How’s this for a 21st century Valentine’s Day tale: a group of religious fundamentalists want to redefine human sexual and gender relationships based on a more than 2,000 year old religious text. Yet instead of doing this by aiming to seize hold of the cultural and political institutions of society, a task they find impossible, they create an algorithm which once people enter their experience is based on religiously derived assumptions users cannot see. People who enter this world have no control over their actions within it, and surrender their autonomy for the promise of finding their “soul mate”.
I’m not writing a science-fiction story- it’s a tale that’s essentially true.
One of the first places, perhaps the only place, where the desire to compress human behavior into algorithmically processable and rationalized “data”, has run into a wall was in the ever so irrational realms of sex and love. Perhaps I should have titled this piece “Cupid’s Revenge”, for the domain of sex and love has proved itself so unruly and non-computable that what is now almost unbelievable has happened- real human beings have been brought back into the process of making actual decisions that affect their lives rather than relying on silicon oracles to tell them what to do.
It’s a story not much known and therefore important to tell. The story begins with the exaggerated claims of what was one of the first and biggest online dating sites- eHarmony. Founded in 2000 by Neil Clark Warren, a clinical psychologist and former marriage counselor, eHarmony promoted itself as more than just a mere dating site claiming that it had the ability to help those using its service find their “soul mate”. As their senior research scientist, Gian C. Gonzaga, would put it:
It is possible “to empirically derive a matchmaking algorithm that predicts the relationship of a couple before they ever meet.”
At the same time it made such claims, eHarmony was also very controlling in the way its customers were allowed to use its dating site. Members were not allowed to search for potential partners on their own, but directed to “appropriate” matches based on a 200 item questionnaire and directed by the site’s algorithm, which remained opaque to its users. This model of what dating should be was doubtless driven by Warren’s religious background, for in addition to his psychological credentials, Warren was also a Christian theologian.
By 2011 eHarmony garnered the attention of sceptical social psychologists, most notably, Eli J. Finkel, who, along with his co-authors, wrote a critical piece for the American Psychological Association in 2011 on eHarmony and related online dating sites.
What Finkle wanted to know was if claims such as that of eHarmony that it had discovered some ideal way to match individuals to long term partners actually stood up to critical scrutiny. What he and his authors concluded was that while online dating had opened up a new frontier for romantic relationships, it had not solved the problem of how to actually find the love of one’s life. Or as he later put it in a recent article:
As almost a century of research on romantic relationships has taught us, predicting whether two people are romantically compatible requires the sort of information that comes to light only after they have actually met.
Faced with critical scrutiny, eHarmony felt compelled to do something, to my knowledge, none of the programmers of the various algorithms that now mediate much of our relationship with the world have done; namely, to make the assumptions behind their algorithms explicit.
As Gonzaga explained it eHarmony’s matching algorithm was based on six key characteristics of users that included things like “level of agreeableness” and “optimism”. Yet as another critic of eHarmony Dr. Reis told Gonzaga:
That agreeable person that you happen to be matching up with me would, in fact, get along famously with anyone in this room.
Still, the major problem critics found with eHarmony wasn’t just that it made exaggerated claims for the effectiveness of its romantic algorithms that were at best a version of skimming, it’s that it asserted nearly complete control over the way its users defined what love actually was. As is the case with many algorithms, the one used by eHarmony was a way for its designers and owners to constrain those using it to impose, rightly or wrongly, their own value assumptions about the world.
And like many classic romantic tales, this one ended with the rebellion of messy human emotion over reason and paternalistic control. Social psychologist weren’t the only ones who found eHarmony’s model constraining and weren’t the first to notice its flaws. One of the founders of an alternative dating site, Christian Rudder of OkCupid, has noted that much of what his organization has done was in light of the exaggerated claims for the efficacy of their algorithms and top-down constraints imposed by the creators of eHarmony. But it is another, much maligned dating site, Tinder, that proved to be the real rebel in this story.
Critics of Tinder, where users swipe through profile pictures to find potential dates have labeled the site a “hook-up” site that encourages shallowness. Yet Finkle concludes:
Yes, Tinder is superficial. It doesn’t let people browse profiles to find compatible partners, and it doesn’t claim to possess an algorithm that can find your soulmate. But this approach is at least honest and avoids the errors committed by more traditional approaches to online dating.
And appearance driven sites are unlikely to be the last word in online dating especially for older Romeos and Juliets who would like to go a little deeper than looks. Psychologist, Robert Epstein, working at the MIT Media Lab sees two up and coming trends that will likely further humanize the 21st century dating experience. The first is the rise of non-video game like virtual dating environments. As he describes it:
….so at some point you will be able to have, you know, something like a real date with someone, but do it virtually, which means the safety issue is taken care of and you’ll find out how you interact with someone in some semi-real setting or even a real setting; maybe you can go to some exotic place, maybe you can even go to the Champs-Elyséesin Paris or maybe you can go down to the local fast-food joint with them, but do it virtually and interact with them.
The other, just as important, but less tech-sexy change Epstine sees coming is bringing friends and family back into the dating experience:
Right now, if you sign up with the eHarmony or match.com or any of the other big services, you’re alone—you’re completely alone. It’s like being at a huge bar, but going without your guy friends or your girl friends—you’re really alone. But in the real world, the community is very helpful in trying to determine whether someone is right for you, and some of the new services allow you to go online with friends and family and have, you know, your best friend with you searching for potential partners, checking people out. So, that’s the new community approach to online dating.
As has long been the case, sex and love have been among the first set of explorers moving out into a previously unexplored realm of human possibility. Yet sex and love are also because of this the proverbial canary in the coal mine informing us of potential dangers. The experience of online dating suggest that we need to be sceptical of the exaggerated claims of the various algorithms that now mediate much of lives and be privy to their underlying assumptions. To be successful algorithms need to bring our humanity back into the loop rather than regulate it away as something messy, imperfect, irrational and unsystematic.
There is another lesson here as well, for the more something becomes disconnected from our human capacity to extend trust through person-to-person contact and through taping into the wisdom of our own collective networks of trust the more dependent we become on overseers who in exchange for protecting us from deception demand the kinds of intimate knowledge from us only friends and lovers deserve.