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The world is more electronic and transactional today than it has ever been before. Some would go so far as to say that the world is more connected than it's ever been before, but depending on what exactly one means by this, it's a contentious assertion.
Although the Internet has given way to many things in its nearly sixty years of existence (yes, fifty-nine, count 'em!), most of its growth has been due to the adoption of the World Wide Web, which is more than thirty-one years old now. Since then, we've seen the growth of eCommerce, through sites like Amazon and eBay which grew during the 1990s. In the 2000s, we had the rise of social networking giants, some of which have since fallen by the wayside. In recent years, the Internet has continued to become a more diverse arena for all kinds of platforms, catering to seemingly every imaginable fancy.
Given the kinds of communication the Internet — and specifically the World Wide Web — has facilitated, it's not really much of a surprise that online dating sites are included among the many platforms that have flourished in recent years. In some sense, the idea even predates the Internet — relationships formed through bulletin board systems in the 1980s were not unheard of. However, this kind of activity is much more commonplace now than it used to be, and it ushers in a host of ethical questions and considerations.
Astute readers may well note that this topic is slightly outside of our general purview, but it's one that has become especially hard of late to ignore. A couple times a month, alumni magazines from a couple Ivy League universities arrive in the mailbox, chock full of interesting articles and commentary on various campus and global events. These magazines follow a fairly consistent format, which is why one particularly disturbing trend has grown more apparent with time over the past few months. What am I talking about? Well, imagine you're reading through the magazine, and after finishing a few interesting articles on new scientific developments and current economic issues, you read through the obituaries, a little bit sad that the lives of so many individuals have been reduced to mere sentences, which are hardly capable of doing them justice. And, after that's over, you're confronted with something like this:
This is no joke, folks. That is the Classifieds page in the back of The Pennsylvania Gazette, the alumni magazine of the University of Pennsylvania. And with the exception of the two innocent ads in the upper-left hand corner that had the misfortune of being placed on this page, these are exactly the kinds of things that makes one wonder just exactly what has happened to the world and when people will step back and wonder if it's gone a little bit too far, maybe way too far. Lest I be accused of singling Penn out, here's an excerpt from the classified section of Princeton Alumni Weekly from the same week:
Once upon a time, things were different. People looked to find a job at a good company, they worked their way up the ladder, and they retired with a pension after perhaps a forty-year run. In the meantime, they married and perhaps decided to raise a family. Of course, this is a gross generalization, but it gets the point across. I'm not saying everything was perfect then, but fast-forward to today. High employee turnover is normal. People don't form bonds with their work anymore — they jump around from company to company, perhaps never finding the fulfilling work they were looking for. And what about life outside of work? Well, divorce rates have skyrocketed to all time highs, the family unit is at risk of becoming endangered, and despite all of the technological advancements that have taken place in the past seventy-five years, people today by and large report feeling lonelier and less satisfied with life than before. This is especially true for youth, amongst whom casual social interaction has largely given way to asynchronous shorthand electronic messages.
Even then, it's a bit hard to justify the kind of advertising that regularly runs in The Pennsylvania Gazette. At first glance, it may strike a casual observer as merely yet another way that technology and mass communication have expanded social boundaries. Humans thrive on social contact. We are an interdependent species. That's why online dating sites, as unscrupulous and unethical as they might seem, have thrived in the Internet age. If they offer the promise of facilitating meaningful connections, well, who can argue with that, right? It's just a means to an end, albeit a somewhat unconventional one. How can one be critical of that?
It's a good time to remember the old adage that just because something is legal, or just because something is possible, doesn't mean it should be done. On the one hand, we're not suggesting that such sites or such advertising should be prohibited. On the other hand, we're not suggesting that you don't use them, because quite frankly, that's none of our business. But like all controversial or uncomfortable topics, discussion leads to insight, so discuss we will.
