One man I interviewed described a relationship that began promisingly but quickly took a technological turn for the worse

One man I interviewed described a relationship that began promisingly but quickly took a technological turn for the worse

Approximately forty percent of American adults are single, and half of that population claims to have visited an online dating site

Like the steady work of the wrecking ball, our culture’s nearly-compulsive demand for personal revelation, emotional exposure, and sharing of feelings threatens the fragile edifice of newly-forming relationships. Transparency and complete access are exactly what you want to avoid in the early stages of romance. Successful courtship – even successful flirtation – require the gradual peeling away of layers, some deliberately constructed, others part of a person’s character and personality, that make us mysteries to each other.

Among Pascal’s minor works is an essay, “Discourse on the Passion of Love,” in which he argues for the keen “pleasure of loving without daring to tell it.” “In love,” Pascal writes, “silence is of more avail than speech…there is an eloquence in silence that penetrates more deeply than language can.” Pascal imagined his lovers in each other’s physical presence, watchful of unspoken physical gestures, but not speaking. Only gradually would they reveal themselves. Today such a tableau seems as arcane as Kabuki theater; modern couples exchange the most intimate details of their lives on a first date and then return home to blog about it.

“It’s difficult,” said one woman I talked to who has tried – and ultimately soured on – Internet dating. “You’re expected to be both informal and funny in your e-mails, and reveal your likes and dislikes, but you don’t want to reveal so much that you appear desperate, or so little so that you seem distant.” We can, of course, use these technologies appropriately and effectively in the service of advancing a relationship, but to do so both people must understand the potential dangers. After a few successful dates, he encouraged the woman he was seeing, who lived in another city, to keep in touch. Impervious to notions of technological etiquette, however, she took this to mean the floodgates were officially open. She began telephoning him at all hours, sending overly-wrought e-mails and inundating him with lengthy, faxed letters – all of which had the effect not of bringing them closer together, which was clearly her hope, but of sending him scurrying away as fast as he could. Later, however, he became involved in a relationship in which e-mail in particular helped facilitate the courtship, and where technology – bounded by a respect on the part of both people for its excesses – helped rather than harmed the process of learning about another person. Technology itself is not to blame; it is our ignorance of its potential dangers and our unwillingness to exercise self-restraint in its use that makes mischief.

The Modern-Day Matchmaker

I nternet dating offers an interesting case study of these technological risks, for it encourages both transparency and oversharing, as well as another danger: it insists that we reduce and market ourselves as the disembodied sum of our parts. The woman or man you might have met on the subway platform or in a coffee shop – within a richer context that includes immediate impressions based on the other person’s physical gestures, attire, tone of voice, and overall demeanor – is instead electronically embalmed for your efficient perusal online.

And it is a booming business. Revenue for online dating services exceeded $302 million in 2002. There is, not surprisingly, something for the profusion of tastes: behemoth sites such as Match, Flirt, Hypermatch, and Matchmaker traffic in thousands of profiles. Niche sites such as for people with disabilities, as well as sites devoted to finding true love for foot fetishists, animal lovers, and the obese, cater to smaller markets. Single people with religious preferences can visit Jdate (for Jewish dates), CatholicSingles, and even HappyBuddhist to find similarly-minded spiritual singles. As with any product, new features are added constantly to maintain consumer interest; even the more jaded seekers of love might quail at Match’s recent addition to its menu of online options: a form of “speed dating” that offers a certain brutal efficiency as a lure for the time-challenged modern singleton.

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