In ‘What If?’, Munroe suggests (comic) ideas for maximising contact between human beings to increase our chance of finding that special one. But the maths is against us: the chances are minuscule that we would ever meet our perfect partner, even with all sorts of technological interventions.
Yet technological interventions are increasingly the means by which we do find our partners. Whether it’s match.com or Tinder, there’s a very good chance that your next encounter will be digitally brokered. It’s not quite the ‘Soul Mate Roulette’ that Munroe suggests, but it’s not far off.
If anything, it’s arguably better.
Munroe’s suggestion is predicated on the idea that there are no filtering factors for ‘the one’. It is just a random individual from somewhere in the world who happens to be your match. But in reality there are many matches, and there are all sorts of filtering factors. These not only allow us to sort through our options but also determine how well we ‘match’. The ‘hardness’ of these rules varies, but you could include gender and age, appearance and location, education, interests, career and much more.
All of these filtering factors have long been applied by our own preferences and prejudices, and by simple fact of the way we live: various studies (including one by LSBU) suggest that between 16 and 25% of graduates meet their life partner at University. Figures from the US suggest another 10% of us meet our partners at work. The most common form of introduction is through friends — an incredibly strong filtering factor (though yes, friends often also get it wrong).
Today, we codify many of these filters into software, allowing the machines to do the early filtering for us. With an app we can scan the remaining pool of possible partners incredibly quickly, albeit based on limited (mostly visual) criteria.
The result of this, combined with the shrinking world that the internet and web, and cheap global travel have brought about, is that we probably assess many more possible partners today than we have ever done before. And we do so in a more systematic way.
One Tinder user even suggested to me a ‘dating automation system’, much like the marketing automation systems that increasingly drive our early interactions with companies. A scripted series of steps lures people towards a purchase. With the right mindset a Tinder user could easily automate the first round of interactions with a huge number of possible partners, triggering an automated series of actions when they swiped right on a possible match’s profile. They could even A/B test opening lines to see what was most successful — either at getting people to a date, or at filtering out the poor matches.
With this level of sophisticated, statistically-driven capability, perhaps we are closer now than we ever have been to the possibility of meeting ‘the one’?
Or perhaps you go with the Tim Minchin view, which, for all my soft-hearted romanticism, I have to concede is more realistic:
Your love is one in a million
You couldn’t buy it at any price
But of the 9.999 hundred thousand other loves
Statistically, some of them would be equally nice
We have increased our range of options for finding love, but we have also increased the barriers that we put up, and perhaps we have decreased our openness to chance. The simple act of codifying the soft filters of life, work, and friends into hard, digital rules means that we are more likely to confine ourselves to niches. The more we believe in the idea of being able to compute ‘the one’, the less we might be willing to work at the relationships we have.
The internet has proven to be a fantastic way for people to meet and fall in love, and now accounts for a large proportion of all partnerships. Some even attribute the recent halving in the proportion of American couples who met at work to the growth of online dating. But in the future I think digital dating aides will need to be more subtle, more sophisticated.
Our range of possible ‘matches’ will continue to grow, as social networks spread, and geographic and language barriers fall. We will want to take advantage of these opportunities. But we will also be refocused on place and physicality as technology is better integrated into our lives and loses some of its novelty and stark separation. The machines that help us match will need to account for all of this, continuing to assist us in finding matches but also allowing for a little random chance, and not always tempting us with the possibility of that perfect ‘one’.