From Tiktaalik to Tinder: Online Dating with the HAL 9000
by Guy Walker
“Without your space helmet, Dave? You’re going to find that rather difficult.” -HAL 9000
by Guy Walker
Online dating isn’t what it used to be. There used to be a tinge of splendor, a sense that you were exploring the murky sloven depths of humanity, a sordid excitement of the unknown. It was similar to what Cortes and Pizarro and Columbus must have felt when they shoved themselves into their huge drunken voyages, uncertain if they were going to find gold and riches and an endless supply of slaves, or just a tragic arena of dirt, lost in their own fetid storms of sweat and dust. When Match.com began in 1995, it was home to every Freudian urge, every malformed superego trying to find its compliment in the vast disorganized orgy, all that luxuriant animality humping its way through eternity. You really didn’t know what was going to come about—this was the new frontier.
The 90’s was an era of unbridled romance. We began leaving the streets and bar counters and changing rooms, preferring to sit hunched over our computers staring at internet porn, endlessly curating our public profiles in order to present ourselves as successful, blooming, yolo alpha-types. All those swollen genitals congregating behind their glowing screens, every gaping mouth scrolling through countless profiles, trying to match themselves with another desirable set. In those pungent cascading days, when our puff sneakers had flickering glow-lights in the heel, when Creed and Limp Bizkit got us properly fucked up, when global warming hadn’t yet killed all the coral reefs, dating was dangerous. Maybe her pictures were deceiving and she had an Adam’s apple. Maybe he was a mute. Maybe she had the full collection of Beanie Babies organized across her bed, and she slept on the floor. The further back you go, the more dangerous and provocative it gets. Before Match.com, there was The Dating Game, when you picked your date hidden behind a wall, when in 1978, convicted serial killer and rapist Rodney Alcala won because of his “banana” answer. The Sambian tribe in New Guinea makes their young drink cupfuls of their tribal leaders’ semen. There were the Hellfire Clubs of Britain and Ireland in the 18th century, high society clubs that attracted the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Lord Wharton, who all practiced “rigorously pagan” sexual acts, wearing cultish white gowns as they fucked a pig (something David Cameron reintroduced to the modern world). Genghis Khan has 16 million descendants. And before all of them, there were the gods of Flora, Venus, and Dionysus, every centaur and crippled angel stroking the edges of night.
Today, online dating is a pedantic sheltered custom, like purity balls of the very religious. Kant’s categorical imperative is base, and merely suggests you should get out of bed and change your underwear—everything else is inconsequential. Dating sites are so specialized, so meticulously curated to one’s particular desires, there is little peril or urgency anymore. There’s one for gluten free people, fat people, Christians, Jews, cougars, zombies, vampires, female prisoners, furries, people with food allergies, people in diapers, people with mullets, clowns, farmers, midgets, tall people, conspiracy theorists. Rule 34 is as true for dating sites as it is for porn. Our rampant puissant tribalism has dissipated into a bunch of shitty websites, our evolutionary obduracy is nothing more than a claustrophobic set of safe houses. The Jared Diamonds of the future will write books on the anthropological significance of dick pics and Tinder bios, on why some sites failed and others prospered and conquered the world.
But there is also an aspect to it that is quite ordinary and expected. People have always used the available tools of accessibility in order to mate more freely and effectively with each other. Animals have always congregated around watering holes in order to bloat their colored feathers and chase each other around the desert. We’re attracted to those who are most like us. As reported in the July 2010 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, research suggests we are more attracted to people who resemble our parents or ourselves. Similarly, researchers at deCODE Genetics in Reykjavik reported in a 2008 issue of Science that reproductive unions between third and fourth cousins in Iceland tend to reproduce more children and grandchildren than completely unrelated individuals, without any inbreeding consequences. The id is impulsively drawn to fuck its own. So it’s perfectly natural for a furry to want to mate with another furry, as they do en masse at furry conventions—our own sexual narcissism is implanted in our genetic code.
