The relationship breaks up. Two months of (mostly) bliss, that euphoric early phase – a couple of dinner dates, cosy evenings and walks by the sea, a trip to the range – and then four weeks of separation, followed by a curt phone call to end things. Her voice is strained. I can tell she’s under massive pressure with work. We don’t live together, so there are no doors to slam, no clothes to pack. It’s just over: words as performative act.
I feel sorry for myself for a little while, but then I start to think I’m much better off without her, even if it was just the added pressure of working from home and the isolation that made her do it (what else had changed?). I remember all those things she’d said that made me twist and cringe inside but that I’d smiled my way through only because I liked having sex with her. The blank incomprehension, the tightness that gripped her face when I said the word “repatriation”…
Under normal circumstances, now would be a great time for a rebound. But we’re four weeks into a global pandemic and I’m only allowed to leave my house for essential shopping and brief exercise. There’s a bog-roll shortage. It’s not a good time to be playing the field.
I talk to an old friend on the phone. We haven’t spoken in a while. He didn’t even know I’d had a new girlfriend. I give him the lowdown.
“Well, I’m sorry. Hopefully this virus stuff won’t last long.”
“Yeah, me too. It’s not a good time to be playing the field.”
Three weeks to save the NHS and it’s already been four.
London. 2012. No, not the Olympics. Most of my friends and their friends have downloaded a new app called “Tinder”. Now, instead of talking, they sit swiping when we go out for drinks.
I watch them, huddled over their phones, totally engrossed by what’s on offer. The phrase “meat market” enters my head. From time to time, one of them passes his phone around to the others.
“Look at that!”
Just as often it’s somebody horribly unfortunate as drop-dead gorgeous. Occasionally, one of them will swipe right on one of the unfortunates while the phone is still out of its owner’s hands. What a great joke – and even better when the unwitting dupe matches seconds later.
A whole new etiquette for dating emerges. Friends now think nothing of leaving a social engagement – drinks, a house party, even a restaurant meal – at the drop of a hat to go and have sex with somebody they’ve never met before. “Where did Dan go?” Eventually we all stop asking.
Despite repeated prodding from my friends – “Come on, you’ll love it!” – an observer I remain. It just doesn’t appeal to me. Something about the idea of shopping for people: it’s too much like going on Amazon. And people aren’t commodities, are they? You can’t appraise a person like you can a flat-screen television or a desk lamp. A few pictures and some very selective autobiography will tell you next to nothing. Pretty quickly my friends get shallower intimations of this too, as the horror stories of dates who look nothing like their profile pictures begin to mount. But still my friends keep at it.
A Skype conversation with a female friend from Down Under. She edits an online journal. Married, kids. We’ve been talking about coronavirus.
The connection is bad, so I miss the first part of what she’s saying.
“… and I’m not giving up anal sex. No way!”
What the hell does that have to do with coronavirus? I wonder.
Wait. Wasn’t there some early suggestion of faecal transmission? Could that be what she’s referring to?
I’m not sure, so I pretend I didn’t hear her and just carry on.
My objections weren’t – and aren’t – just philosophical. Using dating apps is like shopping in another sense; it’s sterile, curated, curtailed. Almost entirely devoid of risk and therefore, in a very important sense, excitement. One of the best parts of meeting women “in the wild”, for me, has always been the thrill of that first interaction: the lingering glance across the bar or dancefloor, the approach, the opener. And I don’t mean those things in some choreographed, pickup-artist kind of way. What I mean is, quite simply, the electricity of two people who are attracted to each other and in that moment, despite the chaos around them, care about nothing more than getting to know each other. With a dating app, by contrast, you can “select” a potential partner without any of that messy, uncertain business. No need to be brave or daring or persistent (that’s just likely to get you reported). Rather, you skip ahead to a stage where the mutual attraction is superficially confirmed and you’re talking in a neutral space.
That was my understanding of some of the things that were wrong with dating apps before I ever used one, and it remains my understanding now, after a year of using them on and off. These are strange days, granted, but I don’t think the pandemic has created any new trends. If anything, it’s just made existing ones a whole lot worse.
To cut a long story short, I cave. So ends a valiant seven-odd-year defence of an increasingly lonely hill. I download and install Tinder. And then Bumble. Just for the hell of it.
I keep my profile brief: just pictures, no text.
My initial interest tends to the curious. I begin to notice just how true the 4chan memes really are. The rainbow-haired BPD hell-rides. The 4-out-of-10s with impossibly high standards. The career-driven women in their late 30s still holding out hope of having kids ‘someday’ (so much pathos in just a single word). The Wall.
