Never Lost Again: Tinder, Porn and the Dying Art of Falling in Love

In our upcoming sixth installment of The Mockingbird, the Technology Issue, we had the opportunity […]

In our upcoming sixth installment of The Mockingbird, the Technology Issue, we had the opportunity to interview the sensei on the subject, Nicholas Carr. Carr was a Pulitzer finalist for his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, and his recent book, The Glass Cage, deals with the growing presence of automation in our lives. Part of the book deals with Google Maps, and the difference between what he calls “wayfaring” versus “transport.”

Wayfaring is messier and less efficient than transport, which is why it has become a target for automation. “If you have a mobile phone with Google Maps,” says Michael Jones, an executive in Google’s mapping division, “you can go anywhere onthe planet and have confidence that we can give you directions to get to where you want to go safely and easily.” As a result, he declares, “No human ever has to feel lost again.” That certainly sounds appealing, as if some basic problem in our existence had been solved forever. And it fits the Silicon Valley obsession with using software to rid people’s lives of “friction.” But the more you think about it, the more you realize that to never confront the possibility of getting lost is to live in a state of perpetual dislocation. If you never have to worry about not knowing where you are, then you never have to where you are. It is also to live in a state of dependency, a ward of your phone and its apps.


He then goes on to talk about Google’s extensive development in “indoor mapping,” the plotting out of the insides of shops, offices and museums.

Indoor mapping promises to ratchet up our dependence on computer navigation and further limit our opportunities for getting around on our own. Should personal head-up displays, such as Google Glass, come into wide use, we would always have easy and immediate access to turn-by-turn instructions. We’d receive, as Google’s Michael Jones puts it, “a continuous stream of guidance,” directing us everywhere we want to go.

Carr’s book mostly stays on this macroscopic plane of civil, environmental and industrial shifts. We can certainly imply what it might impose on our own lives. He talks about the evolution of the aerospace industry since the berth of the fly-by-wire system. He talks about the evolution of architecture since AutoCAD. And he talks about the evolution of mobile technology, and its eerie—even dangerous—appeal to the “inner drone” in us. The algorithmic medium these technologies use, Carr argues, makes us incapable of operating without an algorithm. He calls it “skill tunneling” and “attentional tunneling.” We are in danger of no longer seeing beyond the guidance given to a clean blue dot.

Carr may not be explicit about it, but this tunneling is most certainly happening in the world of sex. And there is no more brutal exemplar than the mobile app Tinder. If you are (blessedly) unfamiliar with how the app works, Tinder is a location-based “social discovery” platform that allows you to view profiles of the people nearby. It is one of the first-ever “swipe” apps, which allows you to swipe up or down to approve/disapprove of the potential fetches, based on the picture they provide. If two people approve of one another, a match is made, and love is a-tinder.

But, as this week’s Vanity Fair article makes absolutely vividly clear, Tinder is not used for dating. It is used for mating. And within the relational sphere of Tinder and apps like it, all of Nicholas Carr’s points about wayfinding and automation stand true. (Fair warning: the article is not for the faint of heart, stomach or anything else.)


“I call it the Dating Apocalypse,” says a woman in New York, aged 29. As the polar ice caps melt and the earth churns through the Sixth Extinction, another unprecedented phenomenon is taking place, in the realm of sex. Hookup culture, which has been percolating for about a hundred years, has collided with dating apps, which have acted like a wayward meteor on the now dinosaur-like rituals of courtship. “We are in uncharted territory” when it comes to Tinder et al., says Justin Garcia, a research scientist at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. “There have been two major transitions” in heterosexual mating “in the last four million years,” he says. “The first was around 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, in the agricultural revolution, when we became less migratory and more settled,” leading to the establishment of marriage as a cultural contract. “And the second major transition is with the rise of the Internet.”

…Mobile dating went mainstream about five years ago; by 2012 it was overtaking online dating. In February, one study reported there were nearly 100 million people—perhaps 50 million on Tinder alone—using their phones as a sort of all-day, every-day, handheld singles club, where they might find a sex partner as easily as they’d find a cheap flight to Florida. “It’s like ordering Seamless,” says Dan, the investment banker, referring to the online food-delivery service. “But you’re ordering a person.”

The comparison to online shopping seems an apt one. Dating apps are the free-market economy come to sex. The innovation of Tinder was the swipe—the flick of a finger on a picture, no more elaborate profiles necessary and no more fear of rejection; users only know whether they’ve been approved, never when they’ve been discarded. OkCupid soon adopted the function. Hinge, which allows for more information about a match’s circle of friends through Facebook, and Happn, which enables G.P.S. tracking to show whether matches have recently “crossed paths,” use it too. It’s telling that swiping has been jocularly incorporated into advertisements for various products, a nod to the notion that, online, the act of choosing consumer brands and sex partners has become interchangeable.

CGMofasUQAA0KKm“It’s instant gratification,” says Jason, 26, a Brooklyn photographer, “and a validation of your own attractiveness by just, like, swiping your thumb on an app. You see some pretty girl and you swipe and it’s, like, oh, she thinks you’re attractive too, so it’s really addicting, and you just find yourself mindlessly doing it.” “Sex has become so easy,” says John, 26, a marketing executive in New York. “I can go on my phone right now and no doubt I can find someone I can have sex with this evening, probably before midnight.”

