If you already find online dating daunting and, at times, depressing, Black Mirror just took it up a notch. In the season four episode ‘Hang The DJ, it did what the show does so well – showed the dangers of our increasing dependence on technology. But, although the episode was set in the future, it actually gave a huge amount of insight into what dating is already like. The episode shines a light on the pitfalls and dangers of our dating app culture, because, when it comes dating, technology has already crept way the eff in.
How does it do it? Well- spoilers ahead – if you havent watched the episode (and you should), it focuses on two daters. In the episode, Frank and Amy meet up for a date set up by the “system”. The system seems to be a self-contained world where youre matched with a person and the two of you pair up for a predetermined amount of time- whether just a few hours or for years. You have a personal coach, charmdate a pebble-like device you carry around and to which you can ask questions- and this device also lets you know how long youll be together. It picks up information about you and how you respond to each partner, to eventually find you your final and perfect match.
But something odd is afoot from the beginning of the episode. There are menacing-looking bouncers who seem to be ensuring you follow the rules and dont talk too much about life outside the system. There is no connection to the outside world. Frank and Amy comment on some of the oddities when they are paired up for their first date, which lasts only about a day and a half. Then they are each paired up in other relationships- all of which are ill-fated, especially when compared to the genuine chemistry the two seem to share. Frank and Amy continue bumping into each other and, as they are given a chance to resolve things before Amy is paired off forever, they decide to run away together and try to escape the system. When they escape, the world dissolves around them and it is clear that the entire episode we just saw was a simulation run by a dating app.
The simulation is run a thousand times on each potential match and, the more times the simulation versions of yourselves tried to escape the system, the higher your match score. Frank and Amy see their very high score as they match with each other, before locking eyes in real life for the first time from across a bar.
I know, simulations being run hundreds of time with virtual versions of ourselves may seem far-fetched, but so many of the details of the episode spoke to how we interact now.
In the episode, Amy gets matched on a lot more short flings than Frank, who is stuck in a relationship he hates for much of the time. In each fling, it seems sort of assumed that theyll have sex. Although Amy seems to genuinely enjoy a lot of the sex she has, she also at one point describes feeling so detached from it- that shes almost lifting out of her body and seeing herself from across the room, realizing just how perfunctory the in-out-in-out sex shes having is. Now, casual sex can be incredible and theres nothing wrong with having sex for sexs sake. But our swiping culture already leads to a lot of joyless, kind of shitty sex that we have just because its available. And we deserve so much more.
People in the episode joke about how they cannot fathom dating before “the system”- dealing with messy breakups and having to make decisions yourself. In real life, we look at older styles of dating- like arranged marriages or marriages based on wealth- and shudder. Meanwhile, our parents often think online dating is all about sex, even though thousands of marriages and long-term relationships have come through apps. The way other people choose to meet will always seem baffling because its such a hard thing to get right. Theres really no easy way to do it.
Because in the system the characters knew exactly when their relationship expiration date was, they treated people badly. At one point Frank and Amy talk about the problem that, whether its a short relationship or a long one, youre still not invested in it and spend most of your time watching the minutes click by. Though we might not know exactly how long our relationship will last in real life, the amount of choice offered by dating apps means that many of us treat each other as disposable and dont give our interactions the effort or respect they deserve. Why would we? We can act as selfish as we want and know there are more options just a swipe away.
Ultimately, the episode highlighted one of my biggest pet-peeves about online dating: the fact that theres so little real-world contact. Some of my friends have spoken to people on apps for three or four months without ever meeting up. Talk about a waste of time. In a way, it would be nice to have an app do all of the simulation work for you so you could get right down to having a real-world connection. But we dont. And its wrong to spend too much time on the apps. Because, inside or outside of “the system”, now or in the future, nothing can take the place of- or really even predict- real life chemistry. So we need to get down to actually spending time together in real life as quickly as possible.
The Hang The DJ episode may have been set in the future, but it certainly wasn’t that far-fetched. When it comes to dating, were already so reliant on technology that the episode rang very, very true. And no matter how far we may be from the “system”, it can teach us a lot about how we date today. So take some time away from the apps- and make sure you focus on real life contact.