A whole world of people I’d been oblivious to.
Such anthropological concerns soon take a backseat, though, as I begin talking to some actual attractive women. I had no idea there were so many in this neck of the woods, a very charming country backwater – or eddy in the gene pool, as I like to call it. Most turn out to be students who have come home to stay with their parents since the lockdown began.
I want to talk about anything but the pandemic, and they indulge me without being asked, at least initially. Even at this early stage of proceedings I’m disappointed – with the pandemic, I mean. It’s already clear that my preparations were for nothing. I was one of those people – perhaps you were too – who was taken in by those scary videos of hazmat-suited death squads, enormous flocks of carrion crows and people being welded into their apartment blocks. So for a few glorious weeks I spread terror in my local supermarket with my industrial respirator mask – children crying, adults swerving their trollies and turning back at the top of aisles to avoid me – until it becomes clear that, no, people aren’t going to be dying in the streets, supply-chains aren’t going to collapse, and I’m not going to be hunting pheasants and other small game with my newly acquired crossbow. I’d be the first to admit there was more than a little wish-fulfilment going on.
Mostly the girls talk about the holidays they’re going to go on in the summer (“Give me travel tips for Indonesia!”), their pets. I humour them.
I learn that there’s a sweet spot – a tipping-point, if you will – beyond which almost all interactions, however enthusiastically pursued at the start, inevitably fail. Clearly, these apps are designed to lead to a face-to-face pretty sharpish. But how do you do that when the government has the whole country under lockdown? For most, there’s absolutely no question of meeting up. “I don’t want to risk it.” “My parents are isolating.” “Aren’t the police stopping people on the roads?” I hear that rumour, and many others of heavy-handed policing, time and again.
And so the conversation, if you could call it that, dies.
I wonder how people manage to sustain internet relationships over many years without even meeting one another – sometimes ever. What the hell do they say? Seriously.
Some conversations do persist, though, and others come along to replace those that don’t, and by the beginning of the summer, with an end to the first lockdown in sight, most girls are now willing to meet.
I agree to meet one of them at a local beauty spot, an Iron-Age hill fort near where she lives, on a delightful Saturday afternoon. A perfect cloudless, early-June day. I wait for her in the car park. When she arrives, trudging up the steep path, she’s as pretty as she looked in her pictures, but I can see she’s made no effort. As far as I can tell, she’s wearing her pyjamas. She looks pleased to see me, but she holds back, keeping her distance. She hides her hands in the voluminous sleeves of her striped top, like a child. She’s 25.
We walk the full circuit of the ramparts and talk. She tells me about how she managed to get out of London just before the first lockdown. She’s been here for the duration. Most of her job is online, so it doesn’t matter that she’s away from the office. Her parents are stressing her out though, getting in the way all the time. I neglect to tell her about my modestly growing Twitter following, or my plans for a raw-egg cookbook that’s also a political manifesto. We sit, and talk some more.
As we’re sitting there, looking out over little villages and a gently buzzing A-road, I sense she’s moved closer to me. Then she says, “If you see me again in two weeks, we can kiss.” Two weeks? Why two weeks? The date seems to have been plucked out of thin air.
(An important effect of the endless prolonging of the pandemic response: how it collapses your perception of time, making it nigh on impossible to reconstruct an accurate chronology from your own experience. I believe this must be a desirable effect in psychological warfare, such as the last eighteen months have undoubtedly been. Most people, I suspect, if you asked them now would say that masks were never discouraged in the early days of the pandemic, and that the number of “cases” was always the key metric, not “flattening the curve” (i.e. spreading more thinly the same number of deaths) to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed. Perhaps my companion was simply referring to the official end of the lockdown, which may have been two weeks away at that time. Alternatively, it may have been a simple-minded idea of a quarantine period, to ensure I was “safe” before we had actual physical contact. I reckon it was the latter.)
“And we can have sex in July,” she adds.
“But it will have to be in my garden. I have a tent. I can’t go to yours and we can’t do it in my house.”
Oh yes, the parents. She’s sleeping in her childhood bedroom, which still has the doll’s house in it she got for her seventh birthday. She told me.
Better the tent, then. Let’s just hope it doesn’t rain.
