A Dating Simulator for the Left
June 8, 2022
In this extract from his forthcoming book, Alfie Bown speculates as to what a leftist dating simulator might look like. Dream Lovers: The Gamification of Relationships was out this month with Pluto Press. This week, Alfie was on Diet Soap Podcast with Doug Lain discussing the book, an analysis of the ways in which sex tech – from dating sites to smart condoms, sexbots, and VR pornography – is transforming desire today.
Heard of Trump.dating or tried Red Yenta? The Atlasophere? Christian Mingle? Probably not, but Hinge, Bumble, Tinder, Grindr, and OkCupid are probably more familiar. Outside the ‘Match Group’ of sites owned by IAC, there are dating sites which attempt to be for those on the political right and even for the liberal dater, but are there any dating sites that are really, seriously, for the Left? Will there even be dating apps after the revolution? What would one look like anyway?
In her polemical 1970 feminist text The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone presents the idea that when it comes to love women cannot afford to be spontaneous. That, she argues, if often the privilege of those in structural positions of power, in the context of her argument: the position of men. This is important to remember when it comes to the discourses that surround dating applications. Those who criticise the world of online dating usually argue that offline or ‘traditional’ dating offers a more organic, natural and spontaneous way of meeting a partner. Firestone’s point raises the question of whether that would be in any way desirable, especially in a world in which economic conditions and precarity make every second of spare time precious and especially given those traditional structures of dating have always included inequalities.
On top of this, it’s not at all certain that offline or pre-internet relationships are any more organic and spontaneous than the algorithm-driven ones we experience today. In The Purchase of Intimacy Viviana Zelizer discusses the kinds of legal and social contracts which have long since functioned to organise and sort people into couples:
Outside the legal arena, in ordinary, everyday practice, people engage in a similar sorting of couples. They do not employ precisely the same distinctions as lawyers or invoke exactly the same moral evaluations of different kinds of relations. But they sort across the whole range of relations that involve the possibility of intimacy, from lawyer-client or doctor-patient to friends, neighbours, workmates, and kin.
Social life functions to sort individuals into couples along economic, social and political lines. As we saw in the first chapter, dating applications inherit some of these social biases and embed them into algorithms whose datasets then go on to set the terms for friendships and relationship of the future. In light of the fact that it is perhaps both inevitable (Zelizer) and desirable (Firestone) to organise the political processes by which coupling takes place, we might playfully suggest the blueprint for an online dating app which might organize couples in more politically and economically desirable ways than the existing set of applications out there.
To make such a pro