Analog to Digital: The Quantification of Love

Love is a holistic experience that cannot be contained merely in the mind or the body. Without physical chemistry, there is no sexuality. Without common interests or attitudes, there is no friendship. However, even if both mind and body are perfectly matched, there is still no guarantee that the subjects will “fall in love,” and perhaps those who would never think of associating with each other based on appearance or behavior are missing out on the love of their lives. Thus, the traditional view of love is a complicated phenomenon that is impossible to reduce to simple factors. However, since the emergence of digital media, our cultural conception of love has endured a conversion from continuous functions of apprehension and discovery to discrete algorithms of prejudgement and expectation. The new affordances might augment or alter our traditional experience of courtship and love, but it remains to be seen if virtual dating can approach the resolution to accurately render unconscious details.

The regime of cultural expectations for locating a mate pre-exists digital technologies by countless millennia, and apparently contributes to the survival of our species. Fashion and other stylistic ploys have been utilized to conform to stereotypes of how the perfect lover should appear, at least according to the norms of the society in which the courtship is occurring. Couples can become romantically linked based on mutual agreement or be paired by external arrangement, but they may also become entangled together by the vagaries of fate. The power of chemistry in a physical relationship supports the well-known aphorism that “opposites attract” because lovers can overcome the boundaries of categorization wherein their discovery is not limited by pre-existing notions of suitability. Romantic love can encapsulate both the notions of conformity and rebellion, but it cannot be confined to single domain; it is already an irrational function of human genetics, random occurrences, and societal stipulations. To think that technology could completely banish the underlying reality of such a basic human need is a fallacy. However, the conversion from an analog courtship environment into a digital dating realm presents implications for our love lives that are not merely cosmetic.

The process of digital transfer attenuates the romanticism of physical and temporal spontaneity, yet accentuates the cynicism of late capitalistic forces that reward the commodification of the self. As Illouz notes, “this cynicism marks a radical departure from the traditional culture of romanticism and is an effect of the routinization produced by the sheer volume of encounters and by the market structure and culture which pervades Internet dating sites.”1 Internet daters are first bombarded with menus and lists with which to self-categorize and pick the attributes they desire in a mate, and then compelled to inhabit a pictorial meat market which is automatically sorted and matched to exacting machine-interpreted specifications. These experiences are often characterized as feeling scripted, and participants may lack any incentive to pair with the proverbial mysterious stranger. Part of the thrill of love used to be the risk of falling for the wrong person; once that possibility is removed, love seems to dwell in a much more mundane environment. This new managed space resembles the one described by Galloway as he quotes Foucault in Protocol: “The old power of death that symbolized sovereign power was now carefully supplanted by the administration of bodies and the calculated management of life.”2 Instead of trusting the vagaries of the fates to match us with our lover, we come to depend on a system designed to maximize our experience according to the specifications of a program optimized for cultural principles of matchmaking which nearly preclude former methods of random pairing.

Although digital technology is influencing the search for love and augmenting its consumption, the mutual feelings which lead people to live shared lived are still the same. As we continue to develop the tools with which our kind seeks to further its own happiness and survival, there may be cultural adjustments to our experience of romance. However, the definition of love will probably always allude to an experience that takes you out of your body and your mind, into a dimension that can only be accessed when the level of mutual ecstasy is adequate. Until the machines inhabit our consciousness and perfectly reflect our thoughts and intentions, the level of resolution necessary to render the contour of love is likely to remain in the domain of our holographic imaginations for many years to come.

  • 1. Eva Illouz, “Romantic Webs,” from Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007; pp.74-107, 126-129.
  • 2. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1978), p. 128.

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A prophet on the burning shore