So what we have is something akin to the millennial’s mail-order bride catalog. Rather than a long wait overseas and an even longer commitment, Tinder provides instant feedback, instant gratification, and then, instant emancipation. Like the free market itself, Tinder is an aggregator of choices available to the consumer, based on the consumer’s own taste. And as soon as the consumer is ready for more, the market is available, 24/7, for newer gratification. In this erotic milieu, the chief reward must be novelty, precisely because the chief stimulus is human impulse.

You cannot talk about the free market and sex in the same sentence without also talking about porn. An industry that is larger than any of the major league sports and nearly as big as Hollywood, pornography is hardly a subculture, and its aesthetic range seems to say so. Recently, the actress Rashida Jones talked to Vice about her new Netflix documentary, Hot Girls Wanted, about the world of ‘amateur’ porn in Miami. In it she talks about the new brand of sex being portrayed by and to young women these days, saying,

Porn is the embodiment of the peak of capitalism in so many ways; the commodification of sex. There’s a lot that it says about us, both good and bad…it’s tricky, though; women are embodying this ideal of the powerful, successful, capitalistic man, which says: ‘I’m making money, it doesn’t matter how I’m making my money, I’m making my money.’ That’s sort of the new brand of sex…and I find it limiting.

Limiting, indeed. Jones received a rash of criticism for saying something similar in a column she wrote entitled “The Pornification of Everything.” You don’t have to look far to see what the Twittersphere had to say.

But what Jones is actually pointing out is the discrepancy that happens when paralleling the free market with human sexuality. While there may be no emotional cost to ordering a pair of khakis online, there is always an emotional cost to human intimacy. Much as we like to think that Tinder swipes are automatic, in a room of suitors, everyone would rather be a priority instead of an option. The Vanity Fair article documents a conversation with a few female Tinder users:

“There is no dating. There’s no relationships,” says Amanda, the tall elegant one. “They’re rare. You can have a fling that could last like seven, eight months and you could never actually call someone your ‘boyfriend.’ [Hooking up] is a lot easier. No one gets hurt—well, not on the surface.”…“It’s a contest to see who cares less, and guys win a lot at caring less,” Amanda says.

“Sex should stem from emotional intimacy, and it’s the opposite with us right now, and I think it really is kind of destroying females’ self-images,” says Fallon.

If last week we talked about the contest of who cares enough, Tinder certainly describes the contest of righteous apathy. The article illustrates that, while Tinder provides the simple, validating pings of mutual attraction, it cannot walk you into the dark, messy rooms of intimacy. While we’re able to find consummate sex on our terms, we’re unable to find something, or someone, who might help us leave those terms behind. When real intimacy requires getting lost, we’re all too quick to use a service that will provide us our illusion of always finding.

TRAINWRECK - 2015 FILM STILL - Pictured: Amy (AMY SCHUMER) gets closer to Aaron (BILL HADER) - Photo Credit: Universal Pictures  © 2015 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

This brings back Nicholas Carr and the wayfaring traveler. If we can, by virtue of technology, never feel lost or alone again, what do we miss by always being findable? And if we’re never alone, who could ever move in to our loneliness? Carr talks about Orville and Wilbur Wright and how, before aviation found autopilot, they designed planes to be highly unstable. Being unstable, they were easier to maneuver, even if the risk seemed greater:

The more stable an aircraft is, the more effort will be required to move it off its point of equilibrium. Hence it will be less controllable. The opposite is also true—the more controllable, or maneuverable, an aircraft, the less stable it will be.

In this way, “stable” flying was actually dangerous flying. It could numb a pilot into being no pilot at all. But, aviators of the future wound up moving away from the Wright brothers. Like so many times before and after, in the advent of new technologies and higher demand for safety, the industry chose automation.

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4 responses to “Never Lost Again: Tinder, Porn and the Dying Art of Falling in Love”

  1. Cal says:

    I appreciated this article as someone who was rescued out of the Hook-Up culture and continue to struggle, like Tertullian living in Pagan Carthage (let the reader understand). And I understand this is just a blog post, but the ‘solution’ (is there one?) reminds me of the end of the movie Don Jon (another great expose on the phenom from a different angle). Essentially our hope is for ‘getting lost in each-other’ instead of merely living in the bubble of our own wants/desires/destination.

    And I guess there’s a kind of consolation when we stop trying to surpass our mortality through the fantasy of tech and accept ourselves as we are. But is that it? We’re only to be chastened to accept the mundane and common?

    Tinder represents man trying to break our own limitations through destroying our Humanity. Every Babel project inevitably results in this. While compared to a Ghengis Khan or an Alexander, this tech revolution seems rather bloodless in reshaping the Human Cosmos. But it is a denial of Adam, only to deepen Adam’s curse. Such is the Lamech in us all.

    But Christ is not smoothing out a roughened, and misshapen Prodigal. Instead it is a new Creation. As Dostoevsky said, Beauty will save the world. That’s the only solution/hope is a society enslaved to Porn, enslaved to will-worship, and enslaved to a transcendent mutilation.

  2. Phil says:

    Ethan – can you help me here? This is a marvelous quote – but I’m wondering if there is a typo?

    If you never have to worry about not knowing where you are, then you never have to where you are.

    I can imagine many different wordings to that sentence. . .
    Can you help me out. This is worth setting aside…

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