An unwelcome development: masked faces appearing on the apps. Lots of them. Perfectly good faces ruined by cloth masks, surgical masks and the occasional colour-coordinated “fashionable” mask. Ugly faces too. I remember what it was like in the early days when you were a source of great suspicion for wearing one – a mask, not an ugly face. Now, it seems, they’ve become another badge of virtue, just like saying “I’ve never kissed a Tory” or “I never get tired of: talking about intersectional feminism.” As soon as I see a mask, I swipe left.
The apps add “social distancing preferences” and I make sure to swipe left on anybody who says they’ll only go on a socially distanced date with masks. In fact, anybody who has such preferences listed in the first place. In my annoyance after months of listening to my neighbours clap publicly each week for the NHS – the sort of synchronised display once confined to countries like North Korea – I also make sure to swipe left on every NHS employee I see, which is a fair few. The NHS, if you didn’t know, is the world’s fifth largest employer (1.7 million), behind McDonald’s (1.9), Walmart (2.1), the People’s Liberation Army of China (2.3) and the US Department of Defense (3.2).
I also begin to see profile messages about “covid hoaxers”. “I’m tired of: covid hoaxers”. “Don’t swipe right on me if: you’re a covid hoaxer.” Part of me would like to match with these people and start dropping redpills about NIH funding for gain of function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (don’t forget that we frogs knew about it back in March 2020), but these people wouldn’t understand. Left it is.
I find myself barely ever swiping right.
Finally, after scratching at the festering wounds of my misanthropy and muttering to myself about midwits and “the Great Filter” for so long, I can take it no more: into the bin the apps go. I feel an almost immediate sense of relief.
Summer is here and the lockdown has been lifted.
Throughout it all, though, there have been girls who just don’t seem to care that there’s a global pandemic taking place.
After a whirlwind of daytime matchmaking, I arrange to visit one in a nearby university city that very evening. She says she’s going to pop to the supermarket. Do I like prosciutto? Who doesn’t? Cheese? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. “I want to make you feel so comfortable,” she purrs. “You’re a very special man.”
I could get used to this –
“Oh, and before you ask, don’t worry: my friends don’t mind this kind of thing at all.”
A very special man, eh? Just like all the others, I bet.
With the apps gone, I experience a period of blessed productivity. I write three books in quick succession and launch an online magazine. Things are going well. I don’t think about women much at all and I certainly don’t miss the never-ending succession of pings and juggling conversations with half a dozen women at once.
But as we head back into a de facto and then an actual lockdown, I find myself reaching for the apps once again. A moment of weakness, maybe. I don’t expect things to be any different this time and they aren’t. If anything, things are worse. By this point, the virus is well and truly enmeshed in the online dating experience and by applying my previous standards I once again find myself dismissing all but a tiny minority. And conversations about coronavirus now seem inevitable – and interminable.
After exchanging a few pleasantries, I make the mistake of saying to one match that the whole thing has been a “nothingburger”.
“You mean you think this is a hoax?” There it is, the choice as it now stands: you either believe wholeheartedly, or you’re a total crank. There’s no inbetween. The gulf between those who swallow everything they’re told and those who don’t is now, less than a year in, totally unbridgeable.
“That’s not what I said.” The clarification begins in earnest. “I think that the pandemic has been seriously mishandled. We’re treating all groups as if they’re equally at risk, when they clearly aren’t. We have reams of data to show this. A better strategy would have been to isolate and protect the most vulnerable groups and let the rest go about their lives in as close to a normal manner as possible. If we have to close the borders, that’s fine, but why should young people be confined to their homes when the virus isn’t a threat to them?”
“But the virus is a threat to young people too. Somebody told me most of the people on ventilators now are young people.”
“That’s just a lie. If you go on a ventilator, you’re basically dead. The average age of death is two years above the national life expectancy. Think about what that means.”
But she doesn’t, of course. The gesture towards hard facts is met with a further appeal to rumour and generalities. We continue like this for a little while, despite my better judgement.
She unmatches with me and I’m sure she reports me too, because not long after I find myself banned from that particular app.
Finally, when the app makers add a new vaccine status update in the spring of 2021, I can tolerate it no longer. I remove the remaining apps and I haven’t reinstalled them since.
In 1988, Michael Crichton wrote an essay that gave this essay its (affectionate) title. Whereas I’m writing about dating in the age of WRIDS, he was of course writing about dating in the age of AIDS. (Just so you know, “GRIDs” or “gay-related immune deficiency syndrome” was one of the earliest names proposed for AIDS. Read And the Band Played On, if you haven’t.)
