I have been joking recently about starting up a dating website that’s a cross between Match.com and Amazon. It will keep track of your previous dating history so as to give you the best recommendations possible: “Because you liked Tiffany’s cooking, you might enjoy dating Theresa” or “People who dated Marcus also enjoyed the following men.” Those who prefer a more virtual experience with their dating might enjoy my e-date service, which consists of a Sweetheart in a Kindle-type format: Swindle, I’m calling it.
Yes, it’s all a joke, but how far are we from this? After all, the rest of our lives are increasingly governed by algorithms designed to give us more of what we have already enjoyed, rather than open us up to a new experience, a la Amazon and Netflix. Much has already been written about how politically aligned media empires and the internet allow users to exist within ideological bubbles that are never challenged, thus polarizing society. And the better those algorithms get, the less we move from where we are now.
I dare say that it’s all the creep of capitalism into more and more parts of our lives. Oh, books have been commodities ever since Gutenberg got that printing press going; likewise, when the VCR came along, so did movies follow in similar fashion. However, until recently, the experience of a book or a movie has been somewhat separate from its function as a commodity. At every stage of our lives, we have had those books and movies that have rocked our world, leading us to become, for some time, disciples bowing at the feet of their creators, and we feel our experience rather a singular thing, never imagining that it happened to so many people before us, that others had actually been so moved by Siddhartha or Lady Chatterly’s Lover as were we.
We are moved most by what comes in to our own private universe from outside, the unexpected that proves revelatory. I review a lot of books for academic journals, and on occasion I am ask to write about something that lies rather outside my personal specialty, books like Randall Studstill’s The Unity of Mystical Traditions: The Transformation of Consciousness in Tibetan and German Mysticism (2005) or Ishay Landa’s The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Facism (2010). These aren’t books that pertain in the slightest to my little world of Arkansas history or racial violence, but they have fundamentally changed my worldview in one way or another, changing not only what I think but what I can think, which is Salman Rushdie’s definition of a good book.
Along with my reviewing compulsion, I also have a tendency to pick up random titles on the cheap. Many years ago, a friend and I raided a bookstore selling off all its stock in Blytheville–500 items for forty dollars. Eight cents a book. We loaded up my car to the brim with innumerable random volumes, one of which was an English translation of The Miracles of the Antichrist by Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf. After all, one cannot pass up a title like that, eh? I absolutely fell in love with this random book, and it led me, by a sequence of events, to visit Sweden, where I actually stood at the grave of this famous writer, and also to take up teaching myself Swedish once I had completed my dissertation.
These are the happy accidents that can be captured by no algorithm. These are the enlightening experiences that will find themselves devoured by the increasing commodification of the book, of the movie, the impetus to sell us more of what we already have. “Because you like quirky British sitcoms with sexually ambiguous male main characters who work in catering”–that’s practically already a reality on Netflix. So much for the thing you would never have watched but which absolutely changes your life. And with the increased polarization of our society, so much for having any friends whose tastes might differ from yours, someone who could recommend the unknown to you.
While one should be wary of drawing any moral lessons from evolutionary theory, or employing the term “evolution” to suggest advancement to a higher state of being, it is true that evolution does not occur without some kind of change to the environment of the species. Likewise do we not evolve intellectually or emotionally without something different floating into our little worlds.
So what happens when the same intellectual and emotional sterility infiltrates our romantic worlds? To some extent, it already has, even absent my Matchazon.com. As Eva Illouz details in Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1997), our ideas of romantic love are already tied up with patterns of consumption: not just the dinner and movie, the diamond ring, the vacation, but also the expectation that two people in love will just “click” and be able to spend time talking about just anything, as if they were one soul divided in twain so long ago. So why not a Matchazon.com? Why not put in all your preferences and let the computer find your best match, find you the mate who agrees with you politically, religiously, intellectually? Why not have the experience of romantic love meet its logical end in the contrived happenstance of computer calculations? If it doesn’t work out, we have other recommendations that might suit you better.
“Modernity has brought irretrievable losses in the meaning of love,” writes Illouz, “most notably the connection between love and moral virtue and the dissolution of the commitment and stability of premodern love, but these losses are the price we pay for greater control over our romantic lives, greater self-knowledge, greater equality between the sexes, Whether or not we are willing to pay this price is an important yet idle question, for we have already paid it.” Yes, capitalism, despite its horrors, did open up the horizons of the romantic, most notably by providing women a means of earning their own money, and thus liberating them from the necessity of relying upon men for their daily bread, making relations between the sexes somewhat more equitable (though capitalism can by no means take us to full equality). However, it now threatens to turn the experience of love into a commodity, rather like Philip K. Dick imagined our very memories one day to be transformed in his short story “We Can Remember It for You for Wholesale.” Nothing less than the perfect is all we ask, and the perfect is what we already know and believe.
When I fell in love with the works of Selma Lagerlöf, I scoured every used bookstore for her novels, and I found a few in the likes of New Orleans or Fayetteville, Arkansas. However, a few years back, I did an online search and discovered that I could have delivered to me most everything she ever published, an array of editions and translations, and it rather killed my yearning. There is joy in discovery. Joy in searching. Joy in happenstance and luck. And there is joy in being surprised, joy in coming upon the completely unexpected, be it the book you would never have read that now lies prominently upon your shelf, or the woman you would never have dated who now stands with you at the altar. Joy in seeking that ye may find.