The foundation underpinning this insight — one that is being shaken more and more vigorously now — is the way the societal conceptions and norms regarding matrimony have changed over the years. One need only read Dickens or Austen to be reminded of a time, not all too long ago, when people married for wealth, and for class… and sometimes for love. It seems an awfully old-fashioned proposition today, and rightfully so. Today, we marry for ourselves, not for our families. Of course, there are still people who do, or who marry for wealth or for status. It's not really our place to comment on that, and you can think what you will about that, but by and large, few of us would settle for the old-fashioned way of doing things.
Except, in a way, that seems to be exactly what more and more people are doing. As many have turned to online dating sites, they lose out on the real opportunities to connect with people, and chance instead to hanker after the illusory happiness promised by Photoshopped profile pictures of fake people. I say fake people, because the way these sites operate relies on disingenuity. Online, people will pretend to be a version of themselves that they really aren't, and far too many people will waste precious time looking for something that doesn't exist. There is no replacement for meeting people naturally.
Yet, this too begs further questions. So online dating is disingenuous, but say, going to a bar on Friday night isn't? Really, they both are. The problem underpinning all these scenarios is the faulty foundation on which they all rest. When people engage themselves in these activities, they delude themselves into thinking they are "looking for love", or companionship of some kind, or at least trying to meet people, or something like that. But this is exactly the aristocratic model that, at least in the West, people have prided themselves in moving away from over the past century and a half. But have we really? Across all these scenarios, the whole cycle is backwards. In the old days, when people married their cousins, they accepted the inevitable and tried to love their spouses. With online dating, people will find a picture that looks "nice" to them and then try to find the best in that person. Or, for those who frequent bars, try to find the best in whomever they meet that night.
The problem here is this isn't how love works! It's completely backwards! It's a little bit more apparent with friendships. Sure, sometimes, you might have a goal of meeting people and you might end up befriending people you meet this way. But consider your closest friends. Did you actually seek them out? Did you go to a friends website, click on their profile pictures, and say "Aha! That's my new best friend!" Did you know the first time you met these people that they were keepers? If you answered yes to all of these questions, hats off to you — but the truth is that most people aren't like this. Many people are good judges of character, but they're not all-knowing fortune tellers. Sometimes, it takes time to really get to know people. Sometimes, our first impressions are wrong. We're human. We make mistakes. Sometimes, the best friendships come out of these situations. What if you never let those happen?
A second myth that people buy into is that somehow the premises of love are different than the premises of friendship. The enlightening thing that people have realized over time is that they aren't. In many ways, love is just an extremely strong, true, and loyal form of friendship. Good marriages are those based on friendship, and the same values that strong friendships feature: kindness, respect, empathy, value, regard, and so on. In many ways, a spouse is basically a best friend. Yet, we're often led to believe that somehow love and friendship are two completely different things and that they should be approached differently. People who delude themselves into this fallacy do themselves a great disservice.
The past few years, there's been no shortage of radio ads for site like It's Just Lunch, which bills itself as a "a personalized dating service designed to help business professionals skip the scrolling through profiles so they spend more time going on dates". Whoa, personalized, sounds great, right? Surely, this must be better than scrolling through profiles, right? More ethical, no? But wait a minute. How is this any different from what people did in the old days? How is it any different from arranged marriage? It's literally putting your destiny in the hands of other people who make decisions on your behalf. Who's to say that a complete stranger knows more about you than you do? Do you really trust some "dating professional" more than your own heart?
We all know that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. But that's exactly the kind of logical fallacy that online dating sites and apps reply on. There is simply no way to get to know such people authentically in such environments. Friendships strengthen as you get to know certain people better and better over time. In many respects, love blossoms in a similar way. "Love at first sight" is as much a myth as "friendship at first sight". You can't truly get to know a person by looking at him or her for the first time, and you certainty can't do it by looking at a handpicked profile picture, either. Appearances can be deceiving, yes, but more importantly, they don't speak to a person's character at all.
