© Charles Deluvio

Peace, love, Wi-Fi and contemporary dating behavior

How on earth did we end up here?

In the last 195 thousand years of human existence on Earth, the heterosexual mating game has undergone three major transitions. When taking a historical perspective on relationship-forming, it is useful to take a step back and reflect on broader contexts; the economic, social and technological shifts. Such a framework – one that traces the development of the humankind at large – makes one thing apparent: Dating protocols have always been the byproduct of cultural transitions, rather than the driving force behind them.

Radical attitudes towards intimacy

For romance itself is too sensitive, too delicate a force. All of which is to say that contemporary dating has not developed in a vacuum; it formed in response to the ground rules of modern life and the growing inadequacy of earlier dating conventions. Progress can sometimes look like a setback, and it is not surprising that Millennials and Gen X’s radical attitudes towards intimacy have been vigorously contested: app-dating deemed shallow, careless, and superficial and the new romance – ungrounded. But consider this: The two youngest generations to enter the dating market have been simply compelled to adapt their courting strategies to the contemporary cultural landscape. Just like bygone generations had to transition through the confusion of the previous two global shifts in mating.

Marriage as a cultural contract

The first transition came about some 10,000 to 15,000 years ago along with the Agricultural Revolution. We became less migratory and more settled, and marriage was established as a cultural contract. As a rule, relationships were formed in the name of economic convenience, whereby people paired up to jointly pinch and augment resources. Marriage both authorized and obligated couples to a lifetime of such collaboration. Whatever else their relationship may have involved, the husband and wife were quite literally in business together (with their children doubling as extra workers and contributors).

The vast majority of people around the globe worked from where they lived, and so the economic life of the family was tightly bound to the home. In essence, the home was a small self-sustaining factory, a bustling hub of productivity. With no escape from their mundane life together, the couple was anchored in a matrimonial ecosystem whose responsibilities, priorities and expectations were bigger than the husband and wife’s individual wants and desires.

The home is losing its functionality

The Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s and the early 1800s marked the second major turning point for relationship-forming. Alongside changes in the economy at large, the locus of economic activity was gradually outsourced away from where people lived. The home was no longer integrally connected to a couple’s economic livelihood, and by the early 20th century the homegrown economy had been stripped of everything except cooking, cleaning, and child care. Eventually, capitalism would claim even these last expressions of domestic discretion, rendering homes increasingly void of the substance of what people did in life. The home lost its functionality, except for personal connection.

A more abstract concept of marriage began to emerge that was sustained less by the couple’s shared experiences and more by the relationship itself and the emotional fulfillment it was expected to give. The couple’s relationship now derived no meaning from anything outside itself and the goal of marriage became love. The notion of children changed accordingly – no longer economic contributors to the family but as beings whose emotional fulfillment acquired more and more importance, eventually leading to the emergence of childhood in the legal sense.

Sexual revolution

With the home reduced to a place of mere emotional bonding, it was the couple that defined their marriage and what it ultimately meant to them. In the West, the sexual revolution of 1960s, the popularization of contraceptives and growing global secularization (the idea of sinful relations becoming a thing of the past) significantly contributed to this shift.

The public understanding of marriage followed suit, and sexual relations based solely on emotional fulfillment – as well as of the breaking of those relations when emotional needs were not being met – became socially normative. This, however, led to an inflated, even idolatrous, valuation placed on passionate bonding as an end in itself. And bred a completely dysfunctional belief in one’s ‘soul mate’: the notion of romantic destiny, in which a relationship between two people either is or is not “meant to be”.

Modern life means endless options

Fast-forward to the Information Revolution of the last few decades. The development of technologies has exponentially increased the role of information, which has now acquired use value and exchange value and became a commodity. People have learnt to rely on the Internet to trade information when navigating through life. This has normalized the experience and expectation of instant access, endless options, convenience and gratification in virtually every aspect of modern life. Including how people seek romantic partners and initiate relationships with them.

Hookup culture, which has been percolating for about a hundred years, has collided with dating sites and apps, shaping the nature of compatibility matching. Intimacy began being advocated by algorithms, negotiated and redefined through online practices, and mediated through mobile and computer screens.

Marketplace mentality

Online dating provides access to larger, seemingly inexhaustible number of potential partners. This on one hand causes people to choose carelessly and employ arguably simplistic and superficial screening strategies that gamify the mating experience. And on the other – promotes the tendency to commoditize prospective lovers and induces a marketplace mentality. To minimize the fear of rejection (which the Industrial Revolution’s shift towards romantic love made a permanent part of mating) we use screens as defense mechanisms.

Indeed, technology has become somewhat of an antidote to the fear of romantic rebuff, while simultaneously erasing the obligation of commitment – there is nothing too bonding about contemporary dating anymore. There is less pressure of judgment, but also less depth. Online romance transferred to the offline world requires no emotional connection anymore; primarily physical connections work equally well. Mutually exploitative sexual encounters have been normalized as meaningful in themselves. And the goal of courtship has shifted from getting married to getting laid.

Technology is catching up to our desired self-involvement

Now, judging the value of contemporary dating misses the point, since various broader ongoing changes of socio-economic and technological nature give shape to dating protocols. And for individual members of the two youngest generations to enter the dating market, it is difficult if not impossible to break out of standardized practices. Perhaps throughout the centuries each variation of dating was simply the “victim” of external circumstances. Wasn’t pre-industrial marrying for economic ease too sober and practical? Wasn’t the post-industrial search for soul mates and ‘true love’ naïve and restricting? Isn’t the online hook up culture dehumanizing, shallow and conceited?

We can perhaps argue that because people have always chased novelty and a high number of sexual partners as a species – the tendencies have always been there, and so the dating sites and apps were just a trigger that was missing and hardly something alien that has suddenly gripped everyone. Maybe technology is finally catching up to the callousness and self-involvement we always desired, but were never allowed.

But then again, it’d be preposterous to assume that dating has reached its peak and found the ultimate expression, just like it’d be irrational to assume that the humankind won’t develop its social, economic and technological practices anymore. And so, after humans’ transition through the era of information – what will the next shift in romance be? What turn will the next phase take? And to what end?