Dating in the Age of Distraction: The Beautiful Ones Always Smash the Picture

Some people believe that dating has never been so easy as it is today. Swipe right and connect. Done. No need to approach someone in a bar, or even go to a bar in the first place.

Do it All without Getting Up

Many of us believe that the Internet helps us create the illusion of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence. We believe that it increases our power, our knowledge (through instantaneous access to more information than ever in human history), and our presence in the lives of more people than was ever humanly possible.

This illusion is so powerful that many of us believe we can play the role of God—all-knowing, all-powerful, present everywhere—without even leaving our rooms. 

We now even have the possibility of meeting the right partner without departing from behind our beloved megapixels simply by swiping left through thousands of one-inch photos, each accompanied by a brief, meticulously assembled self-description intended to induce positive attributions from the viewer—such as carefree, fun-loving, and delightfully intelligent—that will induce the coveted right swipe.

(At a conference five years ago, the woman sitting next to me started telling me, “I love to travel. I have some special places in my country I love to go, quiet places where I am surrounded by nature.” I immediately recognized the common verbiage of dating websites and started talking about my wife. I now always try to remember to wear my wedding ring to conferences.)

The Beautiful Ones Always Smash the Picture

Yet it all comes crashing down, again and again. The real world is not so obsequious or attentive as our screens, which are painstakingly designed to appease our every whim. 

Voicing this phenomenon, one of the few female programmers in the early years of the Internet, Ellen Ullman, ​incisively predicted a few decades ago​ that the on-demand economy would result in antisocial behavior since we would no longer “need to involve anyone else in the satisfaction of our needs.”

The ideal person of our fantasies, retrofitted onto an Internet image of a complete stranger versed in self-presentation, rarely delivers in reality.

As the writer ​Andrew Sullivan perceptively observes​, “An entire universe of intimate responses is flattened to a single, distant swipe. We hide our vulnerabilities, airbrushing our flaws and quirks; we project our fantasies onto the images before us.”

The late musical artist Prince expertly described this phenomenon of etching an image of perfection in one’s mind associated with another person. It never works. “The beautiful ones,” Prince croons, “always smash the picture.”

It is ironic that these prescient lyrics are from a song, “The Beautiful Ones,” that ​replaced another song​originally intended for his album Purple Rain titled “Electric Intercourse.”

Many Little Brothers Are Watching

How is this electronic search for Mr. or Ms. Right affecting our brains?

According to technology writer Nicholas Carr, some useful mental capacities, such as focused thinking, atrophy from disuse. Our primal instincts are to rapidly shift our focus from one stimulus to another in order to survive. The Internet capitalizes on this instinct, keeping us in perpetual “survival mode.” 

In this sense, the Internet piques our fear that something is wrong, or someone is angry at us, or we have made a mistake—and we had better check our online accounts to confirm that our sources of approval are still satisfied with us.

Keeping It Under Control

Even within Big Tech, remorseful voices are emerging about the effects of new technologies on our brains. These voices include the first president of Facebook, Sean Parker, who recently stated that Facebook is “a social-validation feedback loop” and that “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

The former leader of Facebook’s global growth efforts, Chamath Palihapitiya, ​echoed Parker’s sentiments​: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.” 

Instead of Big Brother, we now have thousands of Little Brothers we are incessantly attempting to placate. This scarcity mentality could be at the core of why we feel compelled to check email and Facebook multiple times each hour, even during our so-called leisure or vacation time. 

We continually attempt to soothe our insecurity that we are okay because everything is okay—all others’ expectations of us are currently being met, so we can relax.

No Exit

Yet here’s the Catch-22: since for the first time in history others can reach us within seconds from just about anywhere around the globe, this cat-and-mouse game of satisfying others’ expectations has no respite or end or lull—at any time of the day or week, ever. 

We have become, in effect, prisoners in an electronic maze with no exit. The external quest to meet or please others keeps us plodding forward, dissatisfied yet doggedly driven, further and further, into the maze.

Make the decision not to allow Silicon Valley brogrammers to dictate how you go about meeting the right person for one day longer. 

How? Re-evaluate how you will evaluate potential partners. Give others more of your consideration than a left swipe. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that slowing down a bit enables you to both connect more and enjoy your time more with the new people you meet.

Anthony Silard, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Leadership and the Director of the Center for Sustainable Leadership at Luiss Business School in Rome, and the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Leadership at Tecnológico de Monterrey. Anthony is a world-renowned leadership educator whose research focuses on emotion, leadership, loneliness and trauma. His latest book is Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age. Anthony’s blog, videos, courses and podcasts are available at www.theartoflivingfree.org .             

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