To some, the singles scene has already hit apocalyptic territory. So what would a fictional dating dystopia look like?
In its fourth season, the Netflix series “Black Mirror” makes a pretty good guess. Its episode follows Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell), who are stuck in an online dating experiment called the System, which pairs users off for finite amounts of time (anywhere from 12 hours to several years) while collecting data on their preferences so that it can one day deliver their one true love.
At first “Hang the DJ’s” premise appears to be a more cheerful version of “The Lobster,” a dark comedy about a hotel where singles are sent to meet their match, or else. After 45 days, those who don’t find a suitable mate get turned into the animal of their choosing. It took the idea of “dying alone” to frightening heights.
Even if the constant pairings in “Hang the DJ” seem like drudgery, the episode is far more optimistic than “The Lobster.” Even as Frank and Amy drudge through unsatisfying matches, success seems more inevitable than a lifetime of loneliness.
In fact, there are a few elements in “Hang the DJ’s” fictional universe that, at least at first glance, might seem like improvements on the real-life Tinder slog.
Singles get to meet each other right away. Are you tired of coming up with small talk with strangers over Tinder messages? Of course you are. Instead, the System pairs people instantly and picks the meetup spot.
Back in 2013, OkCupid tried something like this: an app called Crazy Blind Date, where profile photos were displayed as a scrambled image. Users would input the times they had available to meet up and preferred locations. The app would then either set people up blindly or allow them to schedule with another user based on the times and locations they had on offer. It sounds like a brilliant way to do an end-run around endless predate conversing, but OkCupid got a lot of backlash over the app. Why? Well, one of the reasons people often don’t want to go on dates immediately with strangers from the Internet is that they want to make sure they’ll be safe — and often picking a public place isn’t enough to ensure that. However, in the serene yet sanitized world Frank and Amy find themselves in, the danger seems to come not from their dates but from the security officers stalking about with stun guns.
Everyone seems to be looking for the same thing: a relationship. What a concept. In real life, not only do daters experience bad matches (someone who doesn’t like you, you don’t like them, or you clearly both don’t like each other), but they also endure the heartbreak of good matches with bad timing (such as one person being off to a job or grad school in a different city). Not to mention online daters having to shoehorn these meetups and their relationships into their busy, stressful lives. In “Hang the DJ’s” community of singles, everyone seems to be on the same timeline, or at least they’re willfully submitting to the System’s.
Would devoting every waking hour to finding a partner be better than the balancing act most singles experience now? It might be more effective, but it could drive you crazy in the meantime. Do the contestants on “The Bachelor,” who are doing pretty much that, seem well-adjusted to you?
It gives couples certainty about how long they’ll be together. Call me a cynic, but when Frank and Amy hit their System buttons on their first date and found out their relationship would last a grand total of 12 hours, I was incredibly relieved for them. They both seemed disappointed. But all I could think was: Wow, that makes it easy! No anxious thoughts about whether and when the person you’re with might break up with you; no energy spent on the uncertainty of dating. Everything is decided for you. What a relief!
But also: What a nightmare! This is basically technology-brokered arranged marriage with zero human input. The horrors of which are obvious when you see how miserable some of the Frank and Amy’s other matches are.
You have lots of options, but you know you’ll end up with the best. When the dangers of online dating are discussed in real life, the paradox of choice comes up. This is the idea that, faced with an abundance of choices, be it on Tinder or brands of cereal, we’ve become not freer and happier but more paralyzed and dissatisfied. The System aims to offer the best of both worlds: Lots of options, and at the end of it you get the best one.
I won’t give away the ending, but ultimately the episode becomes not an indictment of dating apps like Tinder but an endorsement of them. In a story that starts by telling its characters to hand over their free will to the supremacy of technology, it ends up melding the two. Yes, the app puts two people together, but they still have to make choices to be happy.