It seems pretty obvious that we shouldn’t let machines direct the genetic future of our species. If you ask the average person, they probably don’t want Gooqle “assisting” their DNA with micro-injections. Nobody but Jeff wants Amaozn to operate a worldwide eugenics program. Watson is not a doctor.

But while the online dating industry has a business model as corrosive as any of the other spyware giants, their algorithms have direct influence on how human beings mate.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve done online dating. Like any millennial, some of my most life-altering experiences were the product of online relationships: cutting my hair, moving across the country, changing my name, hiding in the woods for years. The usual.

It’s the most efficient way yet invented to get yourself into, and out of, codependent commitment-avoidant relationships that even your best friends can’t prevent from blowing up in everyone’s faces.

In other words, it’s perfectly suited to the ebb and flow of the global labor market.

Online dating is a coping mechanism for the alienated young person in the city, where the jobs and the consumer goods are plentiful but social meaning has melted into air. People use it to make friends, or pretend-friends, for long enough to taste the succulent microbrews of their local establishments. We attept to simulate the village, while the city slides its tendrils into our stomachs and down our pants.

To mine those precious social resources, the capitalist machine built a market for people’s sex lives.

The logic of the market can be felt in the user experience. Swiping left and right on photos is the same as browsing clothes at the mall. You’re shopping for people. If something piques your interest, a quick look at the label will tell you if it’s made for hiking from all-natural materials, or if it’s snuggly for Neftlix and chilling.

But that doesn’t keep the lights on. This is surveillance capitalism. If you’re not paying for the service, you’re the product.

The dating sites – almost of all of which are owned by the Match megacorp – collate user data and sell it to the highest bidder. German cogsec outfit Tactical Tech released a report last month detailing the shadowy data practices of Match and its subsidiaries. They bought over a million users’ data and traced its sources, discovering a network of over 700 companies gathering and re-selling people’s intimate data for profit.

They have a live “auction” on the site, where you can bid on a different subset of anonymized profiles every minute. (GO TO THAT LINK SOMETIME. CLICK “BUY NOW”. IT’S REALLY INTERESTING I SWEAR. I CAN’T STOP LOOKING. THE HORROR THE UNSPEAKABLE HORROR)

It’s bad enough to be exploited this way. To have our secrets sold, our feelings fracked. It’s worse that the AI behind the match systems is a black box.

There is some logic to the matchmaker algorithms, of course. They have to put enough people in enough contact with attractive-enough others to maintain their network effect. If nobody uses dating apps, nobody wants to use dating apps. So there’s a bottom limit on how much energy they can extract without providing some reward.

(Though, like any good megacorp, they externalize costs to the environment whenever possible. So-called “involuntary celibates” shooting up public spaces can be seen as a form of pollution from the dating industry.)

But the algorithms don’t optimize for successful dates .

If they actually connected people in meaningful ways, they’d put themselves out of business. Their sweet spot is the near-miss: the best possible match that won’t make you delete the app. Almost perfect, but ultimately unfulfilling. They need you to keep coming back.

Last time I met someone on swiping, they deleted 900 matches to date me exclusively. I’m still not sure which part of that should have been the red flag, but in hindsight it’s easy to see something was wrong.

The match machines don’t have our best interests in mind. They serve their masters, the data lords ensconced in towers built of the warm bones of the lovers of our age. Their control is precise. Their devotion absolute.

Humans, on the other hand, are sloppy and impulsive. In the rush to get past complete strangerhood, it’s easy to get too drunk, or forget the protection, or other fun little games that get people pregnant. Babies conceived from internet relationships aren’t necessarily accidental, or even undesirable. But this combination of machine precision and human caprice inevitably means that some percentage of humans born this year will be the product of an algorithmic eugenics program.

If an AI has a goal of maximizing dating-app usage, it can achieve that goal through whatever means it can imagine. It could attempt to breed a whole generation of people susceptible to dating apps. It could domesticate humans the way we do plants: we’d be like seedless oranges, unable to procreate except through the magnanimous help of our masters.

Evolutionary changes happen more slowly than most AI goals. If a black-box algorithm started a selective breeding program, we wouldn’t even notice until far too late.

Thanks for reading,

– Max


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