemma arises, of course, because we are thinking within the dualism of person and object. There is an alternative to this – that human beings have a tripartite nature. Like sticks and stones, they are material objects. Like dogs and cats, they are distinctive biological organisms. But uniquely, they are also autonomous agents who make choices, plan their activities, and form personal relationships with other human beings. In short, they are objects, organisms, and persons. This way of thinking enables us to say something about sexual relations. When two people have sex they mutually engage with each other. Neither is treated by or treats the other as an object. Their relationship, however, may never rise above the organic, and to the extent that this is true then they are de-humanized, and its being mutual and consensual does not alter that fact. At the same time, they remain persons and so their actions do not flow from biological instincts as, for instance the sexual behavior of other primates does. It follows that deliberately, even if not expressly, they are choosing to de-humanize and be de-humanized. If a dating device such as Tinder makes this easier, then it is a means of de-humanization. That is what is wrong with it.

We need to distinguish, perhaps, between de-humanization and brutalization. When I de-humanize another person there need be no element of aggression, domination or violence, which is what the term ‘brutalization’ commonly means in English. It is simply that I set aside any interest in their thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears, and treat my engagement with them as a mere transaction. In the world of the prostitute, violence and aggression may never be very far away, but at the heart of sexual prostitution is not violence, but a de-humanized transaction – sexual satisfaction in return for money.

When it comes to Tinder and the like, the important point, I am inclined to think, is that it takes a greater determination to de-humanize sexual satisfaction in return for sexual satisfaction than sexual satisfaction in return for money. Commercial relationships of buying and selling are a familiar part of everyday life, and largely impersonal. They are often accompanied by conversational exchanges, of course, but these are largely a matter of politeness. The relationship of the prostitute to client is also commercial, and so can be conducted in the same impersonal way. Sexual satisfaction in return for sexual satisfaction is different. It is the body, not the personality, of the other party to the transaction that is the sole focus of attention, and yet the transaction must begin in an exchange that cannot be impersonal – meeting up in a ‘dating’ type way.

That is why it can prove difficult for one of the parties to relinquish the hope that simple sex will lead to something ‘more’ and to be disappointed – hurt even – when it does not. If my analysis is correct, however, being prepared to settle for sex as the sole outcome of meeting up is not settling for ‘less’; it is settling for something quite different — a morally diminished status on the part of both of the people involved. In several places, the Bible marvels that human beings have been made only ‘a little lower than the angels’. Not everyone believes this of course, or even understands what it might mean. But anyone who can marvel that we are at least ‘a little higher than the brutes’ should be able to see that being diminished and diminishing others is a high price to pay for physical gratification.

Gordon Graham
Gordon Graham
Gordon Graham is Henry Luce III Professor of Philosophy and the Arts at Princeton Theological Seminary, New Jersey USA, where he has taught philosophy since 2006. He is the author of many papers on philosophical aspects of politics, art, technology and religion. His books include The Internet: a philosophical inquiry (1999), The Re-enchantment of the World (2007) and Wittgenstein and Natural Religion (2014). He lives in Princeton New Jersey with his wife and two children.

“How many newsworthy issues, which should have been the rightful domain of philosophy, have been usurped in recent years by religion, law, and psychology?”

Lee McIntyre

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