According to his website, “this essay aroused intense controversy for hinting that AIDS was not a disease to which everyone was equally susceptible.” Reading it now, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about. The essay is measured and mature, with Crichton refusing to partake in the hysteria that seemed to be an unavoidable part of uttering the word “AIDS” in the 1980s. Then again, given the special obloquy reserved for those who refuse to partake in today’s hysteria about the coronavirus, maybe it’s only all too clear why his essay caused such a stink.
Towards the middle of the essay, after an anecdote about a female friend who couldn’t understand his apparent nonchalance about catching the disease, Crichton moves into a more philosophical discussion of risk. It’s worth quoting verbatim.
“Life is inherently risky. Everything you do carries a risk. You walk across the street, you take a chance. You eat in a restaurant, you might die of food poisoning. You go jogging, you could drop dead of a heart attack. You make love, you could catch a disease and die.
“Through all of human history, sex has carried the risk of death. Even in this century, prominent statesmen and artists died of syphilis. It’s only in the last decade that the combination of contraceptives and antibiotics led people to think that sexual intercourse was without risk. Now people are offended and angry, because risk-free sex has been taken away from them. And they are overreacting.
“I see Tom at the gym. He’s sweating on the Nautilus machines, his body looks good, but he leans over and says, ‘To tell you the truth, these days I’d just as soon not make it with anybody at all.’
“It takes a moment to remember that all the great lovers from history, from Casanova to Sarah Bernhardt to Erroll Flynn, carried off their amours at the risk of death from incurable disease. That didn’t stop them. And it won’t stop us, either. We’re just in a period of adjustment.”
Crichton was right about the period of adjustment concerning AIDS. But the underlying malaise, the fear of risk, has only grown and become more paralysing in the 30 years since he wrote his essay.
What is the coronavirus pandemic if not the most catastrophic mismanagement of risk, on every level? In the name of preventing the spread of a disease which, on the whole, is not much worse than the flu and which certainly presents a miniscule risk to the young and the healthy, we have, in no particular order, shut down our economies for over a year, causing irreparable damage to small businesses, their owners and employees; forcibly confined the elderly in conditions that have made their death from the virus more likely and deprived them of the love and solace of their families in their final days; prevented young children from being socialised properly with their peers and precipitated a serious mental-health crisis among the demographic (the young, including teenagers) which is least at risk from the virus; created hospital backlogs that will see more dying from late diagnoses and missed operations than will die from the virus itself; surrendered our fundamental liberties to the government, with no guarantee of ever receiving them back. I could go on, and on. A full reckoning of the costs of the pandemic, beyond the monetary, will almost certainly prove impossible, but however imprecisely we might estimate them, there can be no doubt that the “cure” has been far, far worse than the disease.
Could we imagine such things happening 30, 50 or even 100 years ago? While there’s obviously a technological element that has made these lockdowns practicable, the truth is that they would never have been possible without a largely willing or “primed” populace. The sight of a lone person wearing a surgical mask while driving a convertible on a country road – something I’ve seen more than once – speaks to the strange mixture of compulsion and personal choice that has defined this pandemic.
The re-discovery, or even discovery, that there are microscopic things all around us, some of which can do us serious harm, has been a shattering one. We adjusted to AIDS, as Crichton said we would, but will we adjust to this? I suspect, from what I’ve seen, that many will not. For one thing, coronavirus is an airborne respiratory, not a sexual, disease, with all the paranoid implications that brings. The conditioning of the past eighteen months – the depth and duration of the behavioural changes, in particular, as well as the unceasing barrages of propaganda – is also unprecedented, beyond anything we were subjected to with AIDS. As with Pavlov’s dogs, I think the reflex will continue long after the stimulus has been withdrawn – assuming that this grim situation does, in fact, come to some definitive end, which it may well not.
But where do dating apps fit into this? While these apps have probably been an expedient for many, as for myself, due to the social-distancing restrictions, I think their popularity also issues from the same desire to evade risk that has brought us to this terrible juncture. The desire to quantify an unquantifiable – a person – so as to render them safe and predictable is fundamentally a fool’s errand. That, I think, is what makes these apps simultaneously so popular and so disappointing.
And, of course, these platforms have also becomes ways of extending the coronavirus inquisition deeper into our personal lives, as if not having had two vaccines or doubting the official narrative about the virus’s origins could really preclude true love. Then again, perhaps people who behave as if those things could, don’t really deserve to find love anyway. In a real sense, these apps now function as a trial run for the digital IDs and social credit score we may soon be forced by the government to adopt.
All I know is that, unless we reject the false notion that all risk is something to be avoided, we risk not loving, or living, at all.