'Love in the Time of Algorithms'

Love in the Time of Algorithms: What technology does to meeting and datingBy Dan Slater, Penguin: Current, $25.95

At the heart of Love in the Time of Algorithms is a philosophical question: does the billion-dollar dating industry, whose currency is the perpetual promise of new relationships, signal the death of commitment?

It is the question posed to Sam Yagan, chief executive of free dating site OkCupid, by the book's author Dan Slater. "That's really a point about market liquidity," replies Yagan, a graduate of Harvard University and Stanford Business School, and a self-confessed "math guy" who says he knows nothing about dating.

Justin Parfitt, a British dating entrepreneur, an­­s­wers the question more bluntly: "[The industry is] thinking 'Let's keep this f-cker coming back to the site as often as we can, and let's not worry about whether he's successful'. There's this massive tension bet­ween what would actually work for you, the user, and what works for us the shareholders. It's amazing, when you think about it. In what other industry is a happy customer bad for business?".

These responses represent the dissonance bet­ween the romantic ideal of love held by many customers and the approach of the entrepreneurial nerds who set up the match­making sites. The disparity is well drawn in this lively book by Slater, a former legal affairs report­er for the Wall Street Journal, who had clocked up quite a few of his own cyber dates by the age of 31, following the demise of a long-term relationship.

A book on the dating industry would be soulless without tales of the customers - the cyber daters. Love in the Time of Algorithms is strewn with stories of blossoming rom­ances, bedhoppers and borderline sociopaths.

There is Carrie, a single mum in New York, who ticks the box for "full figured", saying that while she is bigger than Kim Kardashian, she is not as big as "big and beautiful" (in the search for love, these things matter). After several false starts with men who find the "kid thing" a sticking point, Carrie meets her match in a Puerto Rican atheist computer technician.

Or there is Jacob in Oregon, who knows he can afford to take things slow with the pharmacist because he can always have sex with another online date. Or, as he likes to think of it: "There's always a pep­peroni pizza in the trunk."

The writer delves into his own personal history: his parents met in the 1960s through a pioneering computer dating service. His father's comments, that "these days they're all over the internet. I think they're mostly for desperate people, though", indicate the stigma that has dogged the industry.

Slater's account of the history of the cyber dating industry - from ginormous clunky old computers to modern complex al­g­orithms - is well detailed. And he brings out the fierce rivalry between free and paid-for sites and the new possibilities for finding a date across the street using smartphones and in­novative "freemium" sites.

The stated aim of this book is how online dating is "remaking the landscape of modern relationships", which is an ambitious goal for 240 pages. The sweep is huge: Nig­erian scammers preying on the lonely; paunchy middle-aged men trafficking poor young South American and Russian women; maths geeks competing for a share of the love market; and adult babies seeking matronly nappy-changers.

The author also brandishes so many ideas - a bit of behavioural economics here, a bit of biological determinism there - that it is hard to focus when so much is competing for the reader's attention. It is a dizzying attempt to demonstrate the author's mastery of the zeitgeist.

In the final chapter Slater writes that he has tried to avoid "passing judgment on all the many behaviours, new and old, facilitated by the date-o-sphere". Yet this well-reported romp through the digital love marketplace would have benefited from a slightly more domineering author.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.


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