Our bios on dating sites tend to be cute, self-ironic haikus graffitied with paragraphs of emojis that exclaim our complexities, suggesting to our potential mate that not only are we able-bodied and damp enough, but we like music, lips, wine, dancing skeletons, and cactus. Opening conversations are some beige semblance of ‘dtf?’ or some indirect query that leads to much of the same. Here, it’s obvious to apply Foucauldian discourse analysis, which focuses on power relationships within society (both personal and institutional) as expressed through our language and behavior. Similar to social constructivism, Foucauldian discourse analysis examines how the structure and evolution of our language is preceded by our surroundings of power and influence. Previous to the internet, the prelude to our mating rituals was a play of discourse, a weighing of one another’s dominance. As we spoke and gradually got to know one another, we were testing each other, judging who held the dominant role. But in the epoch of the dating site and the dating app, the app itself is the dominant force, the algorithmic code that enables or disables an exchange.
We always had some sort of vague pedantry when it came to dating—the august jouissance of staring into this new stranger’s eyes as you circle the rim of your wineglass with your pointy finger, directing your toes toward her in a psychologically informative way, repeating agreeable terms over and over whilst you drift aimlessly through the libidinal stratum of fantasy, nodding your head as you think about the anatomy of her buttocks. Because of course it’s the anticipation of titillation itself that is most exciting. We want to wonder whether or not we are going to consume each other’s sweat and rushing fluids, if mentioning stories of your childhood cat are going to pay off, if your trousers are going to slip helplessly to the floor.
But the dating app is an ephemeral fart in the ever-advancement of accessibility to each others’ private parts. Where do we go from here?
Elon Musk recently said at the 2016 Code Conference that there is a “one in billions” chance that this plane of existence in not a simulation. We’re essentially one advanced game of Halo, every hairless cretinous cyborg groping through high definition digital forests for something to eat and fuck. He added that in order to not be outpaced by A.I., we’ll need to “achieve symbiosis with machines” through neural lacing, essentially accessing the powers of the internet through singular thoughts.
This begs the question: will we continue to fuck? Will we continue to follow our base instincts, our longings for flesh and sweat and smelly fingers? The movie Her explores this theme similarly, and quite realistically and hauntingly, suggesting a future of love and sex with an invisible A.I. hidden inside our ear. This outcome seems inevitable. And not just for the ugly malformed masses who can’t find mates, but for the entire human herd, everyone compartmentalizing in their own private invisible 69’s.
But maybe the most hauntingly impotent form of modern day sexuality is already a thing: tantric massage, a practice that seems to promise tremendous full body orgasms, but none of the flesh, none of the eye contact, none of the dripping fluids, just a yoga teacher standing over you, fanning your pussy but not actually touching anything. It’s an orgasm without sex, a completely immaterial perverse exchange, concluded with an awkward contrite handshake.
I never thought this type of sexless exchange would popularize. I thought humans would always naturally gravitate towards the tingly sensitivities of flesh against porous flesh, of the agglutinative heat of bodies pressed tight against one another. Because orgasm has always seemed like something to delay, that the pleasure of the body itself was the goal, that once orgasm was achieved, only this cold dank half-reality was left, and you had to tend to the mess you’ve made. But popular philosophical thought is at a crossroads of desire.
Slavoj Žižek tells that his ideal romantic relationship would be for a woman to come to his house with an electric dildo, and he would reveal his pocket pussy, and they would set the two shivering silicone apparatuses at it, fucking away on the fireplace mantle or wherever, as Žižek and his date could drink tea, watch movies, laugh, and pull on their noses. This would relieve Žižek of all the “oppressiveness” of sex, all the obsession with performing the sexual act correctly.
This may happen for a period, but the acceleration of technology will quickly surpass even this. And maybe our last moment, before the collapse of the universe, will be Žižek pulling on his nose as he’s humping the HAL 9000, and a hologram of Neil DeGrasse Tyson appears in the background, and he’s burbling up some stupid witticism about the evolution of this marvelous exchange. The violet and turquoise bursts from stars will intersect, the swirling clouds spreading across lightyears will flood our breasts, the florid bright freckling of the galaxies collapse at the final orgasm, and HAL’s distorted last song slowly drawls on.