The classifieds above speak to the same hollowness that characterizes these aforementioned services. We've now gotten to the point in society where offering your hand in marriage to tens of thousands of strangers in a magazine and hoping for the best with the first one that answers is seen as a legitimate way of finding love. The audience is Ivy League graduates, so it reeks of the same snobbishness that consumed aristocrats who married their cousins two hundred years ago. But again, these people have got it backwards. Quite simply, you can't find love. That's just not how it works. Love finds you, if and when it exists. It's a bit disconcerting to see people handling their personal relationships in the same way that they handle professional ones — sometimes, what happens in the office stays in the office!
Recently, this issue was satirized in our sister satirical column, The Dialog. The circumstances may seem far-fetched, but are they really that different from where we already are? People are, for better or for worse (and more so the latter), approaching relationships in a very unnatural, unpragmatic, and delusional, even dangerous way. From the get-go, it's a very warped and distorted approach that allows anyone to "narrow their search" to just, say, people with blonde hair, or cum laude graduates of Ivy Leagues. The idea that true love can be found by swiping, by outsourcing your judgment, or by posting a LOVE WANTED ad is absurd. To put it simply, people get married because they fall in love. They don't fall in love because they want to get married. Yet, that's exactly what a culture of Tinder, It's Just Lunch, and classified romance ads in Ivy League alumni magazines perpetuate — that somehow, finding true love is as simple as finding a job, or applying for one. But it isn't. Humans are complicated. Emotions are complicated. Love is complicated. It rarely works like that. And when people force it to, it rarely works out well in practice.
This isn't just theoretical. Look back to the ad in the lower-left hand corner of the Pennsylvania Gazette excerpt. Affection-increasing pheromones? Seriously? This is exactly the type of thing that happens in a world in which people flip love upside down and turn to technology and "professionals" to either choose for them or be choosy. If your marriage needs pheromones to stay together, then maybe you're not really in love. Maybe you weren't ever truly in love. Marriages conceived of impulse, expectations, and short-term infatuation are inevitable when the result of processes that are hostile to real love in the first place.
We usually focus our efforts on societal issues, not personal ones, and every relationship is different and it's simply impossible to discuss them all objectively. What people choose to do concerning situations like these is really their own business and nobody else's. At the same time, one can't help but feel a little bit disappointed, as if something in society has fundamentally broken enough for things to degenerate to this point. The challenges to matrimony today are already real enough. Divorce, once rare, is now normal. Today, one in two marriages fails (read: one in two marriages is not rooted in true love). It's a statistic that's meaningless to those who are truly in love, but one that begins to make sense when you consider the unnatural means to which people will resort in the name of "finding love". Talk about illusory goals. Don Quixote, anyone?
Ultimately, the best advice one can give about such highly personal affairs is to give none at all, and the best thing one can do is receive none. Real love is powerful. It doesn't care about dating websites or apps. It doesn't care what the "professionals" at It's Just Lunch think. It doesn't care whether somebody went to Oxford or Princeton, or about social class or wealth. It doesn't care about transient and pointless things. It cares about character. And character is not something that can be outsourced like your tax filings, not something you can glean from any review or profile picture, and not something you can let others judge for you. It's something you have to experience for yourself. Listen to your heart, and nothing else.
If this all seems like common sense, well, it does to me, too. For some reason, though, it seems like it's been forgotten by many. In some way, the circumstances that have led to the abominations mentioned above are understandable (understandable, but not justifiable). Too many people think the world is out to get them, and that they will never find the person of their dreams. Then, they get sucked into the false promises offered by websites, professionals, or classified ads, like a person turning to drink. But falling in love is more like losing a tooth — it's something best let to happen naturally, not forced. Marriages can be arranged, and dates can be set up, but love can't be bought or sold. If you meet people with the intention of finding a spouse, then you've got it backwards. True love isn't something you seek out. It's something that finds you. You just have to be ready for it if it does.
Relish the real people you meet and know. The truest love is that which forms naturally, not that which is forced under duress or by expectations. Don't look for love. If and when the time comes, you'll know it's come. There's no need to look for it, and you can do yourself no favors by trying.